For most, deciding to separate is no easy feat, especially if children are involved. The process of making this tremendous decision is usually predicated by months or even years of therapy, soul searching, self doubt and anxiety. Typically, this agonizing process of deciding whether to split up takes place in private. Perhaps a few close friends, family members or a therapist know that the couple is struggling. But, for the most part, the couple usually presents to the outside world as if it's all good (or good enough) on the marriage front.
One of the biggest concerns that I hear about as a therapist relates to how one's community will respond if a couple decides to divorce. A forty year old mother of two worries:
Our neighborhood friends are central to our lives. I worry constantly about what our community will think. How will they respond? Will our children be ostracized? As a woman who wants to leave, I fear I am defying a stereotype and will be forever rejected by our friends. This fear alone has kept me in a miserable marriage for longer than I want to admit.
Her concerns are surprisingly common, and well-founded. Friendships do change following a divorce, and both adults and children are impacted by these changes.
And yet, when unhappily married couples finally separate, something interesting and unexpected tends to happen. I call it divorce's "out of the woodwork" phenomenon in which closeted unhappily married friends who have been pretending to be happily married come of the woodwork and want to talk.
A forty five year old father of four sums it up perfectly:
It's crazy. I thought everyone I knew was happily married. So much so that I hated the idea of being the odd one out almost as much as I hated the idea of divorcing. The response of family and friends was one of my biggest fears. Yes, it's been incredibly difficult. But never in a million years did I expect so many secretly unhappily married people to reach out to me to try to get information about what a separation is really like. I'm like the newly appointed ambassador of a secret society.
Divorce's "out of the woodwork" phenomenon is relevant for a couple of reasons:
- It demonstrates how taboo divorce remains in our society. (Maybe this is why the Divorce section of Huffington Post is so popular -- it gives those who are divorced, divorcing, or considering a divorce a place to go. It provides an open forum on a taboo topic that was almost non-existent before its creation.)
- If more couples debating the question of a separation knew how many others were likely to reach out to them to discuss their marriages, it might help people feel less isolated or alone. It might help others worry less about what others might think and free up more energy to focus more on the inner workings of their marriage and whether it is salvageable.
My advice? If you are struggling with the question of whether to separate, try to keep your concerns about what others might think to a minimum. Obviously, none of us can operate in total isolation from others, but what matters most is you, your spouse, your children, and what, if anything can possibly be done to save your marriage. If it is not salvageable, people you would never expect are going to come out of the woodwork, applaud your choice, and want to hear all about it. (Some of these people will get on your nerves, others will be comforting.) Some friends and family members will come through for you in ways above and beyond your expectations. Others in your community will not be able to handle the fact that you are divorcing, and they will pull away. This is likely more about them than it is about you. Perhaps your experience brings up memories for them of their own parents' divorce. Or maybe it brings up feelings about the vulnerability of their own marriage. Or maybe they just need some time to adjust. Even if it hurts, it is quite possible that they will come around. If not, it is ultimately worth knowing who your true friends really are.
Elisabeth Joy LaMotte's book, Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce: 5 Steps to a Happy Relationship, was a finalist in the 2008 National Best Book Awards in the Relationship category.