I often counsel my couples that divorce is not always the worst outcome. “The worst outcome,” I like to say, “is living miserably ever after.” Having said that, most couples are avoidant of divorce, almost instinctively opposed to it, and in my experience this isn’t about morality or custom as much as a reasonable belief that divorce would be a big, sad, frustrating, traumatizing mess.
Some marriages are a bigger mess than divorce would be; many aren’t. And I was taught (by John and Julie Gottman, whose therapy methods I include in my practice) that the simple presence of a couple on the therapy couch is a sign of hope. If you come to me with a troubled marriage, I’ll try to help you save it, even if you yourself are feeling really ambivalent about it. I’ll also normalize your feelings of ambivalence and talk openly with you about your many options. I stand by my “living miserably ever after” speech, but I do have a bias toward reconciliation. I love happy endings, and if the happiest ending involves saving the marriage, so much the better.
Here’s one big reason why. Divorce can be harrowingly expensive, particularly for women. And while we live in a dominant U.S. culture that prizes romance and emotional attachment in marriage, the truth is, marriage has historically also been a form of economic organization. It has been a way for a couple, family, and village to solve serious economic problems. It’s not cold or clinical to take this into account if your marriage is in trouble and you don’t know if you want to work on it.
When we meet for couples therapy, we weigh all the options. I resist any situation that offers only one or two options. We think expansively and work hard to find the best solution for both of you. Sometimes divorce is a part of that solution. Often it’s not. Let’s be sure we think it all through, and include a discussion of the serious practical consequences of ending your marriage. Therapy itself is costly, but it’s far cheaper than divorce!