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Why Divorce Isn't Always the Answer

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Momlogic's Jackie got steaming mad when Ryan Seacrest told a married father of four, who claimed he was in an emotionally abusive marriage, to leave his wife. Here's what a relationship expert has to say.

husband and wife fighting with a child sitting between them

Dr. Michelle Golland: Married but having problems? The best advice is not to divorce, but to go directly into couple's counseling. I have seen the most damaged and difficult marriages work out and become stronger and healthier than they ever were in the past.

All marriages struggle, but if you have children, they deserve to live in a home free of conflict and anger. This will not end when you divorce, but will most likely increase when you separate and divorce. You will still both be the same people who entered into the marriage and will continue your personal dysfunction in your life apart unless you do some personal work in therapy.

If you are in the battlefield of a difficult marriage, it can seem like you spend most of the day avoiding minefields. The problems seem so overwhelming that they seem impossible to sort out, especially when each partner has created their war chest of hurts, anger, and resentments. Most unhappy marriages begin in the same way and follow a downward spiral that seems to end in the inevitable sadness of divorce. You are not alone: More than half of all marriages end in divorce, and 60% of second marriages fail also. What is frightening is many people can't understand why.

John Gottman, Ph.D., has coined the phrase the "four horsemen." These are destructive ways of interacting that directly sabotage any relationship. As each of these become more entrenched, they contribute to the ever-rising negativity in the relationship.

The "four horsemen" are as follows:

1) CRITICISM: Criticizing involves attacking someone's personality or character rather than a specific behavior and with a blaming attitude. This is different than complaining, which we all must do in a relationship. It goes beyond complaining about not doing the dishes to "you never pay our bills on time, you are so selfish." This brings it to another level. When you are using phrases like "you always" and "you never," you may be slipping into criticism.

2) CONTEMPT: What separates contempt from criticism is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. With your words and body language, you are hurling insults right at their core person. You also have negative thoughts about your partner. They are stupid, selfish, and incompetent, and these thoughts get expressed either directly or subtly. This stage is when most couples forget why they ever fell in love with their partner in the first place.

Signs of contempt:
* Insults and name-calling
* Hostile humor
* Mockery
This is not an every-once-in-a-while occurrence; we have moments where we have lost our emotions and acted contemptuously. But if you feel you are under attack and always ready to retaliate, you have found yourself with the 2nd horseman.

3) DEFENSIVENESS: This comes in as a response to contempt. Each party becomes defensive: trying to plead innocent while feeling victimized over and over again. This attitude only seems to escalate the conflict further.

Signs of defensiveness:
* Denying any responsibility
* Making excuses
* Cross-complaining: as soon as a complaint is revealed, you ignore it and deliver your own complaint.
* Repeating yourself: rather than trying to understand the other person's perspective, you simply keep reiterating your point because it is the "correct" one.

4) STONEWALLING: Once you have come through the first three, you are both utterly exhausted from the negative spiral you are in, and this can be the final nail in the coffin of a bad marriage.

Your marriage began by being scattered by the landmines of bad communication to the deafening silence of no communication at all.

The "stonewaller" just removes him or herself by turning into a nonresponsive stone wall. They begin to shut out their partner, not taking in any input and even expressing hostility.

Stonewalling is very powerful: it conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness. Men tend to be the stonewallers in difficult marriages, which causes women to be reactive, which further pushes the man away.


If there is no healthy response to the four horsemen and they continue to reside in your marriage, two things will occur:

One, you will live a lonely, angry married life peppered with moments of happiness.

Two, you will end up with a divorce lawyer dividing up the wreckage of your bad ways.

Once the couple mostly experiences distance between them and begins to lead separate lives, they may have an affair, move into separate rooms of the house, or ask for a divorce.

If you are in an emotionally abusive marriage (like Ryan's caller said he is), call a psychologist who specializes in marriage and get the help you all desperately need. You do not need to leave. Not yet, and maybe not at all.

next: Guilty Fridays: Moms Confess
16 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anon May 1, 2009, 9:30 AM

I was once married to an emotionally abusive man, and I’ll tell you right now, abusers don’t change. He’s somewhat better now - but it’s because we’re divorced, and he no longer has that control over me. Why is it that if someone is being physically abused, we tell them to leave immediately - but if they’re being emotionally abused, to the point where they feel worthless and possibly suicidal, we tell them to try to work it out with the abuser?!

