Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

16 Alternatives

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/mates/options.htm

Updated  12-15-2014

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      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. This subseries focuses on primary relationships.

      This summarizes alternatives for people who are considering legal divorce, or are already divorcing. The goal here is to consider every option available before committing. The article also illustrates what your kids and parents will probably need if you choose to divorce,

      This article assumes your familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4  (Parts 1 and 2)

  • this perspective on primary relationships, and...

  • these Q&A items about divorce and divorce recovery


      This brief YouTube video previews what you're about to read:

      Divorce starts in courtship, when psychologically-wounded, unaware, needy partners commit to the wrong person, for the wrong reason, at the wrong time. This cannot be reversed. Mates who make three right choices CAN learn to improve their relationship if it becomes troubled.

      The primary causes of divorce are:

  • one or both mates are wounded survivors of early-childhood neglect, abandonment, and abuse (trauma); and they don't know that or what to do about it; and...

  • both mates are unaware of some or all of these vital topics. They don't know what they need to know to resolve these basic problems; and...

  • either or both partners may carry incomplete grief, and not know that or how to finish it.

  • these three core problems are amplified in typical stepfamily unions by a mix of major stressors. 

All common surface reasons for divorce are based on these three or four factors

Implication - if you and/or your mate (a) each made three wise courtship choices and (b) are considering divorce, your reasons for doing so are probably not your real problems! Popular superficial reasons are:







"no time"


intimacy / sex

lying / distrust

values conflicts

personal habits

If you two are conflicted over one or more of these and you haven't explored the three primary causes above, you may be able to avoid divorce trauma for you and any dependents. 

  Alternatives to Legal Divorce

      What follows assumes you (a) still care about your mate, and (b) feel ambivalent about whether to divorce or not. If you don't, these options may be of no value other than helping you understand why your relationship is ending. This awareness is essential for grieving divorce-related losses.

      Choose an undistracted place and time, and check to see if your true Self is guiding your other subselves. If not, you may have a distorted reaction to these divorce options. If your true Self is not guiding you, make empowering it your top priority.

Alternatives for All Couples

      Following these options will help you defuse the first three primary causes of divorce above.

      1)  Adopt a long-range point of view. Some research studies suggest that it can take ten or more years to fully adjust to divorce trauma. For your and any kids' sakes, take your time working at these alternatives!

      2)  KEY - Invest several weeks in doing Lesson 1 in this site - assess yourself and your mate honestly for significant psychological wounds. Then ask (vs. demand) that your mate to do the same, and discuss your results as teammates. If s/he's not willing, consider these options. This assessment is the most impactful thing you two can do to make a wise choice about your health, your primary relationship, and any dependent kids.

      If you decide that either or both of you is a Grown Wounded Child  (GWC), then (a) decide if you're motivated to...

  • manage any addictions you may have, and then...

  • recover - i.e. work to free your true Self to guide you,  and reduce your wounds.

  • Assess your current priorities honestly. If anything other than your personal wholistic health and integrity often ranks higher than your primary relationship, that usually suggests a false self rules one or both of you, and/or one or both of you made unwise commitment decisions.

Doing these usually requires hitting true (vs. pseudo) bottom and breaking protective false-self denials. If you aren't ready to do that, the rest of these divorce alternatives may be of little use for now.

      Option -.use these worksheets to see if you think one or both of you chose the wrong person to commit to, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. If so, you can't undo that. These alternatives can still benefit you and your family.

.      3)  Read this and this together after you finish here, and then commit to learning communication basics and skills (Lesson 2) - ideally as a couple. This will empower you to solve your conflicts, rather than argue, fight, avoid, criticize, debate, explain, justify, collapse, give in, stonewall, guilt trip, manipulate, an/or give up, Lesson 2 will  only work for you and your family IF your true Selves are guiding your personalities.

      4)  Do Lesson 3 together, and assess whether incomplete grief. is promoting your relationship stress. Three decades of clinical work with over 1,000 typical marital partners since 1981 suggests to me that incomplete grief a major cause of personal, marital, and parental stress. Psychological wounds + unawareness of healthy grief concepts impair the natural three-level mourning process. This inhibits forming healthy new pair-bonds.

      Write down specifically what you and each dependent child will probably lose if you decide to divorce. Then assess what, specifically, each of you are likely to gain. Then try to evaluate these against your long-term personal and parental goals for your old age. If you don’t have any specific goals yet, in-vest time in visioning them now. Authorize yourself to be Self-ish without guilt: you are responsible for designing your old-age circumstances!

      5)  Visit https://www.smartmarriages.com, and browse for relevant marriage-support programs near you. I recommend "PAIRS" as having a good track record for marriage strengthening. Also consider "Imago" programs for couples, based on the useful ideas of Dr. Harville Hendrix. If one or both of you aren't motivated to do this, what does that mean about your priorities and who's setting them?

      Recall - we're reviewing primary alternatives to divorce...

