The phenomenon of divorce regret

By Hilary Stichbury

Separating may seem the right thing to do in the heat of the moment but, writes Hilary Stichbury, it’s not always the solution.
Upwards of 33 per cent of those who divorce will regret their decision within five years. Photo / Getty Images
Upwards of 33 per cent of those who divorce will regret their decision within five years. Photo / Getty Images

There is a tiny chapel perched in the meadow above Judge's Bay, in Parnell. White and wooden, it's the perfect setting for a romantic summer wedding.

A 10-minute drive from there, crouching low over the wind-tunnel of Albert St, is the Auckland District Court. Above the entrance, a large patch of mould is creeping down the facade to meet the New Zealand Coat of Arms.

Of the 10,000 or so couples who marry in New Zealand yearly, roughly a third will eventually end up filing the papers here, on level 6, to dissolve their marriage.

Divorce has never been easier and, for marriages where abuse or genuine incompatibility is at play, shooting the horse can be the best option. But for others it's not so straightforward: according to several British studies, upwards of 33 per cent of those who divorce will regret their decision within five years.

Google "divorce regret" and you will find the internet is littered with those regretting their decision to end it.

Whisper, the app where people anonymously share secrets, logs confessions from people wishing to turn back the clock, side by side with those happy to be moving on.

William Michael, a Wellington man now in his 50s, is in the former category. He and his wife divorced nine years ago, after seven years of marriage and two children.

He found that the intimacy of marriage unearthed flaws in him that hadn't been triggered by the less intense bonds of friendship and work relationships.

"I tend to withdraw when I'm facing difficult issues," he says. "It's hard to deal with that behaviour because it's largely unconscious."

He worked hard to change his flaws but found it challenging. "At a certain level we don't want to learn to change them," he says. "They're part of our sense of who we are."

Immediately after they split, he felt happy - the break-up had relieved the pressure. But later the truth seeped in. "There was a reason we were together, there was a way we complemented each other. There was something I should have done, which I didn't do."

He urges people in a similar position to learn from his experience. "In one lifetime you just don't have that many deep relationships," he says. "And to lose one ... so if you think there's something fundamentally right, do all you can to look at your own processes, who you are, the way you do things."

Clinical psychologist Trish Purnell-Webb, founder of the Relationship Institute Australasia, says most of her divorced clients have to resolve their regret. Mostly regrets take the form of "Why didn't I make more of an effort?" and "Why couldn't I see how great they were?"

She estimates 90 per cent of the couples she sees could happily go on to have a successful relationship, providing they up-skill to overcome their individual and joint weaknesses. The other 10 per cent have genuinely made a mistake in their choice of partner.

But even in marriages that are fundamentally sound, when things get tough, as they inevitably do, a proportion of people choose the quick death and perceived fresh start of divorce, rather than hanging in there for the hard slog of overcoming difficulties.

The human brain is hard-wired to identify and focus on the negatives in the surrounding environment. It's a survival strategy: being aware of threats helps us avoid hurt and injury. It can, however, lead us to seriously underestimate the positives until it's too late.

"It's easy to focus on the dirty socks in the middle of the lounge floor, rather than appreciate the bunch of flowers on the dining room table," Purnell-Webb says. "It's once those flowers are removed that we begin to miss them."

Regret can be very hard to let go of, and it delivers the double blow of shackling a person to the past, while diminishing their appreciation of the present. Left unresolved, it can lead to depression and anxiety.

So what helps? Research shows starting a new relationship is the leading factor in moving on from the regret associated with divorce. Being a woman helps too: statistically women tend to fare better because they are more likely to have better support networks, whereas men tend to pin their emotional and psychological resources on their partner.

The New Zealand "just get on with it" ethos also plays its part in isolating people dealing with uncomfortable emotions like regret. Rather than sucking it up and boxing on, it's more helpful to focus on developing the thinking skills and mental toughness to let go of the fantasised "other life".

For those who have genuinely made a mistake and for whom divorce is the best option, there is almost invariably still regret, but it takes a different form.

Simone Ellen, a brand strategist who split from her ex-husband five years ago, is sure she made the right decision. But looking back, she wishes that during their 11-year marriage she had ditched her flaw of being a people-pleaser, and fought harder to be herself. Instead she spent much of it conforming to rules she didn't believe in - making a thousand small concessions she lost herself in.

She also regrets not being kinder to herself in the first year after the split. "I just did bravado instead of recognising how much I hurt."

