No two divorces are alike — but the arguments that lead couples to divorce tend to be, experts say.
Below, marriage therapists share six arguments couples on the verge of divorce usually get into before calling it quits — plus, their best advice for avoiding those fights.
1. “You take me for granted.”
It’s an all-too-common trajectory for married couples: Fall in love, begin your lives together, then proceed to get comfortable and take everything for granted. San Francisco-based marriage therapist Susan Pease Gadoua sees couples complain about this problem all the time.
“It’s supposed to happen to some degree; it’s a sign that you’re comfortable enough to let your guard down,” she said. “But it can sometimes be misconstrued by your significant other as you not caring as much about him or her.”
To avoid falling into this trap, Pease Gadoua urges couples to watch the assumptions they make about each other. Don’t assume you know what your spouse is thinking or feeling.
“One spouse may think, ‘We haven’t made love in two months so clearly you don’t love me any more’ or ‘He doesn’t respect the work that I do to keep our house and family functioning well,’” she said. “And once you start telling yourself these things (without checking them out first) you’ll begin to find evidence of how the stories are true. Check your beliefs out with your mate early on!”
2. “What happened to our sex life?”
Divorce-bound couples often complain about their sex lives — or lack thereof — said Marcia Naomi Berger, a psychotherapist and the author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted.
“It’s oftentimes the man who feels frustrated because his wife seems to have lost interest in having sex with him,” she explained. “Women’s sexual needs are more complex: Maybe he’s not helping her get into the mood with enough foreplay or maybe he hasn’t been emotionally available and responsive to her in general.”
Of course, it could be the other way around, too, said Berger. “A wife who focuses on her husband’s faults and often criticizes him can end up with a husband who’s lost interest in sex with her.”
The best way to get busy again is talking through your non bedroom-related problems, Berger said.
“Couples who use their brain to understand and talk through what’s behind the symptom of sexual disinterest are the ones who learn how to remedy the situation.”
3. “You’ve checked out of our marriage.”
When a couple is on the brink of divorce, one or both spouses start to seriously question if the marriage has legs, said Alexandra H. Solomon, a clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
“When spouses become emotionally and physically disengaged, they can start to question their love for each other and wonder, ‘What are we all about?’ At its worst, disengagement can make it feel like you are participating in something you no longer believe in,” Solomon said.
To rebuild your shared narrative as a couple, Solomon recommends setting some new goals together.
“Create a couple manifesto or mission statement and update it regularly — create short, medium and long-term goals for each individual and for the marriage,” she said. “And it may also be helpful to create couple rituals (daily affirmations, weekly movie night, an annual vacation).”
4. “You use the kids against me.”
Couples whose marriage are this close to being down the proverbial drain aren’t afraid to go for the low blows when fighting — and that includes bringing the kids into arguments, said Berger.
“I’ve seen couples in therapy who blame and name-call in front of their children, to the point where one child got pain in his chest every time his parents fought in front of him,” Berger said “These couples are trying to turn their children into allies instead of working out their differences constructively with their spouses.”
Regardless of whether you stay together or go your separate ways, your goal should be happy and healthy kids, so stop giving them a front row seat to your arguments, Berger advised.
“Recognize that the best gift you can give your children is a model of a good adult relationship,” she said. “To create this kind of relationship, it can be helpful for adults to receive psychotherapy, marriage counseling and marriage education.”
5. “Are we even fighting about the same thing anymore?”
You know it’s gotten bad in a marriage when you can’t even agree on what you’re fighting about anymore. As a therapist, Solomon said she “sometimes has to wonder if the couple were even in the same room when the fight happened because the stories are so different.”
Solomon said this miscommunication is often reflective of a deeper problem: The couple lacks the willingness or ability to collaborate and understand their different perspectives. To move beyond this, try to empathize with your partner as much as possible.
“Lean in to your spouse’s view of the problem and actively look for pieces of his or her story that you can buy into and empathize with,” she said.
6. “We aren’t communicating anymore.”
We couldn’t get through a list like this without addressing the age-old couples’ fight over communication. BetterHelp psychologist Nikki Martinez confirmed that this is the number one problem couples who come into her office report.
“The couple stops being transparent, starts making assumptions and starts hiding things, which ultimately leads to anger and mistrust,” she said. “When communication breaks down, and each person thinks it is beyond repair, they will often believe that divorce is the only option.”
If the couple has any desire to salvage their relationship, Martinez tells them they need to feel safe to be open and honest about their feelings.
“When you’re this close to divorce, it’s a make or break factor in the relationship,” she said.