The next time you are in a restaurant look for the sad couple eating dinner in silence. They make little or no eye contact and have little or no conversation. They are completely disengaged and are simply enduring the meal until they can finish and leave. That’s a couple on the verge of divorce. It may not happen soon and may not happen at all, because there are couples who are held together by nothing but inertia and fear. But at least one or both of these unfortunates are thinking about divorce.
There are six signals of impending divorce. There are probably many more, but these are the big ones.
1.Inadequate Conflict Resolution
Poor communication is always a problem. But it is the lack of effective conflict resolution that really sinks a marriage. Couples lacking the ability to resolve differences without injury to the relationship end up avoiding disagreement and conflict. Then one or both begin to despair that it is pointless to try resolving differences with his/her mate. Maybe one or both are conflict avoidant. Or one or both may regard conflicts as fights to be won by bullying the other into submission. What matters is that someone has given up. Differences are submerged, resulting in a loss of respect, increasing distance and gradual withdrawal.
2. Emotional Disengagement
We need emotional engagement to develop and maintain intimacy. Discussion of feelings, one’s own and the other’s are critical. Interest in the emotional life of the other and empathic engagement of each other’s emotional life all constitute the required elements of intimacy. If this is interrupted, or if it never develops, the relationship starves to death. Couples who have emotionally disengaged are headed for a breakup.
Emotional disengagement is generally accompanied by the withdrawal of affection. If your wife has disengaged emotionally from you she probably doesn’t feel much love for you. Divorcing people commonly say that “they have fallen out of love.” And depending on how sour the relationship has become, one or both probably don’t like each other very much. If expressions of affection have disappeared, the couple is in trouble.
4. Lack of Sex
Sex expresses and reinforces emotional connectedness. When a couple has not had sex in a long time, it is usually a reliable indicator that emotional disengagement is advancing steadily. It is yet another indicator that the partners take no pleasure in each other and that the bonds are rapidly eroding. Sex is an important source of repair of the many little tears and injuries that can erode affection. No sex suggests no repair.
5. Increased Focus outside the Marriage
Empty marriages are boring. Some couples compensate by pouring themselves into their children so that child centered activity becomes the sole content of family life. Others pour themselves further into careers, working late every night so that the time with the other is minimized. And as emotional satisfaction is sought exclusively outside the marriage, the probability of an affair soars. The majority of affairs I see in my practice have started with a coworker who takes an interest and is fun to be with.
6. Preparation for a Single Life
I recall a couple I worked with many years ago in which the husband, as part of his planning for the coming divorce, took a second mortgage on the house to pay for a hair transplant to improve his dating prospects. Although a bit extreme, it is typical for the initiating spouse to begin preparing herself or himself by getting in shape, losing weight, attending to hair and wardrobe, and other things to enhance appearance. And particularly with women who have stayed home, we often see a new interest in refreshing or acquiring a career in order to be less dependent on the earnings of the husband. We also often see the initiator taking up an activity such as tennis or golf without involving the other spouse, and generally beginning to build a social network as a single rather than as a couple.
What to Do?
If you see yourself in this scenario, your marriage is in serious trouble. I would not try to prognosticate about the precise tipping point beyond which a marriage is absolutely doomed. But I can say that these signals, or at least most of them, are present in almost every divorce I mediate. At a minimum it is time for a long and honest talk with your spouse. If you can’t have that talk without it deteriorating into blaming and recrimination, suggest an urgent session with a marriage counselor or family therapist. Because if you are heading for divorce, the sooner the two of you face the issue and plan for an amicable separation, the better your chances of achieving a good and non destructive divorce.