Divorce: A handbook for couples and exes

The choice between getting divorced or staying together may be one of the hardest decisions you ever have to make. It’s a critical crossroads where you may see your life heading in two different directions. What kind of future do you want? How do you make an informed decision about ending your romantic relationship or renewing your commitment? How do you cope if someone else makes the decision for you? 

No one else can tell you definitively whether your marriage is worth keeping. Ultimately, divorce is in the hands of two people: you and your spouse. Not your children, not your lawyers, not an extramarital partner. Just you and the person you chose, once upon a time. 

There’s a ton of complexity involved in evaluating a marriage and the question of divorce. Thriveworks is here to give you the best information to guide your decision. This handbook covers starter marriages, separation, domestic partnerships, child custody concerns, gut feelings, couples counseling, and much more. Read our guide in full or skip to the sections that appeal to you most. Thriveworks is always here to help your heart get to the right place. 

What Are the First Signs of Divorce?

Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) often see couples who wonder if they might be better off divorced. That’s not a determination that a counselor, let alone a friend or family member, can make. But insightful marriage therapists have observed recurring symptoms of troubled relationships. These first signs of divorce don’t necessarily lead to divorce, but they may indicate that a relationship needs some serious TLC.

  • Communication breakdowns. It’s pretty evident that healthy communication is central to a successful relationship. But there are a lot of ways communication can break down between intimate partners. The renowned psychologist John Gottman, who founded the Gottman method approach to couples therapy, says that happy couples have five positive interactions for every negative interaction. He calls this the magic ratio. Gottman also names the “four horsemen” that can predict divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling/shutting down. The absence of conflict can also be a sign of impending divorce, particularly when one partner is completely disengaged/detached or silent.  
  • Lack of physical intimacy. You’re not having sex. And you might not even be holding hands or hugging. If you’re becoming platonic roommates instead of lovers, something might be amiss. 
  • Infidelity. Infidelity can take a few different forms: physical affairs, emotional affairs, online affairs, or financial infidelity (when someone is lying about money). Sometimes the betrayal feels unforgivable. 
  • Substance abuse. People with untreated addictions can cause severe harm to relationships. If someone isn’t willing to get counseling for alcohol use disorder (AUD) or another problematic addiction, then you may feel the need to cut the line. 
  • Individual changes. Sometimes people just grow apart. Their values or priorities change. Or their behavior shifts radically. In these cases, two people may just not be compatible anymore.
  • Gut feelings. Do you feel a pit in your stomach when your spouse walks into the room? Does everything feel too hard? Does the idea of leaving make you excited? Do you feel as if you’re hiding your true self from your spouse? Pay attention to these gut feelings because they can be red flags. 

What Is the Most Common Reason for Divorce?

According to one research study, the major factors contributing to divorce are the following:

  • Lack of commitment
  • Infidelity
  • Conflict/arguing 

The same study distinguishes the most common “final straw” reasons, i.e., the reasons that ex-spouses most commonly cite for pulling the plug:

  • Infidelity
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse

Growing apart and incompatibility can also play major roles in divorce decision-making. And in one study, 40% of divorced parents cited the way their spouse handled money as a significant reason for divorce.

How Do I know If I Should Get Divorced?

You may never know 100% that you’re making the right decision. That’s the nature of life. But there are certain questions that you can ask yourself to inform your final verdict. 

  1. What kind of pronouns do you use when you talk about your relationship? Do you speak more in terms of “we,” “our,” and “us,” or more in terms of “I,” “me,” and “mine”?
  2. Can you imagine being with this person for decades? What does life together look like in the long-term?
  3. When you have a conflict with your spouse, do you blame the person or the behavior?
  4. Did you marry young? Have you grown in a different direction than your spouse? Are you and your spouse childless? If your answer is yes to all of these questions, you might have made a “starter marriage.” 
  5. What does your gut tell you?

But it’s simply not the case that red flags always lead to divorce. Sometimes your grounds for divorce can foster productive and cleansing discussions with your spouse. This open communication could encourage a revival of your relationship. 

At What Age Is Divorce Most Common?

People get divorced at an average age of 30. In the United States, people are getting married at later ages, which may contribute to a decreasing divorce rate. Between 2008 and 2016, the median age of marriage rose about two years, to 28 for women and 30 for men. The proportion of adults who have never been married also grew in that same time period. 