Rachel May 1, 2009, 11:39 AM


CeCe May 1, 2009, 11:44 AM

I do not think that a man or woman should stay in any relationship that is abusive in any way. Staying in a relationship for the sake of the children only hurts them in the longrun. They see what a loveless relationship is all about and that abuse is the norm and perfectly acceptable.

Stacey May 1, 2009, 12:03 PM

Are you seriously advocating staying with an abuser? Really?

Deanna May 1, 2009, 1:13 PM

Yes, I’m a divorced mother with 2 sons of an emotionally & psycologially abusive, now ex-husband. I can’t speak for all of these types of abusers, but mine definitely wouldn’t “own” his behavior, still doesn’t “own” it & still thinks I’m the one with the issues. My divorce greatly improved my situation. I no longer needed anti-depressants, my self-esteem improved, I was a much happier, much better mom. Plus, I was out from under his control. I love it now, when he starts mouthing off, I can escort him to the door & say “see you later”.

ewok May 1, 2009, 2:55 PM

I do not agree with the Dr.

Seacrest had it right.

Alot of times we fool ourselves and make a person into someone that they are not. I was also married to an abuser (physical and emotional abuse) When the fairy dust is cleared, (lol) you’re married, with kids thinking, “what have I done?”

You should work on issues like lack of communication, not cleaning around the house, and yes, even money. But, if there is abuse of ANY kind…it is best you two seek help individually….abusers are addicted to the power they feel at the moment….why put your children in that crossfire when you knew the person was not ‘the one’ in the first place?
Don’t make your children suffer for your bad choices in a mate…even it is is their parent.
How many black eyes must one get, or feelings of worthlessness before this waste of time counseling works?

ame i. May 1, 2009, 2:55 PM

My late husband had a holier-than-thou superior attitude from the day I met him when I was 14 until the day he died of cancer in 2003. We married when I was 20. He did manage to balance the bad behavior with good most of the time.
We were married for 9 years before our first daughter was born. He did not adjust well to not being my top priority and my not having the time or energy to bend over backwards to please him. It became even worse after our second daughter was born.
If he was alive, we would be divorced. He had a bad snoring problem and would be offended when I had the nerve to go to another room to sleep. He said he couldn’t sleep if I wasn’t in the bed and was highly offended if I went to another room to sleep. Several times he told me that “I just can’t understand why you’re not willing to sacrifice a night of sleep for me”. I was nursing a newborn every 2 hours and caring for her and her 2 year old sister at the time.
I had the “stay for the children” mentality. I cringe to think of what they would be seeing and hearing if he was still here.
I married again 2 years ago. This is my husband’s first marriage and my daughters are his only children.
He’s never said a harsh word to any of us and treats us like treasures.
I hope my daughters realize that they deserve to be treated the same way and should never accept or tolerate anything less.

jjennifer May 1, 2009, 3:17 PM

i think people are misinterpreting this article. i don’t get that the author is encouraging women to stay in truly abusive relationships.
i agree that we tend to repeat patterns once we get out of the relationship.
we will recreate the struggle with the next partner if we have not found conflict resolution with the former.
most often when i am unhappiest in my relationship, i need to change something in myself. it is a frustrating paradox…so much easier to just blame my husband and ask him to change!
i think this is the spirit of this piece.

susan picasso May 1, 2009, 6:11 PM

I heard the radio show and I heard you and ryan,, I have to tell you,, you have no idea of what you are talking about.. you obviously are one of the LUCKY ONES, who got a good husband. I live with that verbal emotionial abuse and we all make mistakes but no reason someone should continue to put up with it., my opioin Ryan gave good advise,, he was correct.., This man can anytime see his children thats why we have courts.. I’m sure there is someone out there that can make him happy., tommarow is never a guarentee and life is to short.,

susan picasso May 1, 2009, 6:13 PM

Just by your blog goes to show you never lived the life.. I have and am., so life is to short and and u are never guarenteed tommarow., I think Ryan had it right., my only reason for staying is Finacially,, but I know there is someone out there for me just like there is for the caller I hope he takes the advise and run with it., as for the kids that’s why there is courts., May 1, 2009, 10:11 PM

