My first marriage lasted for 7 years and ended 10 years ago, and I never know how to respond when someone asks if I regret my divorce. Of course I do. But I have also had a great life since then, with a wonderful second husband and our three, soon to be four, children. I don’t think I made the right decision in getting a divorce, but it was the last in a series of bad decisions that started long before we even got married. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to say that yes, I’m divorced, and yes, I have a great life now, but no, I don’t think I should have gotten divorced and I would never recommend getting a divorce. Sound confusing and conflicted? Welcome to life after divorce.
1. Wanting him to change is your problem, not his.
There are some problems that a husband might have (being abusive, having a drug or alcohol addiction) that put your and your children’s lives in danger, and I would never advise anyone to stay in a dangerous situation (although getting out of the situation may mean moving out temporarily, not permanently). However, most of the changes we want our husbands to make aren’t of life-and-death importance. Maybe he never helps around the house. Maybe you don’t like his buddies. Maybe he can’t seem to hold a job, or he’s gained too much weight, or he spends too much money. I wasted many hours stewing about my ex-husband’s flaws. Why didn’t he ever pick up after himself? Why did he spend so much time watching TV and playing video games? Why didn’t he ever have anything to say when we went to visit my parents?
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got; the angrier I got, the more flaws I found, until nothing he did was ever right. And maybe everything I thought was true. Maybe he was lazy and inconsiderate. Maybe he wasn’t working as hard at being a husband and a dad as he should have been. But even so, I was missing the whole point of being married.
Being married isn’t about measuring your spouse against a set of expectations and pointing out where he falls short. One of the most important roles we have as spouses is to help each other become the best versions of ourselves. When we find a flaw, we need to look at it first to determine whether it’s really something that’s keeping him from being the person God called him to be, or just something that we personally find irritating. Next, we need to ask ourselves (and God) what we can do to lovingly, respectfully, and patiently help him to change. The key word there is “help.” And if he doesn’t want to change, or he doesn’t want your help to change, you need to back off, pray about it, and wait for him to make the decision for himself. Trying to make someone change simply does not work.
2. Your husband cannot read your mind, and he’s not too good with passive-aggressive hinting, either.
One of the biggest challenges in my marriage now is that I’m always over-analyzing what my husband says and turning it into a criticism. (“You like my new haircut? So, you think it looked bad before? What was so wrong with my old haircut???”) I find hidden messages where there are none, in the most innocent of comments. Heck, he doesn’t even need to actually SAY anything. If he picks up a toy and puts it in the toybox while I’m watching, I immediately assume that he’s making a statement about my housekeeping skills.
My husband, on the other hand, usually takes what I say at face value. Subtlety is something that women tend to be much better at than men. One mistake I made in my first marriage, and one that I think is common, is that I assumed that my ex knew how I was feeling. I also thought that what I wanted should have been so obvious to him that I shouldn’t even need to say it. That if he really cared about me, then doing and saying what I wanted him to would just come naturally. All of the heavy sighing, sulking, silent treatments, angry clanging of misplaced toys and dirty dishes, hiding his video game controllers, saving his laundry till last, and other “subtle” ways of letting him know that you’re mad are probably not actually letting him know that you’re mad. And, they’re turning you into a ten-year-old. When you’re upset, you have to sit down with him and say what you mean in a gentle, loving way. The point is not to make him feel bad, or to point out how you’re winning in the game of “who-works-the-hardest-around-here”, but to share your feelings and ask for his help.
3. Even in the best of marriages, spouses get angry, hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and overwhelmed.
I don’t think that there is such a thing as a point of no return in a marriage. There is no argument, no mistake, no misdeed so serious that you can’t come back from it and rebuild your relationship, if you are both willing to try. Everyone does stupid things. You will mess up and make your husband feel hurt and angry. He will do the same to you. It’s normal. It doesn’t mean that you’re not in love anymore. It doesn’t mean that one of you has failed at marriage.
Love does, in fact, mean saying you’re sorry. A lot.
It is very tempting to hang on to old hurts rather than let them go. It can be comforting to paint yourself as the victim in your relationship, and it can be very enticing to fantasize about starting over, alone, without all the baggage and hard work of being someone’s wife. Marriage is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard. It’s also a vocation – a calling from God. It is designed to help make you the person God wants you to be, and the other side of that is helping God make your spouse the person God wants him to be. Ups and downs are a normal part of every relationship, and if you stick it out through the down times, you will be rewarded.
4. Divorce will permanently and deeply hurt your kids, no matter how easy you try to make it.
I read a wonderful, horrible book about this topic called The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study by Judith S. Wallerstein, Sandra Blakeslee, and Julia M. Lewis. If you are considering a divorce and you have children, you HAVE to read this book first. I read it a year or so ago, sobbed through the whole thing, and was upset for weeks afterward. But I needed to read it. It’s a study of the children of divorce and how the divorce has affected them, even into adulthood. Bottom line? Divorce hurts kids. It has a huge, lasting, negative effect on their lives and relationships. It makes little difference whether your divorce is “amicable”, or how miserable you were in your marriage. It doesn’t matter if you get remarried to a wonderful, stable person who adores your kids and whom you never divorce. Even if your kids have a great visitation schedule, loving homes on both sides, and plenty of money at both households, they still yearn for their parents to be reunited and suffer from feelings of abandonment, loss, confusion, and fear. Kids are better off with two married but unhappy parents than if those parents get divorced. In fact, kids usually don’t even realize that their parents are unhappy – they aren’t emotionally equipped to understand adult relationships in that way.