For her there was a silver lining in the trauma of the divorce: it forced her to take a long look at how she operates in relationships. "We're savvy at blame," she says, "to keep our pride intact. Courage is the game changer - it takes courage to take responsibility."

Dr Nickola Overall, associate professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, agrees regret can motivate self-examination. "Why do we have to figure out who we are if everything's fine?" she says.

We've never expected more from marriage. It's an institution that started life as a strategic alliance between families, and has morphed into - ideally - a legally binding love relationship between equals. The job of the modern spouse includes being emotionally available, loyal and supportive, as well as helping the other's dreams come true, and encouraging them to become all they can be.

These high expectations coincide with the point, historically, when we are the most time poor we've ever been. The demands of children, work, and modern life lower the chances of converting these expectations into reality. Overall says it's a cocktail for disaster that can spell the end, even for sound marriages.

One Hamilton woman, now in her 50s, says this was the case in her former marriage. They allowed, she says, the chaos of having a young family to swamp, and eventually capsize, their marriage. "That joy you have on seeing your partner come home is lost to desperately needing them to be home so they can share the load," she says. "While there's great happiness in having a family, it's a lot of pressure on a relationship."

Their marriage drifted, and in the end her husband made a stupid mistake - seeing another woman. It would be easy to blame him for their eventual divorce, but she is adamant that's not the case. "Blame is completely out of line because you're just as responsible," she says. "You both got to that point. If you honestly look back at the previous time, you can see cracks."

They tried marriage guidance, but she had already checked out, even before his adultery. "You leave it until everything's about to break."

Divorced more than a decade, she says, "I regret not hanging in. I have lain awake, years after, in the middle of the night, woken up thinking, 'Oh my God.'"

Sir Paul Coleridge, a retired family law judge in London, has seen exactly this scenario play out many times. He spent 42 years in the family law system, 30 as a barrister and the remaining 12 as a judge, divorcing couples. He was so frustrated by witnessing what he felt were many unnecessary divorces, that he founded a think-tank, the Marriage Foundation, in 2012. While the family court provides a remedy for the problem, the foundation is his attempt to address its cause.

Most divorce is concentrated in the first 10 years of marriage, when the stress of young families, hectic lives and money pressures can be overwhelming. He says more than half of the divorce cases he heard were salvageable, despite reaching litigation. They hadn't hit the point of no return, things had just got much tougher than they would like.

If the marriage is sound, the way through, he says, is for spouses to confront the aspects of themselves and their marriage that they would rather ignore, and address those difficulties head-on.

Overall agrees that spending time on your marriage, making it strong and stable, insulates it against the inevitable down times.

She says one block to facing and resolving difficulties is the phenomenon of "destiny beliefs", where a person believes their relationship was "meant to be". Romantic, yes, but it can destabilise a marriage because, hand in hand with the belief that the relationship is destined, goes the belief that it should be easy and conflict-free.

Overall says people with these beliefs respond more negatively to conflict. Rather than working to resolve it, the presence of the conflict prompts them to question the "rightness" of the relationship. They're more likely to break up marriages, says Overall, and are more likely to find themselves in a state of regret afterwards.

The key is understanding that conflict is a normal part of marriage. "Even anger and hostility can have a positive effect," she says, "because if traversed well, conflict can be a catalyst for improvement, and both personal and relationship satisfaction."

HOW TO AVOID DIVORCE

Dr John Gottman of the Gottman Institute in the United States, says that more than any other relationship factor, divorce can be predicted by the presence of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse": criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (withdrawal). The answer, he says, is to replace them with better skills. So what does that look like? His 40 years of research have identified nine skills that will lead those horses back to the stables for good:

1. Know your partner's world. Understand your partner's psychological world, history, worries, stresses, joys and hopes.

2. Give out love and admiration.
Practise showing your partner appreciation and respect.

3. Respond openly to your partner. Reward your partner's attempts to connect with you, however flawed, with listening and encouragement. Reciprocate by voicing your own needs.

4. Positive perspective. Have a positive, can-do approach to problem-solving.

5. Manage conflict. Conflict is natural, and can be functional and positive. Learn the difference between solvable and perpetual problems, which need to be handled differently, and use the right tool for the job.

6. Help make life dreams happen. Encourage each person to talk honestly about their hopes, values, convictions and aspirations.

7. Create shared meaning. Find a common purpose by finding shared values, goals, life philosophies and ways of connecting.

8. Trust. Treat your partner like they have your back.

9. Commitment. Believe, and act on the belief, that this is your lifelong partner. Compare your partner favourably with others.
Reproduced with permission of The Gottman Institute

- Canvas

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