Wednesday, 28 February 2024
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Marriage & Divorce

How to Stop a Divorce

Many spouses ignore the alarms of discontent that their partner has been ringing for years. To them, none of the complaints sounded like they might end up leading to divorce. When their spouse “suddenly” announces that he or she is moving out, wants to end the marriage, or has even already filed for divorce, the ground below shakes like an earthquake. Is there any way, at that last-ditch point, to stop a divorce?  

Couples counselors have seen thousands of clients on the brink of divorce—even some who've already filed papers—and successfully helped them navigate back to a happy place. Here, we asked two prominent couples therapists to share their best divorce-stopping tactics and lay out an action plan for couples on the verge of a split.

 Step One: Accept Your Partner's Feelings

It's completely normal to feel panicked or defeated if your partner wants a divorce, but this doesn't mean that he or she won't come around. "In my marriage retreats, I frequently work with couples on the brink of divorce. One or both partners seem to have given up or arrive ambivalent about staying together," says therapist John Grey, Ph.D. "A surprising majority of times, when I help them get to the root of their issues, things turn around, they remember their love for each other, and they want to stay together." In order for you to allow that to happen, the first step in the process is to accept that your partner wants out. You are both entitled to your own feelings, and it's crucial to accept his or her position without trying to change it. 

Step Two: Validate Your Partner's Feelings

While it might seem like the last thing you want to do, "Take responsibility. Approach your partner and validate why they're doing this," says therapist Rachel Sussman, LCSW. Keep it short and straightforward: "I get it. You feel that I haven't been supportive to you/I haven't been kind to you/I haven't been loving to you," suggests Sussman. "Although you might not agree, really validate that you understand from your partner's perspective why they're leaving the marriage. That's really powerful." 

Step Three: Shut Down Your Reactive Brain

"People act worse, not better, when their primitive survival alarm is ringing," says Grey. "And there is nothing that rings our survival alarm louder than the threat of divorce." All of those mean things people say and immature things people do during a divorce "are governed by the primitive parts of our brain that operate without our permission during a threat," explains Grey. It's essential to recognize this fight-or-flight pattern in yourself and stop reacting. Your goal is to be the mature, kind, and loving person your partner fell in love with, not the anxious, angry person in survival mode.

Step Four: Retreat

When the person you love wants to walk away from the marriage, your natural inclination is probably to chase after him or her. But begging, pleading, and pursuing is exactly what you don't want to do in this case. Similar to how your partner's retreat triggers your pursuit, your pursuit will only make him or her want to leave more. So it's time for you to let go, step back, and do your own thing. "Don't get hysterical. That's a huge turnoff," warns Sussman. You must be calm. You must give your partner space. And you must act in a way that will allow him or her to miss you (translation: no yelling, no begging, no drama).

Step Five: Get to Work on Yourself

You may think this divorce is largely your partner's fault and have a list of things you'd like him or her to change—but the only thing you can control is yourself. In the end, you'll both need to change in order to be happy, so it's time for you to get to work on your end of the deal. "Back off and create a support system of friends and family for the time being," says Sussman. That means you call them—not your partner—when you feel weak or angry or desperate. "The idea is to show your partner that you've changed." So go back to yoga class, see a therapist on your own, visit old friends, or learn a new hobby. Focus on being the best you you can be, know that in doing so your partner will eventually notice.

Step Six: Reestablish Contact

Once you follow the first five steps, your partner will likely come around to some degree—even if it's just by agreeing to meet for coffee after a week or two of distance. Once you do meet again, focus on positive, happy interactions instead of getting to work on the relationship right away. Over time, once some of the pressure is removed and you're able to laugh and smile together again, you can assess whether you're both still interested in working things out.

Step Seven: Make New Ground Rules

First and foremost, "Stop threatening the relationship," urges Grey. "Promote motivation for change by saying, 'Let's stop threatening divorce and find our way back to the happiness we once had together.'" Next, continue to limit your reactive brain and focus on your partner's feelings. Your feelings are equally important, but you'll both need to learn to look out for one another. If you run into a squabble, "Say 'This is not one person's fault here. We both need to learn to communicate better so we can be happy together again,'" suggests Grey. And remember the most important phrase: "'I care how you feel,' which is what your partner probably doubts," says Grey.

Step Eight: Observe What Happens

"If you want a common theme of divorce, it's the inability to solve the problem [in a way] that both people feel satisfied with," says Sussman. Just because you're ready to do your part doesn't mean that your partner is. Remember, "What separates the boys from the men is being able to roll up your sleeves and work on the problem in an effective way," says Sussman. So watch what happens when you put in the effort and give your relationship 100 percent. Does your partner reciprocate after a few weeks or months? You can enlist a couples therapist to help the process along, but, "at the end of the day what we really want to say to ourselves is, did we try as hard as we can?" says Sussman. "If your partner doesn't come back, at least you can feel better about how you've handled yourself." 

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