We are living in challenging times right now.
So many marriages have been pushed to their breaking point.
The stress of quarantine, financial uncertainty, and ambiguous loss widens the cracks in even healthy relationships.
When you’re in a period of huge transition, and the future that once seemed so certain has vanished in smoke, you question everything.
You question your career. You question where you’re living. You question your marriage.
I co-wrote a book 15 years ago on saving your marriage, and I still get emails from men and women desperate for advice. Their spouses are threatening to leave. Their children are young. How can they stop the divorce?
For men, this is an incredibly vulnerable position. Many are not used to asking for help from anyone about relationship matters.
They’ll do anything to put things right. They don’t understand how their wives can’t love them anymore. They look at their children and are grief-stricken at the idea of tearing apart their family.
Men and Women Process Divorce Differently
Men aren’t the only ones who feel that way.
The women are in a great deal of pain and confusion, too. Coming to the decision that divorce is the best option is never easy.
Women initiate nearly 70% of all divorces. Being the one who asks for the divorce gives them a firmer footing. They’ve had time to think it through. They’ve had time to process how they feel and settle into the decision.
When they finally tell their spouse they want a divorce, he feels blindsided. Sometimes he never saw it coming. Other times, he knew things weren’t great but assumed it would get better with time.
He’s on an emotional roller coaster, with his world dropping out from under him, while she’s moving forward with plans and paperwork.
This is when I tend to hear from men.
What a Man Wants
These men just want it to stop.
They want to fix it. They’re used to being able to fix things.
What they hope for the most is for me to give them magic words to change their wife’s mind.
If they can change her mind, then all this insanity will stop.
When a man asks me how to change his wife’s mind, I flinch.
The last thing a woman wants to hear from a man is that she’s made the wrong decision.
“You’re wrong about this. How could you think of breaking up our family? Our kids need two parents. How can you say you don’t love me anymore? That’s clearly untrue.”
That kind of conversation will never go anywhere. It will only entrench her position further.
So what should he do instead?
The very best thing anyone can do in this situation is to seek the support of a qualified counselor who specializes in divorce.
You need that face-to-face contact. You need someone who can witness your grief.
The internet, as wonderful as it can be, is a pale substitute for the warmth of a hug and compassionate tone of someone who cares about you.
All I can do is offer via email is my perspective and some ideas to help kickstart communication.
The goal is not to change her mind or stop the divorce.
The goal is to understand her…
Maybe for the first time.
What I Tell Men When Their Wives Want a Divorce
A man wanted to know what I thought about his wife asking to separate in the middle of the pandemic.
This is what I said…
I urge couples to hold on and not make any major decisions for a while, to make sure that they’re making these decisions from a clear perspective rather than from a place of fear, grief and anxiety.
But, I wrote to him, your wife is not the one asking for my advice. Your wife is the one who’s made her decision. If you question her decision now, you’re questioning her ability to know what she wants and why she wants it.
To her, that will be proof that you never listen to her and don’t respect her.
The decision to end a marriage is often a decision to take power back.
Even if you feel your wife has had a ton of power in the relationship, she experiences the relationship differently to you. We often say that there are always two marriages: the marriage you experience and the marriage she experiences. Those marriages can be completely different.
Your job is not to convince her she’s wrong and make her come back to you. She’s not going to want to come back to a marriage where she’s the bad guy. Your job is to say:
Yes, you’re right. I can see how you’ve felt that I haven’t heard you/haven’t seen you/haven’t been there for you. If I could go back in time, I would have done so many things differently. Right now, I can understand that you feel there’s nothing left in our marriage to save. But if I could ask you something, I’d like to know how this marriage has made you feel. I want to learn from this experience. I want to be a better partner for anyone I’m with in the future. Would you share the ways you’ve felt I’ve abandoned you or not been there for you?”
You listen. Nod. Ask follow-up questions. And hold onto your love for her so tight that your defenses and walls and justifications are no longer even relevant.
Most people can’t do this. They can’t hear their partner’s pain.
They’re too invested in defending themselves. They want to make her wrong. They don’t believe a word of what she’s saying. They’re so stung by the fact she wants to leave the marriage that hearing her explain why adds insult to injury.
To make it worse, most partners don’t trust their spouses enough to open up.
She’s probably tried to talk to you about stuff before. It hasn’t worked. Why will this time be any different? Opening up to you will just make things worse. So she closes down, puts up her own walls, and focuses on the practical steps of what to do next.
The only way you can regain her trust is to put aside your stuff and validate her. Find ways you can agree with her. Say:
Yes, I can see that. I can see how you’ve felt that way. I can see how that would have been hard for you. I can see why you think it’s the only option.”
Otherwise, if you pit yourself against her, the white knight who wants to save the marriage against a deluded woman who’s throwing her marriage away and breaking apart the family, there isn’t much of a marriage to save.
Go to her side. Help her get what she needs. You may not be able to stop what’s been put in motion, but you can rise to this.