A Framework of Core Options
A couple embroiled in the distress of the breakup decision can usually see only two alternatives, stay together or end the relationship, and either option may feel uncomfortable to excruciating for one or both parties. As a mediator, I find it helpful funnel their energy into some more concrete options for them to consider, evaluate, and choose:
1. Do Nothing
In other words, to continue doing what they have been doing, which includes the same upsetting patterns of relating as well as straddling the decision to divorce, never quite “in” or “out” of the relationship. In addition to the high conflict that results from the constant threat of separation, this stagnant uncertainty can have great costs to each persons’ health and vitality, with the inability to plan or take steps towards achieving life goals and dreams. If they do not commit to another option, this is the default decision.
2. Begin the Work of Separation and Divorce
The parties would develop a reasonable timeline for educating themselves about the different options for how to get a divorce, select a professional family mediator and/or a family law attorney to work with, develop a timeline for separating homes, and come to some basic temporary agreements about how to pay bills, care for the kids, and communicate with each other in the transition.
3. Take a Trial Separation
This concept, which is commonly suggested by marriage counselors, can be supportive to help each partner relax their nervous systems and gain insight into the dynamics of the relationship, what it does and doesn’t do for them, and their own contribution to the marital difficulty. However, as a mediator who has assisted several hundreds of couples through divorce, I can attest that this option is more useful when its function is spelled out, so that it doesn’t default into another form of stagnancy. Some questions I would ask about this option include: “Will you be working on the marriage during that time, directly with help or separately, with your own counselors? What will help you get clear about your next steps? How long is the trial and what happens at the end of it?”
4. Work on Repairing the Marriage: A Limited Time Agreement
The partner(s) who are actively considering divorce are generally not in a place to re-commit long term to a relationship. Even if the other person agreed to make all the demanded changes, they have probably made those promises before and there will be little trust in the follow-through. Yet, they can make an agreement to work on repairing the relationship for a limited period of time, after which they can re-assess if there is sufficient progress to continue in the relationship or if there is not enough movement in the relationship, they will be more at peace knowing they earnestly put in the effort.
Practically, this looks like the couple committing for a reasonable amount of time (3-6 months) to work on repairing the intimacy, love, connection and friendship in the relationship, during which a divorce (or even mentioning a separation) is off the table, including alluding to it during a fight. During that time, they agree to work with the mediator or a couple’s counselor on a regular weekly or every other week basis, and be prepared to focus on their own growth in the process. There is a particular form of counseling designed for this decision, called “Discernment Counseling.” If they are more of a DIY type, there are many excellent books, classes, and resources available, including my own creation, the Relationship Help Toolkit.
When couples choose this option, I ask them to do an inventory rating different relationship qualities from 1-10, and identifying reasonable goals for each quality. The qualities include their sense of connection, love, sex, communication, support, play, etc. in the relationship. I ask them to revisit and rate these qualities once per month, and to take a share of the responsibility for improving the quality (what can they do that would increase the value of that quality for themselves). At the end of the agreed upon 3-to-6 month time period, they each assess the progress (or lack thereof) towards their relationship repair goals, and decide whether to continue working on the marriage or begin moving towards separation.
5. A Combination Approach
Part of the mediator’s job is to help couples negotiate between these options, and when they are in disparate places regarded their sense of hope for the relationship, a combination of the above options may better suit the couple. For example, the more pessimistic spouse may be willing to invest in option #4 if it is also in the context of living separately (#3).
I periodically have clients who are undecided about divorce, yet one partner wants to explore, discuss and “live into” the divorce option with their spouse (option #2), while the other partner is pushing for relationship repair (option #4). Instead of this decision being something they dig in their heels about, they may also do both simultaneously. I will offer to do two-hour appointments wherein we spend the first hour working on the details of a divorce, and the 2nd hour working on repairing the wounds and improving their relationship. If you do not feel comfortable offering the latter, they may agree to have an equal number of visits with a couple’s counselor as they do a family and divorce mediator.
Reality Testing is a Must
Given the complexity of functional and emotional needs a marriage might fulfill, a couple’s uncertainty about divorce can entail a healthy awareness of the many losses that can accumulate as a consequence of divorce, including a single cohesive family and home for their children, a sense of partnership or companionship in life, financial stress of supporting two homes with limited resources, the loss of in-law or friend relationships, their plans for the future, and their overall identity. Except for situations involving abuse, it is essential to make such a hefty decision only after careful, non-reactionary soul-searching and deliberation.
I want to make sure they have envisioned and are incorporating the consequences of divorce in their decision process, which I might elicit by asking them to brainstorm how their life may be better and more difficult post-divorce. Some family mediators are reluctant to “reality-test” the decision to divorce, for fear it will appear biased away from divorce. However, the primary role of the mediator is to help clients negotiate and make a well-informed decisions. By clarifying this role up front, and equally reality testing any option they are considering, mediators can maintain their un-biased position in the dispute.
When the End is in Sight
In mediating with a couple around the divorce decision, it will often become clear that one person does not truly have the motivation to continue working on the relationship, and their mind is made up to end the marriage, even if they are having trouble admitting it to themselves or the other person. The party who is ready to end it may need assistance resolving their ambivalence about telling the other person.
If they are still reluctant, I may separately encourage the party who is “done” to promptly and clearly communicate that to the other person, as the most responsible and caring action. “Waiting for the right time” stalls the other person from going through the necessary stages of anger and grief that are essential to their healing process, and robs them of the opportunity to begin making choices for their life based on having all the information. While I will not inform the other party for them, I offer coaching about how to break the news.