Should I give my marriage one last chance?

By Scott Costello, MSW LCSW

When you told your spouse that you wanted a divorce, were they shocked? I find that men are often shocked to find out that their wife wants a divorce. It’s then that they start to make changes, sometimes substantial changes in their lifestyle, attitude, or behavior, in order to save the marriage. Wives tend to feel angry at this point.

“It shouldn’t have to come to this!” “I shouldn’t have to file for divorce in order to get him to change!”

“The changes he’s making are not sincere.”

“He’ll eventually go back to his old ways and I will have wasted more time and caused more stress for the family.”

“I’m ready to move on with my life, it’s too late.”

“I love him, but I’m not ‘in love’ with him, and that’s not going to change.”

Actually, there’s nothing wrong with giving him or the marriage one last chance. So long as a few conditions are met which I’ll get to later. Although this post is written from a women’s perspective, most of these conditions can certainly apply to men.

Women recognize that there’s a lot at stake with divorce, not that men don’t, but women have to be more sensitive to certain issues like financial security and parenting.

Most courts in our society seem to expect women to raise the kids; in fact, most men (and parents and siblings, etc…) might find a woman repulsive if they did not “fight” for residential custody. However, some researchers see women earning up to 70% less income after divorce than when they were married. This is quite a dilemma to be in: pressure to be the sole provider, but expected to do it with much less income.

Why are you getting divorced? Some issues like substance abuse/addiction and violence can cause so much damage that reconciliation is out of the question. Violence has no place in a relationship. Fear of your spouse will prevent you from being able to feel love towards him, but then again, I have known women who feel intense love for their abusive spouse; this is where feelings can be misleading; for example, the bonding hormone, Oxytocin may create a false of attachment and cloud judgment. This post is not for women who are divorcing due to the violence or substance abuse problems of their spouse

Why do people get married in the first place?
I usually ask couples, “If 50% of planes crashed, would you still fly?”

Most everyone says, “No!” Yet, nearly 50% of first marriages end in divorce and people still get married. Why? Let me ask the question this way, “If 50% of planes crashed, would you still fly if you were a pilot?” In this case, everyone has said, “Yes!” The obvious reason is that if you’re the pilot, you’re in control of the plane. The problem with marriage is that you’re not the only pilot. You have a co-pilot that you have no control over. That is why you’re getting divorced. You couldn’t change your spouse and they couldn’t change you, or, you wouldn’t change for your spouse, or, they wouldn’t change for you. So, now you’re getting divorced and your spouse wants one more chance.

This isn’t for people who feel certain that they should end it. This is for people who have ambivalence about ending it

(Yet, just because we feel certain about anything doesn’t indicate that we’re correct in our certainty).

To start with, did you ever make a detailed list of the potential pros and cons of divorce versus staying married? Did you weight each point on the list and then add up the points to see which option has more value? If not, I suggest you start there and see what you come up with. Under the option of staying married, you have to base that on the condition that your spouse now says they’re willing to change, or that they are now making changes.

One important thing to consider, in this situation, is how much risk is there for you if you give your spouse one more chance? Aside from not feeling like it, do you feel that you have the time to spend on the relationship? Do you have anything significant to lose by trying one more time?

You have to be willing to give “one last chance” wholeheartedly. But, that doesn’t mean doing things that you’re not ready to do, like sleeping with him.

It does mean participating in therapy, following reasonable advice, having conversations, and so on. I’ve known quite few couples who were giving their marriage a second chance and their previous therapist had told the wife that she should have sex “even if she didn’t feel like it.” There’s no scientific basis to such a recommendation. I would never recommend that, and I think that it could actually lead to mental harm for the woman and permanent damage to the relationship. My opinion here is not based on scientific studies either, but it is based on reports from women who have tried that approach only to find that they start to find their spouse repulsive; some have reported that they felt like it was a form of rape; none have said that it helped or “worked.”

