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The Process of Deciding: Stay Married or Get a Divorce
by Peggy Vaughan

Unfortunately, most people have very strong opinions about what other people should do when there's an affair. In fact, there's often criticism of a person who stays married but a certain satisfaction with someone who decides to get a divorce. Part of the reason for this is that there's a tendency to think that if others punish their spouse for having an affair, it may somehow help protect it from happening to you.

However, the decision itself is not nearly so critical as the process by which the decision is made. In other words, it's important to consider when, why, and how a person reaches their decision.

I'd like to refer to the process used by Elin Nordegren (in deciding about her marriage to Tiger Woods) to illustrate one of the better ways of making a decision—regardless of what her final decision might have been. While she has decided to get a divorce, she did not quickly jump to that decision, despite the opinion of most people that she should have done so immediately.

Since most people remain in a state of shock or emotional disorientation for some time after learning of a mate's affair, it's essential that they wait until their emotions are under better control before deciding the future of the relationship. The period immediately following their discovery is definitely not the time to make such a life-altering decision as to whether to stay married or get a divorce since most people are incapable of thinking clearly at this time.

When a person discovers their mate's affair, they're likely to go through a period of great ambivalence and uncertainty—when it's painful to look back and scary to look forward. But a person who takes time to recover some sense of emotional stability before deciding their future will be more likely to make a satisfying decision.

It's More Than Just What Decision You Make, It's How Well You Can Live With It.

People who decide too quickly to get a divorce forever second-guess themselves, thinking, "Would I, could I, should I..." Whereas, even if you eventually divorce, you'll be better prepared to live with the decision if you know that you did everything you could reasonably do for as long as you could reasonably do it—and only then made a rational (rather than emotional) decision about whether to divorce.

Below is an excerpt from The Monogamy Myth that provides some general guidance:

SOME GUIDELINES FOR SOLVING THE MARRIAGE/DIVORCE DILEMMA

1. Make your own decision (regardless of what others think).

2. Do not rush the decision.

3. Get as much information as possible about your own situation and about affairs in general.

4. Consider the emotional piece of this, but realize it's only one part, not the sole basis for a good decision.

5. Consider the practical factors involved (including money, kids, and other relevant issues), but realize the importance of balancing these concerns with the more personal, emotional needs.

6. Base the decision not just on the past, but on the future. No one has a crystal ball to see just what the future holds, but there are indications that can serve as a guide.
    —Is there a willingness to talk about what happened and to try to learn from it?
    —Is there a willingness to use the information in a constructive way instead of using it as a way to punish past behavior?
    —Is there a willingness to acknowledge attractions as normal and likely in the future, and a plan for ongoing discussions of these temptations?
    —Is there a commitment to honesty as the basis of the relationship (rather than just a promise of monogamy)?
    —Is there evidence of a willingness to be honest by ongoing sharing of thoughts and feelings about subjects other than affairs? (If there is not honest communication about other issues,there's little likelihood there will be honesty in talking about affairs.)
    —Even if there's no evidence of the things listed above at this time, does it seem reasonable to think of moving toward this way of relating? Changes of this kind don't happen overnight, but unless there's an indication of movement in this direction, there's little hope for developing a good marriage.

Many people wonder how it is that some couples manage to stay together after an affair… while others divorce; what separates the two groups?

There is no ONE reason. I have seen 3 primary sets of factors:

1. Some stay together because they genuinely WANT to stay together. Despite the pain and the devastating blow to the relationship, there is still a genuine love and sense of connection. AND they're willing to put in the time and energy necessary to rebuild.

2. Some stay together primarily for practical reasons, most often the children and to a lesser degree, financial considerations. (2/3 of the people responding to my survey had children—and almost half of those children were under 6 years of age.) Also—Even if the relationship is less than they had hoped, they see no guarantee of finding a better one to replace it. And, on a subconscious level, most people fear the unknown; so staying sometimes seems the most reasonable thing to do.

3. Some don't get a CHANCE to stay together—because one or the other of them IMMEDIATELY heads toward divorce when an affair is discovered.
   Among those who divorced: (from my sample of 1,083)
      57% of those who divorced, the divorce was initiated by the spouse
      30% of those who divorced, it was initiated by the person who had affair
      12% of those who divorced, it was a mutual decision.

As for differences based on who had the affair.
—When the husband had an affair, 63% of the time it was the wife who initiated the divorce.
—When the wife had an affair, 42% of the time it was the husband who initiated the divorce.
(However, women more often are the ones who initiate divorce, regardless of who really wants it.)

ALSO, among those who stay married, there are two distinctly different groups:

1. Those who stay together without processing the experience (usually staying just for practical reasons) wind up in deadened, meaningless marriages.

2. Those who work and develop a stronger marriage use this experience as a "wake-up call" to focus more strongly and seriously on their marriage than they have done in years. (Many people don't think about what they have until they're about to lose it.)

NOTE: The stats above come from the results of my survey on affairs, reported in Help for Therapists and their Clients in dealing with affairs. (Note that on this page you can download a Free copy of the pdf version of this book.)

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