Once upon a time when divorce was rare, most people were driven to it by what I call The Three A’s– affairs, addictions or abuse. Divorce meant that someone was chronically cheating, repeatedly intoxicated, or physically violent. These Three A’s are known as “hard” reasons for divorce because they represent dysfunctional behaviors that impact human dignity and safety. In their full bloom, they’re not tolerable to live with while still having a healthy life. But as we’ll talk about in a minute, the presence of one of the A’s doesn’t mean you have to rush to divorce court; there may still be hope.
Nowadays we live in the era of “soft” reasons for divorce. The top explanations people give for their divorces are growing apart (55% of people list this as an important reason), not able to talk together (53%), money (40%), personal problems of the spouse (37%), not getting enough attention (34%), sexual problems (24%), and differences in tastes and preference (23%).
It’s not that these “soft” problems are trivial or easy to work with– they can certainly cause a lot of pain– but they are a long way from The Three A’s. In fact, some people learn to live with problems like these, accepting the limitations of their marriage and their spouse, and living a healthy life. Others get help like couples therapy and experience improvement in the soft problems if both spouses work at it.
Here’s where I want to talk about the hard problems and what to do when your marriage has one. In research by Bill Doherty, infidelity was listed by 37% of divorcing people, alcohol and drug problems by 22%, and physical violence by 13% (18% of wives). This is a lot of couples, and you can be sure that they have a lot of the soft problems as well.
Most of what I’m about to say has to do with trying to save your marriage. But there are reasons to leave now:
- If you’re in danger of being beaten or subjected to “coercive control,” meaning your spouse limits which friends and family members you can talk to, what you wear, and where you can go.
- If your spouse won’t commit to stop having affairs
- If your spouse adamantly refuses to deal with an addiction that has reached the point of compromising your ability to function as a spouse, parent, friend, or worker.
But a key point: it’s not the presence of these Three As that dooms a marriage, but the unwillingness or inability to commit to working on them.
Let’s start with affairs
It’s a common misconception that an affair dooms a marriage. I know plenty of people, and I’m sure you do too, who have said “if my spouse ever cheated on me, I’d be gone.”
But in reality, affairs differ a lot. I wrote a whole blog post on how to even define an affair. Some are one-time lapses that the cheater feels terrible about and isn’t likely to repeat. Why blow up an otherwise good marriage in a case like this? Other affairs are less about the marriage and more about someone’s own internal crisis– an unhealthy coping mechanism like drinking or self-harm. On the other hand, some affairs are part of a repeated pattern of infidelity that the cheater doesn’t want to give up. Again, it’s motivation to change that matters most.
Research actually shows that infidelity is not a factor in the success of marriage counseling. And the presence of infidelity doesn’t make the average divorcing spouse less pessimistic about reconciliation. It’s extremely hurtful, of course, but many couples do recover if they’re willing to try and heal. Affairs are only fatal when someone won’t try, or they give up on trying to change. Many couples actually end up with stronger marriages as a result of getting help once infidelity helps them recognize a problem.
The same is true for addictions– working on them can be the path to keeping a marriage
There are a number of effective treatments for addictions, and lots of people go on to live healthy lives and have wonderful marriages. What blows up marriages (on the part of the spouse with addiction) is denial, blame, and an unwillingness or inability to follow through with treatment and support systems like AA.
On the non-addicted spouse’s side, there are also some marriage-destroying mindsets. For one, an unwillingness or inability to come to terms with how distorted they have become in the presence of the addiction. For example, enabling the addiction, being codependent, and creating coalitions with other family members. Both parties have to sign up for getting help to make major changes. When that happens, it’s a beautiful thing, and marriages that make it through that are absolute marvels of honesty and intimacy.
Abuse is more complicated.
There is likely to be immediate danger, and abused spouses (particularly women) often feel they deserve the abuse. The truth is, the choice to be violent or use coercive control is 100% the responsibility of the abuser. Why? Because even if you’ve been a difficult partner (hey, we all are sometimes) there are always other ways to respond than to hit or intimidate you. So it’s extremely important that you seek help and decide not to take it anymore. If you think this stance puts you in danger, it’s extremely important to find a way to leave.
