Divorce is often an overwhelming and complicated space to navigate. Understanding whether your relationship can be recovered or beyond repair, is crucial for making the most informed decision for you and your family. We’ve explored the signs to help you assess whether your partnership is in a difficult phase, or over for good.
One of the great things about being in a committed relationship is that you experience the security of being together through thick and thin.
You expect ups and downs, periods of closeness and distance, and times of strong reconnection. Your sex life might ebb and flow, and you might even live or sleep apart at times due to work or other obligations.
It is accepted that in the long-term, the relationship will go through periods of ‘better and worse’, so it can be hard to tell when it’s in a lacklustre phase or over.
It’s important not to panic at every little hurdle. This can drive high anxiety, causing you to read too much into the normal and evolving nature of a relationship over time.
You need to be able to see the bigger picture and set yourself the task of bringing each other close again. A healthy relationship will involve both people noticing that a little more effort is required, and one or the other taking initiative to bring the connection back.
When it’s more than a regular speed bump
When you’re single, you might think you’d be very black and white about what you’d never put up with, and what would lead you to leave a relationship.
Top of that list is generally infidelity or other betrayals, such as spending all the family money. It might also include violence or abuse, or excessive drinking or partying. However, if these issues arise, you may find that the decision to leave is more complicated than you once thought.
If you’re still in love, have children together, it’s early days in the relationship, or you have invested a lot together, then you might be appalled at what has happened but choose to work on the relationship. Even if going to therapy and working it through doesn’t entirely repair the relationship, you can feel much better placed to decide on its future once you both fully understand why the problems arose, and accountability is taken.
Many couples recover from terrible events, and say they are the stronger for the growth, self-knowledge and re-commitments made. This is not easily achieved, and a simple apology and “I’ll never do it again” is not going to cut it; nor is a grand gesture like a marriage proposal or another child.
Wallpapering over deep hurts is a very temporary measure. Without genuine repair and recovery, the issues can eat away at the fabric of the relationship, only to resurface later.
Drifting into emotional distance
It’s easy for couples to rely on commitments made in the past to reassure themselves during periods of emotional distance. Some benchmark their experience according to life stage: couples with small kids don’t have time for date night or sex, older couples have little to talk about and their sex lives inevitably waver, and so on.
While it is useful to normalise and accept some changes – it can be hard to feel sexy when breast feeding every two hours for example – it’s also important not to quietly make this determination for yourself without checking in with your partner.
Many will say “I just assumed it was work stress”, when in fact something completely different was happening, such as an affair.
It may be that privately both are agreeing, in an unspoken way, that aspects of the relationship are over. For example, both might be very aware that sex has stopped, but neither want to name what is going on, so both tell themselves it’s just a bad patch, and stay quiet about it. They might even ramp up general affection to reassure themselves that all is not lost.
How to work out what is going on
- Name it to yourself: Rather than move straight to excusing the problem, face it head on. Think about how you might have participated in how it came about, as well as what you think is going on for your partner. It is too easy to move straight to what the other has done wrong. That said, if there is violence, then accountability is clear.
- Don’t put off the conversation: It’s common to say, “It’s a bad time” and put off talking about it for weeks or even months. Notice that this is conflict avoidance and fear, not necessarily ‘a bad time’.
- Name your good intentions: “I want us to be closer and I think we are drifting a bit. What can we do?” This is useful even if you can’t change much immediately. For example, “I know this is a bad time of year with my work and I can’t do much about that. I just want to say that I notice it and would like to plan something now for us both to look forward to.”
- Take a risk: If you know the relationship is basically sound and there’s no reason to fear a deeper problem, then make a direct bid for reconnection. Plan a romantic dinner or make more physical overtures.
But what if it is over?
As you read the list above, you might be saying to yourself, ‘That makes sense, I could try those things’. But when you consider reconnection, you realise it’s not something you actually really want. You can no longer picture good intimacy between you, or if you can on your partner’s part, you might realise you’d no longer welcome it.
It may be that everything is technically okay between you. Compared with your friends, the relationship is humming along in ordinary ways. However, you feel lonely, bored, lacking in desire, and when you look ahead, you don’t feel pleasure at how your lives are likely to stretch out before you.
You may have also encountered that list of issues you always said you’d leave the relationship over, and realise you can’t get past the hurt, despite your best efforts. You may realise you cannot model a good relationship for your children. You may even feel that staying puts them, and you, in harm’s way. In such situations, staying while miserable and unsafe is not viable at all.
You might have already gone for counselling, and it’s possible some good changes have even occurred. Although you experience the benefits, you realise that it just isn’t making you feel any more confident in a future together. In such situations, the counselling may still have been invaluable, as you will likely separate more peacefully and with more acceptance.
It is very sad to separate, especially if there are children involved. If the relationship has been a good one in many ways, making sure you have tried everything before coming to a final decision gives you time to check, and gives respect to what you have had together.
The sad thing is that many couples wait months or years to seek help, only to find that once they did, they successfully rekindled their relationship and were much happier. They realise that fear, old resentments, and patterns held them back, and important time was lost.
Relationships Australia NSW offers individual and couples counselling to help you work through problems and difficulties and find ways to move forward. Contact us to find out more. A version of this article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.