Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Blindsided By Divorce

September 13, 1999

How does it happen that one partner in a marriage can be so surprised by their mates honest-to-goodness desire to leave the marriage? Does it really come out of the blue? Aren’t there warning signs?

Opposites repel. With couples with poor communication skills, resolving conflict may be too difficult and only makes matters worse. One or both partners may be too reactive and unable to listen to their partner’s point of view - or unable to empathize with it. Intense conflict is inevitable and discouraging.

Another pattern may occur. One partner is overly sensitive to confrontation, dislikes anger, and is quick to withdraw from conflict discussions. The other partner is perceived as having a "too" intense manner that comes across as critical, unreasonable and unrelenting.

Whether the withdrawal triggers the intense pursuit or the intense pursuit triggers the withdrawal, the pattern gets established. It is often in this unpleasant mix of pursuit/withdrawal that communications break down and unresolved problems accumulate. Frustration and disrespect mount on both sides.

The angry conflict shows up in their avoidance of sexual relations which accelerates the downward slide of their marriage. This additional problem weighs heavily on one or both partners.

Pleasers fail to please. The saddest situations are where one partner decides that to get along in the marriage, he or she gives in and goes along with their partner’s expectations. The non-assertive partner submerges their personality, strong opinions, values, and complaints for the sake of getting along and pleasing their partner. Their true feelings aren’t expressed. They don’t stand up for themselves when it is necessary to have a corrective action in the relationship.

Their partner doesn’t really know them until the threat of divorce is mentioned. The years of not dealing with each other on an equal "give-and-take" basis makes a negative impression on the dissatisfied spouse. All of the caregiving doesn’t count for much when compared to having a strong, independent partner who can be a catalyst for growth and improvement.

The "pleaser" trusts in the marital commitment, feels he or she is doing their part, and doesn’t understand how their devotion and love can be rejected. The painful awareness that their spouse wants to leave gives them the courage to bring out their true feelings. It is paradoxical that under normal conditions he or she didn’t feel "safe" with conflict and differences, while now, under threat of divorce - a definitely "unsafe" situation - honesty is the only thing that will work.

Failure to take responsibility. One partner may try to get by being lazy, self-centered and selfish. It is only his or her world that matters. They don’t cooperate, do their part, or respond to their partner’s difficulties or needs. They don’t take their partner’s requests seriously. They trust the marital commitment, take their spouse for granted and ignore requests for change.

Sometimes this lack of responsibility extends to money management, work, parenting, health concerns, addictive or compulsive behaviors, temper problems, cooperation in the home or other issues that affect their partner’s well-being.

The disrespect and frustration mount and may eventually overwhelm the desire to be with someone who appears not to care about them or their concerns. Laziness or callous neglect interferes with the partner’s desire to be warm, loving and affectionate. A cold indifference or hostility may take hold and soon the "responsible" partner finds him or herself being equally chilly or indifferent back. They don’t like the person they are becoming in order to survive.

They may even feel conflicted - loving their spouse with a paternal or quasi-sibling love but not connecting with their mate in an equal, respectful way. Their spouse loses their attractiveness or sexual appeal as a true partner.

The dilemma. It is a sad, tragic situation where the unhappy spouse tries, requests, demands, demands again, gives up and begins to grow apart. He or she goes underground with feelings of disrespect, anger, contempt, and ultimately apathy. It is even more tragic when the marital unhappiness isn’t talked about and the other spouse is genuinely blindsided by the depth of the problems.

For a while the couple may get by with separate lives, ignoring the emotional pain and distance between them. They may be caught up in children’s activities, career pursuits, friends, and sidestep the obvious dissatisfaction between them. Unfortunately, one partner’s patience wears down and he or she entertains divorce as preferable to living in a painful marriage.

What is amazing to me is that all the requests for change aren’t listened to, believed or taken seriously until the threat of divorce becomes real. By then, promises for changes are not believed. Feelings of love and care are gone - or almost gone. Counseling with couples who wait until the brink of divorce is painful and hard. They are headed in opposite directions.

The "shocked" partner is ready to change. Their partner doesn’t believe it can happen - or isn’t interested. They have been too unhappy for too long, and don’t want to risk getting emotionally involved against their better judgment.

A warning. A lot more marriages could be saved if martial problems were taken seriously sooner. Counseling needs to be tried sooner. Living with problems only makes things worse. It drains motivation from the spouse who wants change.

These problems can be solved when two people are motivated and trying at the same time. Sometimes it may take guidance from a third party. Don’t wait until it is too late.