All that said, there is recent research showing two kinds of intimate partner violence: ordinary partner violence and intimate terrorism. Intimate terrorism is the coercively controlling kind where a man intimidates and dominates his female partner (with or without physical violence). This kind of DV is about 10% of abusive relationships.
Ordinary DV, on the other hand, usually involves both partners hitting, and it arises from a lack of impulse control and the inability to handle conflict so it escalates into screaming, insulting, and eventually violence. Usually, both people feel bad about it and go long periods where there’s no violence. And there’s often little in the way of coercive control. But ordinary DV is still dangerous both emotionally and physically. Adults and their children are harmed, sometimes permanently. That’s why it’s a “hard” problem that undermines health and human dignity.
So, if you’re facing intimate terrorism, most experts would agree you have little choice but divorce, doing so as safely as you can, with all the resources you can access.
But if yours is ordinary DV, there’s more hope. We now know that marriages like yours can be restored to health. The key is the same as with the other As– the level of motivation and energy that you and your spouse bring to getting help and making changes.
Steps to Save Your Marriage in the Presence of a Three A (Hard) Problem
- Ask yourself if the presence of infidelity, addiction, or abuse in your marriage is compromising your own well-being or that of your children. If you decide “yes,” then ask yourself:
- Do you want to try to save your marriage? If you decide “yes,” then move forward with the following steps.
- Convince yourself that there have to be major changes, and that you won’t stay unless there are. This will empower you to put everything on the line.
- Before talking to your spouse about the changes you want them to make in order to stay married, do two important things:
- Take inventory of your contributions to the problems in the relationship. This does not mean you’re responsible for your partner’s dysfunctional behavior (i.e., you don’t make your spouse drink) but it means you know you share some responsibility for the variety of problems in any long-term relationship
- Have a concrete professional resource you want to access, such as therapy. Preferably find out what’s involved in getting started.
- Prepare to deliver probably the most complex and important message of your life, along these lines:
- I want to say some important things and I’m asking that you hear me out before you respond.
- I love you and want to stay married to you.
- I can’t go on as long as you’re doing…
- I know I contribute to a lot of the problems in our marriage, and I’m willing to work hard to change my part. (Don’t get into specifics here to avoid your spouse turning the conversation to a discussion of your flaws)
- I need a commitment from you to change your part
- This means that we get outside help together or I don’t think enough will change.
- Repeat: I love you, I want us to stay married forever, and things have to change.
- Listen to your partner’s response, which may be:
- Defensive (‘I don’t have a problem”)
- Critical (“You’re the one with the problem”)
- Placating (“Sure, I’ll do whatever you want”)
- Honest and Open (may start out defensive or critical but coming around to the idea of needing help)
- Avoid getting into a long argument about anything specific (i.e. how much they drink, whether the last affair was sexual, or whether the last violent episode was your fault). Just repeat what you said before in different words.
- At the end, ask if they’re willing to get help with you– that’s the action step you’re looking for, remember.
- If you don’t get a buy-in the first time, end the conversation and ask if they will think about what you said.
- Bring it up again in a few days or a week, in the same way. This is essential for your spouse to take you seriously. Don’t just drop it.
- Don’t give an ultimatum with a specific date, but do increase the intensity of your challenge over time, repeating that you can’t go on this way and that you’re not feeling heard.
- If you ultimately don’t get the buy-in, tell your spouse that you have made the sad decision to leave the marriage. Be prepared for the possible turnaround at this point, but know that you cannot count on it
This strategy is designed to do two things– help you be healthy in an unhealthy situation, and give your marriage it’s best change in the face of one of the Three As that you can’t continue to live with. And if you find that you’re struggling to make the decision to stay or go on your own, you can always reach out to your local discernment counselor to help with the process.