When Is Divorce the Answer?
Birnbach book offers "reality test" for troubled marriages| From Alumni Books | By Susan Seligson
How to Know If It's Time to Go: A 10-Step Reality Test for Your Marriage (Sterling Books)
Both psychoanalyst Birnbach and conflict management consultant, coauthor, and spouse Beverly Hyman were divorced when they met. That is perhaps one of the reasons they take the refreshingly realistic view that while marriages require hard work, divorce happens — and is sometimes the best option for all concerned, including the children. Adhering to the usual self-help format of alternating advice, personal anecdotes, quizzes, and handy lists, the authors offer explicit circumstances under which a couple may be better off apart. They list and periodically refer back to nine areas in which spouses must work out agreements, including the usual suspects — sex, money, and parenting — and more intractable differences, such as those involving substance abuse and religion.
While bookstore self-help shelves sag under the weight of books about how to repair marriages, the authors deserve credit for acknowledging that divorce is sometimes the only way to salvage the peace, self-respect, productivity, optimism, and futures of those involved. They pummel, one by one, prevailing myths about divorce. “If I hang in there, things will get better in time” is one; another is, “If I were really ready to end it, I’d feel certain … I wouldn’t have such mixed feelings.” Others are fear of never finding another mate, being rejected by the community, facing financial ruin, or the widespread belief that divorce damages children forever.
What about the children? Using anecdotes drawn from families they’ve counseled, the authors take a hard look at the toll unhappy marriages take on children, affecting their schoolwork, friendships, and mental health.
For couples who have concluded that they have exhausted every remedy (take one last inventory, the authors advise), Birnbach and Hyman outline financial realities and other hurdles and offer instructive stories of people who improved or reinvented their lives after divorce.
And for readers who decide to take that step, it might be a good idea to keep the book around — if a second marriage looms, it could pay to revisit the part about how good marriages sour.
You Asked, We Answered
Readers took advantage of our invitation to ask Lawrence Birnbach about marriage. Here are some of those questions, along with Mr. Birnbach's responses.
QJust wondering your thoughts on marrying a Chinese person in china. I am Jewish, born and raised in NYC. Is it wise to go into a relationship that already has a handicap? By handicap I mean, language - communication issues and culture gaps. Also what about raising kids? Are there long-term possibilities in this situation? Thanks for your insight. — Zev (CAS'00)
ADear Zev, I sympathize with your concerns, they are serious and genuine. Still, if you truly love each other and talk about the difficulties extensively in advance of making any marriage plans, you can, like other motivated couples from vastly different backgrounds, work things out. There will be challenges, as in any marriage, and, perhaps more because of the differences you mention. In our book we refer to 9 areas all couples must be in agreement on. This would be a good start for your conversations. They include agreements about: money, parenting, sex, alcohol/drug substance use, relationships with extended family, religion, household responsibilities and gender roles, career, and use of leisure time.
QIf my daughter and wife take out private college loans and my wife is the only co-signer, will the courts try to split this up and force me to pay if we divorce? My daughter is headed to freshman year at Smith and will need to take out private loans every year. We live in Massachusetts — Bruce (MET'10)
ADear Bruce, This is definitely a question for your attorney.
QMy husband of 30 years has emotionally, physically and financially abused me. I left him about six weeks ago after two years of therapy. He now is saying how much he loves me and can't imagine his life without me. We are in marriage counseling, but how can I trust him again? My therapist says he is a "classic abuser" but I am not so sure. Is there any hope of getting back together again? — T.W. (SPH'96)
ADear T.W, There is hope, but you need a lot of assurance before I’d urge you to live with this man again. It’s great that he has gone into marriage counseling with you, but has he gone for counseling individually to work on his anger and power issues? That seems essential on two counts: one to assure your future happiness together, but another to demonstrate clearly that he recognizes his need to change his behavior permanently, and his willingness to acquire the tools to do it. Don’t rush back; six weeks is not nearly long enough for him to demonstrate real conviction.
