Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Divorce Is Right Thing To Do

November 5, 2007

How do you know when a divorce is necessary? By what criteria should people make this life altering decision? When is it the right thing to do?

Some human deficiencies are covered up in courtship but can surface later in bad marriages. They violate the basic principles of love and respect that are necessary for a good marriage. The nature of courtship is to put one’s best foot forward, covering up weaknesses and trying to please the other. Matching up during courtship with a loving companion is at best an inexact art.

A reader described a friend’s marriage with the following problems: 1) incurring heavy debt without a spouse’s knowledge, 2) multiple affairs, 3) verbal abuse, 4) financial dependency through intentional unemployment, 5) history of lies and deceit, and 6) failure to pay child support while separated. The decision to divorce seemed like a "no brainer" and reminded me of a list I created describing human failings that reek havoc and unhappiness in marriage. These include:

- Dishonesty. Trust is built on a foundation of honesty and is the basis for all relationships. Lying, cheating, deceit, and consistent failure to live up to commitments undermine basic trust and respect needed for love to flourish.

- Laziness. Partners need to understand responsibility for self and to contribute their part in the work for the well-being of the marriage. One-sided relationships based on dependency and exploitation rob the morale of the giving partner.

- Disloyalty. Violating marital vows of emotional and physical intimacy create competing relationships that take primacy over the marriage and lead to divorce. Mistakes can happen once and can be forgiven but a repeated pattern is a special case and falls into this category. Disloyalty triggers dishonesty.

- Addictions. Alcohol, gambling and drug addictions along with sexual addiction and perversions take precedence over the marriage. People with addiction problems need treatment before they make reliable and trustworthy marital partners. Deceit and dishonesty go hand in hand with addictive behavior.

- Uncontrolled anger; physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Poor emotional control violates the dignity and fundamental respect of a marital partner and undermines the security and trust needed for love. Abuse can not and should not be tolerated.

- Mental Illness. Untreated personality disorders and other serious mental illnesses not responding to treatment such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression disrupt the dynamics of love and reciprocity necessary for a relationship between equals. As with untreated addictions, untreated emotional instability makes spouses unreliable, inconsiderate, moody, anxious, jealous, controlling, self-absorbed, possessive and demanding.

- Rigidity and pride. The need to be "right" leads to poor communication, intolerance, harsh and unfair criticisms, and the inability to negotiate and solve problems and conflicts in marriage. The inability to take another person's perspective drains marriage of hope that problems and differences can be resolved.

- Selfishness. Selfishness is a persistent unwillingness or inability to love, listen, empathize or put another's needs or happiness ahead of one’s own. There are too few acts of kindness, consideration, love and thoughtfulness needed to nurture a marriage.

Deadly combinations. People can have more than one of the problems listed above. For example, the combination of rigidity and selfishness creates an unloving relationship where one’s partner is viewed negatively and as a source of irritation and competition rather than pleasure and a friend.

No matter how hard one partner tries, a marriage won’t work if the other partner has these personality problems, character defects, mental illnesses, or addictions. Until that partner seeks help and corrects these issues the marriage will suffer.

Marriage should not hurt and destroy the mental health and happiness of the marital partners but rather to build and develop each partner as a loving human being. Sadly, a divorce or separation may be necessary.

Finding hope. Even if a spouse has one of the problems listed above there is still hope. Through commitment and love, couples can overcome a host of difficulties.

However, most people won’t change until they have to. It takes a crisis and heartfelt pain or distress to break through their defenses. Naturally occurring events in a person’s life crises - accidents, losses, death, problems with law enforcement, financial setbacks, etc. - might wake them up. Sometimes it takes a crisis created for them - like an intervention or a marital separation - to get their attention.

Pastoral counseling, inpatient treatment programs, anger management classes, self-help groups, or outpatient counseling focused on their problem are necessary tools to use to assist the change process. Marital counseling may also be helpful, but it is not usually sufficient when character deficits, addictions or emotional instability are central to the martial discord.

There is a danger in going to counseling. Attempts at change may be superficial and manipulative - or they could be real. Be skeptical.

There is still a ray of hope but there is also divorce. Sometimes divorce is the obvious answer.