Can Divorce Be a Good Thing?

Unless reincarnation is real, we only get one life on Earth. That means we need to make it as meaningful and fulfilling as possible. A bad marriage has the potential to drain the joy out of your time here. A preoccupation with conflict can limit your human potential and obstruct your goals. 

So yes, divorce can be a good thing. That being said, mixed or ambivalent feelings after divorce are extremely common. Some people grieve acutely or regret the decision. Some people celebrate and say that divorce was the best thing that ever happened to them. Wherever you land on the spectrum, it’s important to protect your mental well-being throughout the fraught process. 

Can Divorce Cause PTSD?

People aren’t just traumatized by “big T” (trauma) experiences like violent assaults. A person may also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of divorce. For example, if someone experienced severe emotional distress during divorce proceedings, they may suffer painful flashbacks or intrusive thoughts later on.

Divorce may also contribute to substance abuse issues and symptoms of depression, but here’s the kicker: Marital conflict can also contribute to similar negative outcomes. So are you worse off married or single? Only you can make that decision.

How Will Divorce Affect My Child?

Children can be incredibly sensitive, especially when it comes to their parents’ relationship. They instinctively want to be part of a stable, happy family. But you can take these steps to minimize the distress that your child might feel before, during, and after the process of divorce or marital separation. 

  • Keep the communication lines open. Explain situations clearly and age-appropriately. Make sure children know the divorce isn’t their fault. Be a validating forum for their feelings. Even kids as young as two can make emotional memories as their environment is changing. Prepare for the conversation to be ongoing, not just a one-time explanation.
  • Don’t argue with and/or badmouth your ex in front of your children. You should try to co-parent as peacefully as possible. Kids can detect even small levels of relationship tension. And definitely don’t put your child in the middle of conflicts or use them as messengers.
  • Teach your child coping skills. Acknowledge that the situation is stressful and help them find ways to protect their well-being and build resilience.
  • Adolescent children may flirt with behavioral issues, so use consistent, predictable disciplinary tactics between households as much as possible. Parenting styles shouldn’t alternate between lax and strict every other week.
  • Give kids as much love, security, and support as possible. 

You should be especially mindful of children’s mental health in the first two years after divorce.

Can Divorce Cause Childhood Trauma?

Many circumstances can cause childhood trauma, including divorce. Divorce may negatively affect a child’s academic performance, behaviors, and overall psychological well-being. Big life transitions are tough on everyone, especially children who thrive on routine. Chaos at home may make them feel stressed, insecure, and emotionally unsafe. And parents may neglect children who are caught in the crosshairs of a stressful divorce. 

But with the proper support and communication, children can heal from pain and trauma. And there are two crucial ways to mitigate the potential for harm to your children during divorce or separation: 

  1. Shower your children with love and reminders that they are not to blame. 
  2. Co-parent respectfully and consistently. Communicate with your ex about the children, and restrain from expressing your negative feelings about your ex in front of the kids. Don’t use blaming language like, “It’s their fault.” Use neutral language like, “We are having a disagreement.”

How Do I Heal from Divorce?

You heal from divorce by experiencing the pain, accepting your emotions, adjusting to your new reality, and healing from within. At the end of this process, you may be stronger, more resilient, and wiser than ever.   

  • Give yourself time to feel your pain and process your new reality.
  • Forgive yourself. Even successful marriages are challenging. We can learn from the intimate relationships that change or break. 
  • Focus on yourself. What are the processes and practices that strengthen you and make you feel worthy of love?
  • Tap into your support system and/or talk about your feelings with a great therapist.
  • Don’t jump into a new, serious relationship as a way of coping with or avoiding your negative emotions.
Table of contents

What Are the First Signs of Divorce?

What Is the Most Common Reason for Divorce?

How Do I know If I Should Get Divorced?

At What Age Is Divorce Most Common?

Can Divorce Be a Good Thing?

Can Divorce Cause PTSD?

How Will Divorce Affect My Child?

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  • Writer
Wistar Murray

Wistar Murray

Wistar Murray writes about mental health at Thriveworks. She completed her BA at the College of William & Mary and her MFA at Columbia University.

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