Why would you even consider giving him another chance? Other than finances, kids, the family identity, there’s also the guilt factor. Your spouse has put you in a position where if you say no, you may always wonder, “could it have worked out?” If you have kids, your spouse will surely tell them this, as well as your friends and family. How will they feel about your decision to not try one more time? How will you feel about how others feel? How will you feel regardless of how anyone else feels? Do you honestly think that you should give your spouse one more chance? If you do, maybe you should because it may be a moral or ethical issue for you. But if that’s the case, where does that moral belief come from, that you should give your spouse one more chance? Does it come from your religion, your parents, your friends, or did you just somehow come up with this belief on your own? Does it have any validity or authority behind it? If you can honestly rid yourself of guilt by thinking about it, then that’s one less problem to have to deal with after divorce.

If you can’t shed the rule that you should give your spouse another try, then you’ll probably feel guilty for who knows how long. If you don’t think that you should try, but your family or friends do, then you might feel ashamed for not trying again.

The two best ways to prevent guilt or shame is to live up to the rules that you believe in, and live up to the rules of other people who are important to you.

If coping with guilt or shame is something you’d rather do than reconcile, then maybe you should go with your gut reaction; or maybe you should speak with a professional about your feelings to help sort them out.

Friends and family may give advice that is makes them feel good instead of you. For example, if your friend or parent stayed married, they will probably recommend you do the same, not because that’s what’s good for you, but because that will affirm their decision and their self-esteem.

If you decide to give it one more try, nothing is more important than this: you shouldn’t try to work on your marriage unless you feel that you can wholeheartedly do so. This means that you have to work through your anger at your spouse about putting you in the position of giving them “one last chance.” That’s something to be very angry about. This is probably on top of all the other things you’re angry at them about. A significant problem in our society is that we have few, if any, ways of expressing our anger to our spouse – in other words, how do we punish them in order to alleviate our anger. What punishments can you give an adult? What punishments would they be willing to accept? This is a crucial question that needs to be answered.

If you’re angry at your spouse and words are not enough (e.g., “I’m sorry”), or words are not believable, (e.g., “I’ll never do that again… I’ll change….”), then punishments come in handy. Being raised Catholic, I understand the value of penance. In marriage, anger is the most common emotion couples will experience. Spouses should expect to be angry at each other at least once a day, if not more, and then less as time goes on because they should be resolving their disputes. But if disputes were not resolved, you’ll start to feel like you “love him but you’re just not ‘in love’ with him.” You can’t feel love for someone when there’s too much anger in the way. If you can honestly resolve that anger, then it may yield to love – or not – giving another chance is your risk to take.

I don’t recommend 5 hail Mary’s or a Rosary to resolve anger. Also, the person who “made you angry,” should never get to decide on the type of punishment, but they do have to agree to it; but, if they don’t agree to your punishment(s), then they don’t get your forgiveness, and you can then move on with your divorce knowing that he turned down your best offer. Let me add that punishment for an adult shouldn’t be thought of as the same as it is for a child. Punishment for a child is meant to stop the child from misbehaving again. What I’m talking about is more like restitution or absolution. You need your spouse to absolve themselves from their “wrong doings.”

This may not apply to you. Maybe he really did nothing wrong, nor you. Maybe you or he just weren’t willing to compromise certain things and these things were “deal breakers.” That’s just the way it is, no one is to blame. But, if he did do something wrong (or failed to do something that he should of done) to make you angry, either once or over the course of years, then maybe this post is for you.

I’ve known quite a few couples who have used this approach. I recall one wife who came up with three different things for her husband to do in order to absolve himself from his infidelity. One was to quit his job where he had met the other woman, second was to confess and apologize to her family and his family, and third, was to take their vows again.

His willingness to do all of these things, and fast, provided the “proof” to her that she was worthwhile to him and that he was serious about their marriage. It also changed him – he “grew up” and he felt like the man that he always wanted to be but was afraid that he never could.

One last chance is not for everyone, but it’s something to give some serious thought, and this post might give you some things to consider during a difficult time.

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