Do not try to fool yourself into thinking that the kids will be better off after the divorce because you will be happier. It’s one of the most dangerous, most insidious lies of our times.
5. You are not the perfect spouse, either.
One of my favorite bible passages is this, from Matthew Chapter 7:
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.
Make today the day that you stop focusing on what’s wrong with your husband and start focusing on what’s wrong with you. I guarantee that you also have faults, that you also fall short as a spouse. Once you start making changes in your own attitude and behavior, your husband will notice, and more than likely, he will respond with positive changes of his own. No nagging required.
6. Men need to feel respected, and they respond to feeling respected by being more respectable.
I love Dr. Laura. I know that many people don’t – they think she’s old-fashioned, sexist, and just plain mean. I don’t think that’s true, and I admire her for not being afraid to speak the truth, even when it flies in the face of all that our culture holds dear. Her book, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, was life-changing for me. One of her core messages is that men and women are different, by nature, and we are designed to complement each other. In my experience, this is true. It’s also an extremely unpopular thing to believe in our world today. I didn’t always believe it myself, until years of marriage have proven it to me over and over again. In a marriage, a woman’s primary need is to feel taken care of – to feel loved and protected. A man’s primary need is to feel respected. That’s not to say that we both don’t need to be loved and respected – we do. But we need to be aware that to make our husbands feel loved and valued, we have to pay special attention to the ways in which we demonstrate our respect for them. When we, as wives, make our husbands feel disrespected, they feel unhappy, hurt, rejected, and angry. So what does it mean to respect your husband? Here are some ideas for demonstrating respect that have done wonders for my marriage (and since my husband will be reading this, I have to admit that I don’t do these nearly as often as I should):
a. Ask for his opinion on family matters – big and small. When he gives it, avoid the temptation to criticize it or take the opposite view.
b. Thank him – daily – for working hard at his job to provide for your family.
c. When he disciplines the kids differently than you would, avoid contradicting or correcting him then and there. Bring up that particular disciplinary tactic later and try to calmly discuss how it may or may not fit into your parenting strategy.
d. Let him make decisions. Not all of the decisions, and not all by himself, but make sure that you are treating him as an equal partner when it comes to deciding little things – like where to eat dinner – and big things, like what house to buy.
e. Listen to him. Don’t try to clean, check emails, or watch TV while he’s trying to tell you about his day. Give him your undivided attention when he wants to talk.
f. Say good things about him to your family and friends. When possible, compliment him in front of other people.
g. Respect his space and his belongings. Take pride in keeping his things clean and orderly. Keep the kids out of his desk, his tools, and his man-cave.
7. When you start focusing on what YOU can do to help your marriage, you will see results.
When I was unhappily married to my first husband, it never occurred to me to pray about how I could make it better. It honestly never occurred to me to pray about it at all. But I know that if I had, I would have prayed something to the effect of, “God, please make him a better husband.” I was completely consumed by what HE needed to be doing to fix our marriage. I thought I was doing everything right, and I didn’t need to do any deep soul-searching to see if that was really true. In my marriage now, however, I like to think that I’m a little bit more mature.
When I’m not happy, the first thing I ask myself is how my own attitude and behavior might be contributing to my unhappiness. And, lo and behold, it’s usually the most significant – if not the only – reason I’m struggling.
Consciously deciding to change my perspective, working on what I have learned are a couple of my worst habits, telling my husband (and kids, for that matter) how much I appreciate them, and asking God for patience and wisdom are usually all it takes to make me feel better. Marriage is a partnership, and you have to do your share of the work. Waiting around for him to make everything better is unfair, unproductive, and unrealistic.
8. Dwelling on the past, whether good or bad, will only hurt your relationship.
Constantly comparing your present situation to a happier time will make you feel bad. Constantly recalling past hurts and bad times will make you feel bad. Living in the past will keep you from moving forward, and you have to find a way to let it go. Our focus needs to be on what we can do today, not what we did before or what we should have done before. According to Paul in Phillippians, Chapter 3:
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”
9. When you argue, you should be seeking resolution, not victory.
I struggle with this. And because it’s a lot easier for me to express myself when I’m mad than it is for my husband, I tend to “win” a lot of our arguments. But the catch is, even when I win, I’m not really winning. Maybe I’ve made my point. Maybe I’ve gotten my way. But usually, I’ve been mean, and my husband feels hurt, disrespected, and misunderstood. I’ve missed the whole point of discussing the issue with him, which is not to prove myself right, but to resolve the disagreement in a way we can both feel good about. Disagreements are an opportunity to understand each other better, to learn from each other, and to grow closer, but more often, they push us farther apart. We are a team, and we are equals. We have a responsibility to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect each other. Remember, the whole point of marriage is to help each other become the people God wants us to be. Resolving disagreements in a constructive way will do exactly that.
10. It’s okay to ask for help.
The key is to ask the right people for help. Calling your girlfriends and complaining about your marriage in search of affirmation and justification is not going to help you. Asking your parents, or his, to talk to him about what a bad husband he’s being is not going to help you either. Start praying about your marriage, with a focus on what YOU can do to make things better, and seek the counsel of a priest, pastor, or marriage counselor (one who has a Christian – i.e., permanent – view of marriage). Encourage your husband to join you, but if he won’t, you can still make progress on your own. Make it your goal to inspire him to want to change by making changes in yourself.
What do you think? What have you done – or what do you wish you would have done – to make your marriage stronger? Tell us in the comments!