One of our followers asked the question “Is divorce ever healthy?”
That is a good question, and to really address it let’s start with the word healthy.
Health is defined as proper and normal function.
Whenever we are sick and go visit a doctor, their goal is to fix whatever is not working right and return us to health. But what happens when it cannot be fixed? The best option for our survival is to remove the unhealthy part completely. When it comes to divorce, it may also help to put “marriage” under the surgical light and see what is really going on.
Based on years of research, we have a pretty good idea of what a healthy marriage looks like. While we could create a very long list, I have chosen some of the most important aspects which represent the majority of research:
A healthy marriage is…
- safety for deep connection and intimacy.
- effective communication and problem solving.
- respect for each other.
- teamwork in providing the best possible care for the family.
- support and involvement.
- trust and loyalty.
- effort to forgive, sacrifice, and make things right.
Usually, when we are experiencing happiness in marriage, it is because our marriage is functioning properly. Overall, we feel secure in our marriage and trust it will live up to its promise of bringing us happiness. But when any one of our systems goes haywire, we begin to feel threatened. Then it is time to go “visit the doctor.”
Visiting the Doctor
When we get sick, we often find some way to treat it, often by visiting the local drug store or the local doctor, but sometimes simply by staying home and in bed. Any way we do it, we can often return to health and go on our way.
When we experience malfunctioning in our marriage, we should do the same. We have a number of great resources to treat marriage “sickness,” from credible online (like RELATE!) or offline resources, professional therapists, marriage educators, and sometimes even just coming up with a solution together. As long as we seek some form of treatment, and outside intervention when necessary, we can often resolve the problem and return to secure and happy marriages.
But sometimes, basic treatment may not be enough. In marriage, there are certain signs we can look for to know when we may need to take the next step.
- One spouse is unwilling to work towards health (i.e. abandonment; emotional or literal).
- One spouse becomes controlling in a way that does not allow for any amount of work to make the marriage healthy (i.e. abuse).
- One or both spouses willingly choose to make the marriage unhealthy (i.e. an affair).
Often these signs mean the marriage has become infected with something very serious, more serious than the normal illness faced in every marriage. Usually, these signs indicate something deeper is going on in the relationship that truly requires the consideration of cutting into the marriage and removing something. Of course, couples should keep in mind that several studies have suggested that unhealthy marriages rebound over time as couples put time and energy into improving their healthy. But perhaps a couple or individual has realized that no improvement has occurred over the course of many years or unhealthy functioning is placing individuals at risk (abuse). What is the next decision?
Just like surgery may sometimes become the only option to return us to health, divorce may sometimes be necessary to return us to a secure, happy state. But just like surgery, there are some things we should keep in mind.
Too often couples use divorce as the first option to escaping relationship problems rather than doing everything they can to make their marriage work first. But any medical professional can tell you that surgery is never their first choice. They reserve it as the last resort, and for very good reasons. Here are some things to consider:
- Never the Same: While taking out a part of our body may sometimes be necessary for our health, we are never truly the same. In other words, though we may be healthy again our definition of health has to change to include a lack of something. Divorce may likewise sometimes be healthy, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have to deal with feelings of loss and regret.
- Cost versus Benefit: The benefits of surgery are real, but so are the costs. If doctors are given the choice between a noninvasive IV treatment or cutting open a person, they will always choose the choice with the lowest cost first. No surgery comes without great costs. And by cost I am not just talking about financial costs, but also the mental, physical, and emotional costs. Divorce is very costly and we are often paying those costs for many years, so we should always be sure there is no other option that would provide the same benefit, but at a fraction of the cost.
- Side Effects: Every surgery will come with side effects, some minor and some major. But often such side effects may require return visits to the doctor, and sometimes may even lead to greater problems. Research on divorce is clear that second marriages have a higher rate of divorce than first marriages, possibly as a result of some of these “side effects.” We should always be aware of the potential side effects of divorce and do everything we can to keep them as minor as possible.
- Masking the Problem: Sometimes our bodies will begin to fail and require surgery to remove dead or dangerous organs. But often in those cases, the cause of our poor health is not a result of that failing system. Rather, poor health caused the system to fail. Doctors know that surgery will not necessarily solve the actual problem and so it becomes about buying time to find out what is really going on. When faced with divorce, it is often not enough to think that the divorce will solve the problem but rather give you time to figure out what really went wrong. This is especially important when considering remarriage. Learn what you can do to prevent the same problem from coming up again.
So, is divorce ever healthy? Yes, but it will never happen without great costs. The real question we must ask is “when is divorce healthier than staying in the marriage?”
To assess the health of your marriage and get some basic feedback on how to address any illness, try taking our RELATE Assessment.
Written by: Dallin, Master’s Student in Marriage, Family, and Human Development reviewed by Brian Willoughby, Ph.D.