      Option 6)  Try marital counseling. Most state-funded mental-health agencies offer qualified individual and couples  therapy on a subsidized "sliding scale" rate, depending on your income. If you've never tried therapy or have had poor results from it, read this. If either of you are taking medication for psychological or sleep problems, read this interesting research summary

      If either of you balk at this, try using your “dig down” skill to unearth what’s really in the way. Reality: therapy does little lasting good unless you each are willing to (a) learn new information, and (b) risk changing some core values and/or priorities to get something you need. If you don't give therapy a good try, you risk wondering "What if we had..." when you're older.

      7)  Identify the people in your life who have the most influence on your decision to divorce or not. To minimize reality distortions, (a) ensure your Self (capital "S") is guiding you, and consider using an objective counselor's help. Be alert for well-meaning supporters offering you advice that...

  • isn't founded on healthy primary-relationship basics (Lesson 4),

  • is unaware of (a) your primary relationship needs and (b) whether they're well-filled or not,

  • is really about the advisor's own needs, values, and agenda, and...

  • that may come from a narrow-visioned, biased, well-intentioned false self.

      Option 8)  Avoid comparing yourselves to other couples - specially your grandparents, parents, siblings, and/or real or fictional hero/ines. Doing so risks increasing your guilt, anxiety, confusion, and shame. You and your mate and family are unique in the universe. Yes, you surely have things in common with other spouses - and none of them have the unique mix of needs, opinions, values, personalities, perceptions, histories, wounds, and circumstances that you two do.

      If your ruling subselves insist on comparing, at least rate yourself against couples similar to you in ages, education, ethnicity, spirituality, income, and probable woundedness. 

      9)  If either of you feels that abuse is a reason to divorce, make sure you understand the three requisites for that provocative word…

  • one person has significant power over another – i.e. s/he fills some primal needs of the other, like a parent does for a dependent child or elder; and…

  • the “power” person fills their own needs in a way that significantly injures the dependent person psychologically, physically, and/or spiritually; and…

  • the dependent person can’t (vs. won’t) defend themselves or withdraw.

      Many unaware people say "You're abusive," when they really mean "You're aggressive with me." This distinction is important in relationship problem-solving, because of the high E(motion)-levels that an accusation of abuse can trigger.

      Would you rather be publicly called an aggressive person or an abuser (or neither)? True abuse is always a symptom of major false-self wounds + ignorance of effective-communication basics and skills. Once admitted, both can be greatly reduced, with patient effort.

      10)  Affairs. If a reasons you're considering divorce is because either of you has had one or more sexual or romantic affairs, read and discuss this article, and/or watch this brief YouTube video. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site - I've reduced that to seven.:

      Typical affairs mean several things:

  • some or all people involved are significantly wounded, and...

  • they have important needs that aren't being met in their current circumstances, and...

  • they aren't able to problem-solve effectively often enough; and...

  • one or both mates may have made up to three unwise commitment choices.

Option  11)  Do a "guilt check." One or both of you may be carrying excessive or unwarranted guilt about your feelings, attitudes, or behaviors toward your partner. If so, that can skew or complicate your decision-making process.

      With your Self guiding you, meditate and honestly list any significant guilts you're feeling now - including any that stem from your childhood and/or religious faith. "Significant" is a judgment call. Then apply these ideas to each guilt you feel is "significant" to validate it, update it, or let it go. Then see if forgiving yourself or someone else (like your partner) would release your guilt.

      12) Try physical separation. Instead of imagining living apart, you can learn valuable realities by experiencing it without committing to an expensive, grueling legal divorce. A family-law attorney can advise you about legal separation options. You can...:

  • View marital separation as an investment vs. a punishment (manipulation) or an escape.

  • Separate for five days  /  two weeks  /  some months...

  • Journal about your experience, and learn from the process...

  • Go to a retreat location to minimize distractions and optimize meditations and clear awareness.

  • Before or during separation, form some clear goals - e.g. like learning...

"How does living apart actually feel, vs. what I thought it would be like?"

"What specific reliefs do I experience? What new anxieties, guilts, and hurts?"

"How, specifically, does this exploratory lifestyle seem to affect each of our resident and visiting kids? (e.g. less tension, different, or more?)"

"How does this experience affect my attitude and motivation about legal divorce?"

“What am I learning about my real values, needs, and priorities?“

"Am I letting some other peoples' needs and values shape my decisions?"

"Who's answering these questions - my true Self or ''someone else''?

      Option 13) If you're parents, mediate on What marital options are best in the long term for our kids and any grandkids?” To help answer that wisely, reflect on and discuss these...

  • kids' normal developmental needs, and...

  • up to four sets of concurrent family-adjustment needs that typical kids of divorce and parental re/marriage must fill - often without informed adult help. Then...

  • assess each of your kids’ status with each relevant need,

  • try to imagine how each of your main marriage options (stay together, separate, divorce) would most help each child fill their mix of needs until they live on their own, and...

  • what are your current primary needs, and how do you rank them compared to your kids' needs?

