As a marriage therapist who primarily works with couples on the brink of divorce and as a researcher interested in the divorce decision-making process, I am often amazed at the things that people consider when they are thinking about leaving a marriage. When people begin to contemplate exiting a marriage, it is not uncommon for them to reflect on how the decision to divorce or to stay married might impact their identity. Just like agreeing to marry or deciding to propose marriage to someone says something about who you are (“I’m the marrying type” or “I’m looking to settle down”), deciding to divorce probably says something about you, too.
As part of a larger study, we interviewed 30 married people who were in the middle of deciding whether or not to divorce. Among other things, we specifically asked them if the decision to divorce or to stay married said anything about them personally or if they thought it might say something about them in someone else’s mind. Here’s some of what they said.*
In most marriage ceremonies, the officiator declares that the union will last until the death of one of the partners. Perhaps because of this, a majority of the participants reported feeling like they would consider themselves a failure if their marriage ended in divorce. Some reported believing that others might think of them as failures if they were to get divorced. This was especially the case where there was no significant history of divorce in the participant’s family or there was a strong religious ethic against divorce. This was a strong theme throughout the interviews; the idea that divorce was not the intended outcome for people who chose to marry would have a bearing on how the participants saw and thought of themselves.
What Others Think
An immediate answer for many was that they did not really care what others thought about their decision to divorce and that they wouldn’t let others’ opinions about them make the decision for them. However, many of the same people went on to express an understanding that in pursuing a divorce, they would be judged negatively by others and that they were aware of that fact.
Marriage Changed Me
Most of the folks we interviewed talked about how their marriage had changed them over the years. Most of the comments that gave momentum toward a divorce path hinged on the idea that their pre-married self was a much more upbeat and happy person than now: “I used to be more spontaneous, I used to dance…that doesn’t happen anymore.” Or a more general statement such as, “I’ve lost who I am,” reflected sadness that the marriage had taken a toll on their identity, or that living with their partner had dramatically changed who they were—and not for the better. Many commented that marriage, and the business of having and raising children, had changed them and that they were just no longer themselves.
As one participant told us, “I’m Jeremy’s father now, I’m no longer just ‘Mike.’” Mike (name changed) realized that in marriage and in fatherhood his identity was something much more multifaceted than it was when he first married. His decision to end a marriage would include understanding the impact divorce might have on his identity as a father. Others commented on the fact that they had been married for so long, they just couldn’t see themselves or their life outside the context of the marriage. “We have a life together, friends together, we raised our kids together, I can’t imagine what I would be like outside of that,” one person said. Even those who were unhappy in the marriage understood that their identity was going to be affected by the decision to divorce. “Who would I be if I wasn’t in this marriage?” another asked.
In an individually-oriented culture where personal happiness is the prevailing standard by which life decisions are judged and made, the marriage—and all that goes with it—often takes the hit.
How Marriage Changes Us and How We Perceive that Change Matters
One important takeaway from our findings is that how we see ourselves and how we think others see us play a part in how we approach the decision to divorce, especially our perception of change. Marriage plus time changes a person. Of course, we are no longer the spontaneous person we used to be! That person (mostly) only lived for him or herself. In many cases, that person’s brain was still developing and the choices that person made were often self-interested and motivated. Some of that spontaneity or carefree nature had to be sacrificed so that individual could be about the business of raising kids, earning a living, or finding out what it is he or she wanted to do with the rest of his or her life.
But those stories can get pushed to the margins when considering divorce. What tends to happen is a comparison of my pre-married life (carefree and exciting) to my current state of unhappiness where I have to be in a constant state of balancing my needs and desires against a host of needs and desires from those outside of me (spouse, work, kids, etc.). And in an individually-oriented culture where personal happiness is the prevailing standard by which life decisions are judged and made, the marriage, and all that goes with it, often takes the hit.
Yes, marriage over time does change a person, but none of the personal growth and development that comes with marriage and parenting were reflected in the stories of those we interviewed. Despite the fact that someone feels they’ve “lost” who they were, that is only part of the story. The reality is that most people who marry and stay married for a while, grow and develop in a variety of ways, and they pick up new parts of themselves that would not have been possible outside of marriage or parenthood. Keeping a child alive and physically and emotionally caring for another human being in an intimate way, and knowing another human being’s deepest thoughts, fears, and aspirations (either for one’s children or their spouse) are all new “parts” of that same person. You may not be the dancer you once were, but it is possible that you have become so much more. The fact that you don’t dance anymore may not be because you’re not that dancer anymore, it may be that you took on other roles and responsibilities, and you let dancing fade.
Unfortunately, this part of personal identity and the total picture of how marriage and parenthood changes a person did not seem to come out in our interviews. Most of the participants viewed the changes in themselves that were brought about by marriage as negative: “I’ve lost myself, I don’t know who I am anymore.” And they seemed quick to blame the institution of marriage or their spouse for this loss. No one seemed to look at married life as a time when they took on additional roles or garnered new skills and capabilities that were previously underdeveloped. And no one seemed to be aware of the role they played in neglecting to maintain previously developed skills and attributes (dancing, spontaneity) while nurturing a new set of skills that took into account the desire to have meaningful intimate relationships in their life.
Steven M. Harris, Ph.D. LMFT, is Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota. He is also the Associate Director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project and a member of the National Divorce Decision-Making Study research team.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.
*All text within quotes are paraphrased examples of how the respondents answered the interview questions. The results of this research are currently being prepared for publication in a peer-reviewed outlet where actual transcripts of direct quotes will be used.