When my parents got married, it was a matter of convenience. All their friends were doing it. So it seemed it was just the next step for them. When they got married, and for most of years they were married, divorce was not something taken lightly, and most were ashamed to even consider it, let alone actually go through with it. I believe that for the first few years, they were happy. But as time went on and three children joined the family (the third was unplanned and arrived 11 years after the second), things fell apart. I could write a book about all of the verbal and emotional abuse that went on in our home. Suffice to say, it was bad enough that I prayed almost every night that I would not wake up the next morning. When it came time to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, my Dad said, “No. No party. There was nothing to celebrate.” They had been married 52 years when he passed away. I’m a child of parents who stayed together, and probably shouldn’t have, and definitely would not have in today’s ideology. I have emotional scars that I will live with for the rest of my life. I often wonder what it would have been like if they had divorced. But you know, as bad as it got, I’m glad they never did. The experience of growing up in a house filled with fear, anger, and hurt made me who I am. Would I live through it again, no way. But that experience made me a more passionate, and compassionate person. And the cycle of abuse will stop with me. I have an amazing husband, and two wonderful daughters that will never know first hand what it is like to live in that kind of home. Are there people who should get divorced, probably. But I think people use it way too freely these days. They get out of the relationship because it isn’t doing anything for them, they aren’t happy. We forget sometimes that marriage is a promise. To love and care for no matter what. Nowhere does it say, I’ll stay until I’m unhappy. We need to start asking our spouse, what can I do to bless and honor you? Not, what are you going to do for me today.

B.G.Sanford May 2, 2009, 5:13 PM

Excellent article. sometimes divorce seems like the only answer, but as long as both parties are still talking, there’s a chance problems can be worked out. My new book touches on that subject matter lightly. Let me tell you a little some about my new book, “Beth:Love Along The Way…by B.G.Sanford, and just released by Eloquent Books. It’s the story of one woman who overcoms all the odds that life has thrown at her to find real Love…..Along The Way. It’s both an amazing and entertaining story, that you’re sure to enjoy. And if you’re so inclined, it can be ordered off the internet or have your local bookstore get it for you.
Good reading friends,

KS May 3, 2009, 11:53 AM

I believe the author of this article was simply saying that if you have problems in your marriage, and prior to throwing in the towel…seek professional help. But you have to be willing to work for it. She, by all means, was not advocating to stay in an abusive marriage! We all should take this advice of Dr. Golland and the “4 horsemen”…and perhaps look in a mirror sometime.

b May 4, 2009, 1:43 PM

I have to agree with KS. Divorce is not always the answer, but it seems to be the easiest answer. It’s the “c” on the multiple choice test where you don’t know the answer. It’s just the default. It is possible to respect, honor and revere the institution of marriage without having the ideal marriage or partner. When we throw in the towel and don’t even try to fight for the institution, we send a message to our children that marriage is cheap, meaningless, dispensable and destined to fail. However, when we, despite the behavior of our spouse, seek help, do everything we can in our power to preserve the union for the sake of the union (not for the sake of the children, the church, the in-laws or anyone one else) because we respect and revere marriage as a holy institution we teach our children that we are in control of our own happiness. We show them that even if later on we do get divorced, that we were willing to fight to the end to preserve something that was and could have been good. We teach them that everyone is free to choose how they act, but that we do not need to react. And mostly, we teach them that they, despite having divorced parents, can still have a happy marriage—that marriage doesn’t fail people, people fail people. Marriage is, by nature, meant to be a source of happiness and joy. There are certainly situations where the best and safest thing to do is to walk away, but many times it is possbile to wage a war to preserve the marriage before throwing up the white flag.

Susanne Eduardo December 21, 2010, 12:27 PM

for sharing! your special perspective on this.

Randell Haake February 18, 2011, 11:00 AM

I just want to let you know that I’m just reading through the entire article. I’ll be back with some constructive helpful comments.

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