Divorce is a word that still scares most people. It’s a gauntlet thrown down in the middle of an argument. A threat. An ultimatum. A fearful possibility. A reminder of pain and uncertainty. Fear of divorce causes people to double-down on a bad decision, with this idea that they can at least prove their commitment even if it means trading years of their lives to an unhealthy union. On the other hand, it keeps others out of marriage altogether, as if avoiding heartache was ever as simple as that.
It can be hard to know when to get divorced. It took me years to realize that it was the inevitable conclusion to my marriage. It wasn’t just one thing that pushed me out the door but a combination of them. Still, any one of the reasons would have been enough to leave. Fear of the unknown held me back, and so I cataloged the reasons until it felt like there were enough to make a clear case for going.
When I finally left, I was immediately filled with a sense of relief. It turned out that more of my anxiety was surrounding making the decision than actually living with it. It wasn’t easy to become a single mother of two children under the age of three and to start my life over again, but it was infinitely better than staying in a relationship that wasn’t healthy for me.
Divorce is a personal decision — one I can’t make for anyone else. But here are 10 warning signs that you may be headed in that direction.
1. If you have a partner who is abusive — physically or emotionally, you are likely heading for divorce.
2. If you are the only one in the relationship trying to make it work, you may need to consider the option of divorce. One person alone cannot save a relationship. It really does take two.
3. If you’re having problems as a couple and your partner refuses to attend and/or participate in couples counseling, divorce is likely imminent. They know there’s a problem but are refusing to do anything to help with it. Again, you can’t single-handedly save your relationship.
4. If your partner is addicted (includes drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, etc) and unwilling to consider recovery, you could be headed for divorce.
5. If your partner is unfaithful (also including financial infidelity) with no intention of changing this behavior, you may have divorce in your future.
6. If you don’t share basic values with your partner, you could be headed straight for the end of the relationship. It is possible to stay with someone who doesn’t share your values—but why would you want to?
7. If you’re staying married only for the children, you may be headed for divorce. Children need to see examples of healthy relationships, not dysfunctional marriages. Unless you want your children to choose a similar relationship for themselves, it is far healthier to have separate, happy homes than one miserable one.
8. If you’re staying married only because you’re afraid of the alternative or because you feel you can’t live without your partner, you may be codependent—and headed for divorce.
9. If you’re staying married only because you’re afraid of other people’s judgment, this may be a warning sign. If the relationship isn’t your reason for staying, there may come a point in time where what other people think isn’t enough to keep you in an unhealthy union.
10. If you’re staying married only because you made a vow, you could be in danger of divorce. Vows are wonderful ideals, but they don’t mean we’ve signed our life away if we find ourselves in an unhealthy relationship.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth of relationships: when we grow up surrounded by unhealthy ones, we acclimate to that environment. As adults, we are often traumatized — but equally trauma-seeking and codependent.
Toxic environments feel safer than healthy ones because we know exactly how to exist inside them. They don’t require us to work on ourselves or get better. They only require that we react in all the ways we’ve learned to before. There’s a comfort in that.
Conversely, healthy relationships can seem uncomfortable for us. They challenge us to take responsibility for our own behavior and happiness. They require the courage and vulnerability to communicate, respectfully, about how we’re feeling. They give us the safe space to be exactly who we are — even on the bad days when we don’t like who we are that much.
For someone who’s used to toxicity, a healthy relationship may not feel deserved. Further, it may feel more difficult. Instead of lashing out at partners sure to lash right back, we have to work together as a team to solve problems. We make space to grow as individuals and grow as partners. And even in the healthiest relationships, we know that there are no guarantees it will end in happily ever after.
Marriage isn’t supposed to be a life sentence that we have to suffer because we chose it. That’s doubling down on a bad decision. Marriage is meant to be two people intentionally choosing to grow together, to love and support each other, and to share their lives.
Marriage becomes the family we make for ourselves. We choose to either make a healthy, functioning family that’s not perfect but tries its best — or we make a toxic, dysfunctional one that repeats old patterns and refuses to evolve.
Often, divorce becomes the way that we choose to make a healthy, functioning family out of two healthier households rather than one unhealthy home.
Divorce isn’t the scariest thing. To my mind, the scariest thing is to spend the rest of our lives in anguish because we think this is the way we’re supposed to live. But healthy relationships aren’t actually defined by longevity but by the quality and connection of those relationships.
Other people will certainly judge us. I can’t count how many times people say that marriage is all about refusing to get divorced, like that is the key defining feature. I’ve been told that divorced people just give up and don’t try hard enough.
Let them judge us. Let them make their assumptions. Meanwhile, we’ll be out here creating our very best lives, growing out of the hardship of what we’ve experienced into, hopefully, better humans.