QRecently I considered marrying my boyfriend because he is from India, had been unemployed, and his visa is running out. I ended up deciding it wasn't right for me right now, and not for the right reasons, even though I could see myself marrying him eventually. My parents were very against it, too. Luckily, he found a job in the last minute, and we are now closer than ever. But the big question I have, now that I've thought about it so much, is: What is the purpose of marriage? Some say to raise a family, some say for financial reasons, some for religious reasons, some say for security... but what's the true purpose? Do you need to be married to be fully committed to each other? Just curious what you think on this topic. I know there is no right or wrong answer, really. Thanks. — Natalie (CAS'09)
Yours is a very interesting and profound philosophical question which far too few people ask themselves before embarking on a marriage. Marriage certainly can satisfy all the things you describe, but it’s much more than that. Commitment is a process. The marriage ceremony is one step in the process, an important one. It publicly announces to the whole community that you two affirm to all that you are partners with the intention of being partners for life. My partner, my co-author, and I have been together for 15 years and we still feel that we are becoming more committed and married as time goes by. We lived together for four years before we got married and there was a genuine difference for both of us when we decided to take that step.
To get to the other part of your question, “What is the purpose of marriage?” -- in my opinion one gets married to have a partner, a companion to share your life with. In our book and on our website, www.howtoknowifitstimetogo.com, we offer a Marriage Bill of Rights which describes all the positive things that a married couple should provide for one another. Check it out.
QMy wife and I have been married for 51 yrs. Recently I discovered my wife has been carrying on a love affair via email for more than a year. She claims that I do not pay enough attention to her. The other man is 82 yrs old and an old friend. She says she has always had a special place in her heart for him. She also says she loves me a lot. I have emailed him asking him to end this for the sake of our families. His wife is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and he does not have any sexual outlet. He lives in Florida and plans to visit our town soon. I have invited him to visit our home if he so chooses. I love my wife deeply. — Mario (CAS'57, '66)
ADear Mario, Your situation is serious. Your happiness and your marriage sound like they are at stake. You must recognize that no one can come between a couple unless there is already space. Your wife is telling you that there is a large distance between the two of you created, at least in large measure, by your lack of attention to her. There may be other issues between you as well, and on both your parts. Why don’t you seek marriage counseling to find out how such a big space opened between you and how you can start to close it? I agree with you that your wife needs to choose between you and the other gentleman. Assuming that she wants to stay married to you, she should end the other relationship. You are playing with fire by inviting him to your home and considering him a dear old friend. He betrayed you. He is obviously needy because of his wife’s condition and should consider his own therapy to try to deal with his grief about possibly losing his wife.
QDo separations occur as a way to gain perspective- not necessarily the next step to divorce but to have space to try working on issues? Do marriages stay in counseling for over 10 years? For longer? How much can one settle and tolerate? If physical intimacy is great at the get-go, can it last forever? — Karen (CAS'91)
ADear Karen, You have many questions. Are you worried only about your own marriage, or thinking about your parents’ marriage as well? Your questions bridge different age ranges. Yes, people divorce sometimes after many years of marriage. I don’t recommend separations except as a last resort. My experience tells me that most separations do end in divorce. Rarely does counseling last anything like ten years. People vary enormously in their ability as to what they can or will tolerate from a spouse. Yes, there is such a thing as chemistry and it can last, sometimes forever, although it changes over and over as time goes by which is what keeps it fresh.
QEven before our 25th anniversary my marriage lost intimacy and joy. We mainly talk about the adult kids and argue about dealing with our debt. I don't feel that he feels I am special anymore. Our mutual moments of sharing happiness being together are rare. We are in our early fifties. Is it just time to move on? — Laura (SED'90)
ADear Laura, You and your husband are experiencing a problem that affects many couples who have been married a long time. The demands of life can easily wear you down. I meet people in my private practice frequently who are experiencing something similar to what you describe. Moving on is a last resort for when you have tried everything else with persistence to try to rejuvenate the relationship. You need a willing partner and probably would benefit from professional help. At the very least you must tell your spouse that you no longer feel special to him and that this is driving you away.
QWhy is it that so many people hesitate to divorce even when it becomes clear that the bonds that hold a marriage together are broken? What keeps them in trial separations only to return to the same patterns? Is there an 'acid' test? I know someone who decided to return to an unhealthy relationship and is still unhappy, but stuck. Thanks for your thoughts. — Laura (SMG'81)
ADear Laura, This is the central subject of our book How to Know If It’s Time to Go: A 10 Step Reality Test for Your Marriage. Don’t be so hard on yourself and others for not taking the step to divorce. It’s a difficult decision. There are so many fears and myths that surround divorce, such as whether we will be alone, be ruined financially, damage our children, etc. As we recommend in the book, divorce is a last resort. Couples benefit from trying in every way possible to get the marriage back on track. The acid test is when you have tried everything over an extended period of time and it hasn’t worked. Most people who have divorced, after a transition of a couple of years of readjustment, feel that they and their children are better off and wonder why they waited years too long.