DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI of MindNLife, which provides support and therapy to couples, families and individuals, explores the difficult issue of separation and divorce between married couples. Are there strategies for making a respectful exit?
Divorce has a perceived negative connotation associated with it – this is despite the fact that almost half of all marriages in the US end in divorce or separation, and researchers estimate that around 41 percent of all first marriages end in divorce. The negative connotation worsens when there is an affair involved, and when things get really toxic between two people who once loved each other and were willing participants in creating a family together.
The end of the relationship can often create a sense of failure for the couple. This is magnified if there is infidelity. Often the person who had the affair is riddled with guilt; sometimes they want to move on to a new life. The betrayed partner, meanwhile, is caught unaware, still playing catch-up and wanting to hold on to and preserve the marriage.
There are extreme emotions involved in this process on both sides, and they can vary on a daily basis, from anger, hurt and sadness, to depression, guilt or anxiety caused by an uncertain future, followed by a huge sense of loss. Given this emotional turmoil of the aftermath of someone saying, “I don’t want to stay in our marriage”, it’s not surprising things can get toxic between couples.
A different approach
Is it even possible to treat each other with respect and dignity given the emotional turmoil that comes with the end of a relationship? It’s not an easy ask. In fact, you may think it’s “easier” to hate each other – for example, to think everything was really bad in the marriage so you justify the affair and leave the relationship. However, it’s important to remember this is disrespectful and hurtful to yourself and your spouse, and to the children and other people you shared your past with. And it leaves a trail of angry hurt people in its wake.
The end of a marriage doesn’t have to be marred by hurting the other as much as possible because you feel hurt. Similarly, divorce doesn’t have to spell the end of the family unit; it can instead be seen as a reorganisation of the family, even though that may be emotionally hard for all involved.
A marriage is not an isolated event; rather, it’s a series of shared experiences over years between two people who were in love and cared deeply for each other. Every marriage has its own unique shared meanings – rituals between two people. It has a unique history and shared experiences that were joyful; challenging times where both partners supported each other; and children, friends and family that you both share too. Is it necessary to throw it all out with the end of the relationship?
Suggestions for exiting respectfully
- Be sure you want to end the relationship and not use it as a threat in the hope that your partner will change.
- Don’t make the situation toxic so you feel justified to leave. I’ve come across this often in my work, where people look for faults in their partners; everything the partner does is wrong, they say, therefore it’s a bad marriage and it’s easier to end it. Blame, criticism and contempt are hurtful, and while you may achieve your goal of exiting the relationship by using this, rest assured the process is unnecessary and ultimately very painful for both.
- Take responsibility for your guilt and choice, and identify what you want from your life. If the current relationship isn’t going to provide you with that, acknowledge it and leave with integrity and respect, because you, your marriage and your partner all deserve that respect.
- Be kind; remember you once loved this person and they may still love you deeply. Also, if there are children, you will be part of each other’s lives in creating a new reorganised family.
A final point
“It’s important to remember that the legacy of the decades of shared life is bigger than the legacy of the affair,” says Esther Perel, Belgian therapist and author of The State of Affairs. There is something to be said about honouring the shared past. Being able to acknowledge the pain of the loss of the relationship and giving each other permission to move on without resentment isn’t easy, but it allows for ending the relationship with integrity and respect.
Mending a marriage
Saving a relationship that feels like it’s drifting towards divorce isn’t easy, but it’s important to say with confidence that you did everything you could to fix things. From my experience, if couples don’t put their relationship at the top of their priorities, just behind their own self-care, things tend to deteriorate. Here are some strategies for turning towards each other rather than away.
#1 Pay attention: Give your partner the best of yourself and your time rather than just what’s left after a long day. Be interested in what the other has to say, and make them feel important.
#2 Make time: Actively make time at least once a week for a coffee or lunch to catch up with each other and find out what’s going on in each other’s worlds and lives.
#3 Monitor aspirations: Keep up to date with your partner’s life goals, which can change over time. Every three months, ask, “How can I help you achieve your life dreams?”
#4 Don’t assume: Check how you and your partner feel about your relationship, and don’t assume because everything is seemingly okay that things can’t be improved.
#5 Connect: Don’t forget the emotional and physical connection. Date night once a week is prescribed by most therapists for couples to carve out time to connect in this way.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who provides personal support and therapy for adults, teens, children, couples, and families in her private practice in Central, and works as a mental health consultant for a number of NGOs and international corporations.
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This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.