Are there telltale signs that a couple is heading for a split, despite counseling? We asked experts who have seen different scenarios play out.
There is regular bitching about your spouse, and then there is the gut-clenching reality of saying, "I think we need a couples therapist." Understand: If you're going in together on marriage counseling, it's super normal and a healthy step to take. Honestly, I have no idea how previous generations stayed married for decades without a little help. (Actually, I do, they were often just miserable with each other.) But when you get to the point of choosing a counselor, it's obvious you've glimpsed the remote possibility that your marriage might not make it — at least without a serious course correction.
Many parents come out of couples therapy with new skills, insights, and a resolve to keep on through the boring-yet-chaotic, fraught-yet-joyful job of maintaining a marriage while raising kids. But others, as we all know, wind up getting a divorce. I am 20 years into parenting and 25 years into marriage, and in my experience, the cliches are true: Some couples split up and you never see it coming, while others stay glued together even through seemingly insurmountable circumstances.
This led me to wonder: Do therapists know, after they meet a couple a few times, whether that pair is likely to see their 30th anniversary or, on the flip side, probably headed for divorce? Scary Mommy put an ask out to therapists nationwide to see if there are any common signs of divorce. Here's what they said.
1. A Loss of Respect
According to the therapists, two people who've lost respect for each other will have trouble recovering from that. You can be furious at your spouse and hurt by them, but if your mind has switched to thinking that they are garbage, well, contempt is hard to come back from.
"Loss of respect shows up when one person doesn't just view their spouse as 'struggling to be a good husband or wife' but, instead, they might say when meeting with me, 'They're just not a very good or kind person,'" says Kevin Coleman, LMFT-A, a marriage and family therapist and owner of Connected Therapy Practice in Columbia, SC. "That kind of loss of respect is very hard to work past, and it represents a serious challenge that sometimes can be worked through, and sometimes can't."
You can be frustrated by your partner's actions or inaction, but you must believe they have a good heart. You have to still want them by your side.
2. Imbalanced Accountability
Counseling won't work if one person is sure they have been an absolute angel who never took a single misstep — there needs to be accountability on both sides. Sure, we're all tired and overwhelmed as parents, and we've all either snapped or ignored something. We're human, and parenting is tough. Still, says Kelly Case, founder of firstclassmarriage.com, "You have to be able to say, 'I'm sorry. Here's what I could have done differently in that situation.'"
Case herself got married and divorced before age 20, inspiring her to study counseling. Now she's happily married with three older kids. "Those who are unwilling to take a hard look at their words and actions and how they affect their spouse, and those who are unwilling to apologize when they are wrong, will cause frustration and resentment to build," she explains, continuing, "It's critical that both of you be willing to change, even if you think you've been the better partner. Counseling isn't about shaming one half of a couple; it's about making the two of you work as a functional and loving team again. If there is no accountability, and no recognition that everything you do affects the other, the emotional distance grows."
3. Lopsided Communication
Listen, I am super conflict-averse. If I am mad at someone, I find it infinitely easier to avoid them than to "have it out." I hate fights, and I hate big talks. And it took me a couple of decades of marriage to figure out that I can speak to my husband about scary things without it feeling like end times. Using a therapist definitely helped with this.
Counselors will give you time to find your voice. But if you refuse to even try? That's a big red flag. "If you don't learn to communicate, issues build until they often break the couple apart," notes Scott A. Fleming, a mental health counselor and certified pastoral counselor in Winter Garden, Florida.
You have to express feelings in a way your partner understands, so it's a two-step process: saying what you need to say, and making sure you are heard. One thing that worked for me was writing a note in my phone until I was sure I had it right, and then sending it to my husband. That way, I could say everything I wanted to without chickening out — and without him interrupting and knocking my observations off track. (He's not rude, but when a thought hits him, he says it. And unfortunately, when someone else starts talking, I tend to shut down.) Our therapist also recommended we each sign up for a second Gmail account and write to each other that way, if needed.
One more thing: IMO, you don't have to become a great communicator for your marriage to hold. You just have to be decent at it and keep up the effort. Making the effort counts for so much!
4. A Defeatist Attitude
It may be corny, but it's true: You have to be willing to fight for your marriage. Coleman points out something that really strikes me. If a couple shows up to counseling with zero fight in them, that's not a good sign. "When a couple stops fighting, it's usually because they don't believe their relationship can change," he says. "As stressful as it is, fighting with your spouse can be a sign that you both believe that you can resolve arguments." As the song says, the opposite of love is indifference.
This does not mean physical fights or emotional blackmail or anything crazy. You just have to be willing to hear each other out, and then both change to help the other. "When a couple has not resolved anything but stops fighting, resentment can grow, and the emotional distance becomes like a canyon that is impossible to cross," Coleman says. "If a couple is at that place in their relationship, it may be too great a challenge to rebuild their emotional connection."
5. The Absence of Empathy
If you or the person you are married to suffers narcissistic or antisocial traits, divorce is more likely, according to Mary Joye, LMHC, a Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator and counselor at Winter Haven Counseling, also in Florida. "If one person only wants his or her needs met and cares little for the other person's needs or emotions, they mostly come to counseling to say, 'I tried it, and it didn't work,'" Joye says. "They often turn on the counselor and their spouse and try to shift the blame."
"Empathy doesn't mean that you agree with your spouse's point of view. It simply means that you understand it," Case says. "If you can be selfless enough to consider how your spouse feels, they will feel loved."
The Bottom Line
The bottom line that I heard from therapists across the board was that if you are both trying to make your marriage work, it will probably work. Otherwise, it may be time to get a divorce. "Counseling has to be about preserving a marriage, not just about getting your way," Joye says.
Everyone tells you how much effort it takes, but just as you don't understand sleep deprivation until you have a baby, you don't understand working on a marriage until you are deep into the commitment. The struggle is normal. Give it your best, just as you promised, and then wherever it goes from there, trust that you'll be OK.