I am frequently consulted by people who have decided to divorce but are procrastinating because they feel guilty about ending the marriage.
I also see many couples in which the partner who doesn’t want the divorce chides the one who is initiating with the question: “How can you decide to divorce and cause all this pain and disruption?” And frequently the non initiator tells the other that because she is guilty of deciding this terrible thing that she should be the one who pulls in her belt and makes more sacrifices as the divorce moves along.
From a mediator’s perspective this is not a helpful dialogue as it tends to regress into a struggle over fault and blame. One very helpful intervention is to help reframe what has happened. In most cases the decision to divorce by one of the partners is not made casually and is often made after years of internal torment. By the time he/she announces the determination to divorce the relationship bears little resemblance to a marriage. Communication has declined to the point where they don’t speak, or, when they do, the discussion is often rancorous. There is no affection between the couple, they are mostly in separate bedrooms, there is no sex and no companionship. In many cases there have been one or more attempts at counseling with no success and at least one partner has given up on the other and on the marriage.
It is this fact that we use to reframe the situation. By the time they see me the marriage is dead and has probably been dead for some time. The initiator is not deciding to end the marriage. Rather, she/he is simply recognizing that the marriage is dead, and has, in fact, already ended. The end of the marriage is a historical fact; not because anyone is deciding to end it but because it has long been ended. The fact that the couple is still legally married does not necessarily mean that they are emotionally married. What remains of the marriage is an empty husk; it is a legal fact but nothing more.
This reframe is useful in several ways. First, the marriage ended some time ago and was a joint effort. So the initiator is not guilty of ending the marriage, and the thinking is directed to a broader set of issues that brought the marriage to an end. Marriages don’t just up and die one day. More typically it is a death of a thousand cuts occurring over time in which the couple did not attend to the care and feeding of the relationship, and when damage occurs there was little attention paid to repair. This frame forces the one who is resisting to face the fact that the marriage died long ago. When talking to the partner who does not want the divorce I often ask him to describe which of his needs are being met? Are his needs for companionship and affection met? Are they able to share intimate communication? When was the last time they had sex? Do you often feel lonely? Do you still operate as a couple socially?
More often than not this discussion helps the non initiator realize that there is no marriage to end because it ended some time ago. Once that realization is achieved, we are able to move on to questions about how to optimize the resources of the family so that everyone can move successfully toward a new life.