When someone is in the process of making a decision about whether to stay in a marriage or to pursue a divorce, research from the National Divorce Decision-Making Project shows that they often think about how it will impact their children, finances, personal happiness, and how much love they have for, or are experiencing from, their spouse. It can be a major struggle for many individuals who are considering divorce to arrive at clarity or confidence in a final decision one way or the other. Over the last couple of years, my colleagues and I have interviewed people in the middle of making a decision about the future of their marriage, and we have been reporting the results on this blog. Among other things, we were interested in discovering how individuals arrive at a place of clarity and confidence in their decision-making, and if the quest for clarity and confidence actually guided their process.
The following is an excerpt from an interview I did with one of our participants, a woman who had been married 26 years at the time, who shared her struggle with finding clarity in her decision. Although her words are unique to the context of her marriage and situation, she captures the difficulty many of our interviewees experienced in arriving at a place of clarity or confidence about whether to remain married or divorce.
Steve Harris: Have you had particular moments where you’ve had real clarity about the decision to either stay in your marriage or move toward divorce?
Participant: It fluctuates all the time. I think you can know by just talking to me that I don’t have clarity. I don’t.
Harris: You don’t? Is it even possible for people to get? Tell me what you think about clarity.
Participant: Oh, I think that of course you can have clarity.
Harris: Can you describe a moment when you’ve had clarity or confidence in your decision?
Participant: I don’t know because I go back and forth so much. Every next bad thing that happens [in my marriage] I’m like, okay…I’m done, I’m outta here. But because I have to be in this bad thing, I stay and that’s okay. I have to deal with the other bad thing. I don’t know how to explain it.
Harris: I appreciate you hanging in here with me on this because it sounds like it’s a dynamic process, meaning there’s a lot of movement.
Participant: Right, like, it changes all the time.
Harris: Yeah, it changes all the time and sometimes you get a moment of clarity and then it vanishes. Some other stress shows up?
Participant: Right. I’m clear that if I had enough money to not be here, then I would 95 percent not be here. But I don’t, so I have to make the best out of what I do have. He’s not the worst person. If he was the worst person, believe me, if he was abusive or anything like that, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t care if I had to get a one bedroom and fit three kids in there, I would do that. But it’s not like that…I’m not crazy about [him] all the time, and everything [he] does drives me crazy, because [he’s] 51 years old and [he] should be smarter than that. But it doesn’t mean [he’s] the worst person either…
“I don’t have the worst marriage. I may not have the best, but I don’t have the worst. And I’m still trying to figure it all out 26 years later.”
Harris: I’m wondering if you could describe what it’s like to be at this place where you’re thinking about the future of your marriage. So, maybe you could fill in the blank to the following sentence: “Thinking about the future of my marriage is like ____?”
Participant: (Pauses) Like shaking up a snow globe.
Harris: Okay, and what exactly happens when you do that?
Participant: I don’t know, when it [the snow] falls down, you have an answer. I don’t know, but that’s the first thing that came to my mind.
Harris: Shaking up a snow globe…so when you start thinking about it, everything gets mixed up?
Participant: It’s all mixed up. Yep.
Harris: And then when it settles…does it settle?
Participant: And when it settles, I hope I will have an answer.
Harris: Okay, so would you say you are still in the process of shaking this snow globe?
Harris: I’m thinking about that image of the snow globe, when all that snows settles, that image is very clear…crystal clear?
Harris: And I think you said, when I asked you about clarity, ‘I haven’t got any clarity.’
Participant: Right, and really when you said that, that’s the first thing I thought of. All that snow going around the snowman and I don’t know…I know I’m not clear…My snow globe is very snowy.
Harris: You gave me a great picture to work with.
Participant: I think I probably confused you because I have no clarity on anything. So I’m probably like the worst person to interview [about making a decision on the future of my marriage]. I’m not the type of person who says ‘Oh yeah, right away, I’m going to divorce him…’ I don’t know.
Harris: Do you want to know what I’m finding out in these interviews? It feels like most people we’ve been talking to are in the same type of situation as you.
Harris: I think that a lot of people would really identify with the snow globe. I think it’s going to be really helpful for us to use it as a metaphor for how people think about where they’re at in this [divorce decision-making] process.
Participant: Well good, because I feel like I’m all alone. You know?
Harris: Yeah, you’re the snowman trying to figure everything out.
Participant: Yeah, you get it…So, all I have is my mixed up snow globe, and I’m standing in the middle, and the snow is all falling around me. But I don’t have the worst marriage. I may not have the best, but I don’t have the worst. And I’m still trying to figure it all out 26 years later.
A Turbulent and Confusing Process
Indeed, many of the people we interviewed seemed to have stories similar to this woman’s. They didn’t think they had the best marriages around, but they weren’t the worst marriages either. There seemed to be enough good in their marriages to have kept them from pursuing divorce up to this point. But every now and then, the struggles and trials of their marriages would really tempt them to think that something better might be out there. It’s also worth noting that during other parts of the interview, this particular woman talked about good times she had recently enjoyed with her husband, and said she wished they could do more things together to get their marriage back on track.
Others we interviewed used different ways to describe what it was like to be in this decision-making mode. They talked about their desire for more clarity in how they were thinking about the future of their marriage. They suggested that getting clarity was often elusive or even fleeting. And many participants—well over half of those we interviewed—were worried about making the “wrong” decision, and the impact this would have on them and others, especially their children. This woman’s particular metaphor seemed to capture the turbulent and confusing nature of the divorce decision-making process, where so much is on the line.
What can we learn from the woman’s story above? Perhaps we can learn that it is normal for individuals to struggle to find clarity and confidence when thinking about the future of their marriage, and especially when deciding whether or not to divorce. Accurately judging between an unknown future and a current reality is impossible, so the idea that most people head confidently into divorce is probably unrealistic. Based on our research, most people who are struggling to find clarity need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with their desire to be clear and confident about such a big decision. It is probably worth taking the time to make a decision that reflects clarity of thought and confidence in the outcome.
Steven M. Harris, Ph.D. LMFT, is Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota. He is also the Associate Director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.