      Premise - "staying together for the kids' sakes" is usually harmful long term. It prolongs a low-nurturance environment, which inexorably promotes psychological wounds, blocked grief, ineffective communication skills, and many secondary problems. There are exceptions.

       For more perspective, read “How it Feels When Parents Divorce” by Jill Krementz, and “Second Chances,” by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee. Note that their books are about first (biofamily) divorce, not re/divorce.

      14)  Read this perspective on using lawyers and the courts to resolve marital and divorce conflicts. Doing this always means one or both mates inherited psychological wounds and don't know how to problem-solve (#1 and #2 above)

      Option 15)  Exercise: Take undistracted time now to imagine your elderly self a week before your death. Get physically comfortable, put other thoughts aside, and breathe peacefully from your belly.

      Close your eyes, and imagine your present self sitting by your older self's bedside. What would you say to each other? Ask each other? How would you each feel about this marriage, and how you decided to manage it, across time?

      Now imagine each of your present kids joining you as adults. Imagine them circling your present and elderly selves. Let your present Self look into each person's eyes, and ask that man or woman what they experienced while you were married.

      Ask each adult child "How have you felt about the decisions we parents made about healing or ending our relationship back then (i.e. right now)? How have our decisions affected you and your kids? What do you want me to know now?"

      If you wish, thank your grown kids, and now ask your living or dead parents to join you all. Let them be any age you wish, or several ages. What would you want to say to them about your life? About your marital decisions? What would you want to know? Would their grandchildren want to speak to them?

      Take your time with this exercise. Repeat it as often as it's useful - perhaps over several weeks or months. Consider tape recording or journaling about your experience, including the inner dialogs that you "hear." Alternatively, journal about why you choose not to do this exercise. What are your subselves saying - specially the quiet ones? Slow down and listen....

      Option: suggest (vs. demand) that your mate do this exercise, and see what happens. Share it with others you feel it would benefit you and/or them. 

  Divorce Alternative for Stepfamily Couples

      16)  If you're a stepparent and/or a re/married bioparent, the 15 divorce alternatives above all apply to you. Because typical multi-home stepfamilies have many more concurrent stressors than average biofamilies, before deciding to split up...

  • read this article and this example, and then...

  • invest some weeks in studying and discussing Lessons 5 thru 7 here.

Reluctance to do this usually indicates a false-self controls your life. (See #1 above)

+ + +

      If you don't have children, skip to here. If you are parents, an important factor in deciding whether to divorce or not is recognizing...

What Your Kids Will Need

      This YouTube video previews what you're about to read:

      Eliminate any distractions now, and see if your Self is guiding your personality. If so, authorize yourself to take all the time you need to experience this: Imagine each of your kids looking you in the eye, and saying things like...

      1) "I need you to be real and honest with me. Please don't pretend things are fine, or get all mental or preachy or pooh-pooh the problems in our house. I know things are not fine. It confuses and scares me if I feel like you're not telling me truthfully what's happening now, and why, and what may happen to me and us in the future. I have a right to know, because it's my life too!"

      2) “If you felt too bad too often as a kid, I really need you to (a) learn if you have (significant inner wounds and to (b) protect me from developing similar wounds. I won’t know enough to ask you this until we’re both much older.

      3) "I need to know if you’re going to divorce (again)? If you are or you may...

  • Where will we ( I ) live?

  • Where will I go to school? 

  • Will you be OK?

  • Will we all have enough money?

  • Will you or I or (someone) go to hell? To jail?

  • What will I lose? Gain?

  • Who will I live with?

  • Will I lose my friends?

  • Will my other parent and siblings be OK?

  • Will you be there for me when I need you?

  • What will my grandparents think?

  • Did I do something wrong?

      4) "I need to know if I'm doing something that's causing you and my other parent/s to be angry or cold or sad or mad or gone so much. Is the tension I feel at home my fault? Not knowing is worse than hearing I'm doing something wrong."

      And imagine each of your kids asking or saying…

      5) "I need each of you adults to (a) listen to me, and to (b) make it safe for me to ask questions, express my feelings and needs, and tell you my thoughts. I feel safer when you adults look at my eyes, and we can talk without phones, TV, chores, or other people butting in."

      6) "I need you to remember that I'm a child, not a pal or a pretend mate. I feel really weird, and sometimes I feel too responsible for you, if you treat me like either of those Please be a parent for me, and show me respectfully how to understand and do all the confusing tasks I have."

      7) "I need to trust that you're all right, and that you're taking good care of yourself, as well as me. If something bad happens to you, I don't know what would happen to me! I can't make it without you, you know..."

      8) "I need you and my other adults to find a way to stop fighting and being mad or sad or tired or gone all the time. I start to want to be in my room or away from our house more when you keep doing those, specially if you won't tell me what's happening. If you complain or blame me for going away, I feel hurt, misunderstood, guilty, ashamed, anxious, and angry at you." And...

      9) "I need you to not call my other parent/s or yourself bad things, or whine or complain all the time about how bad you or they are. I lose respect for all of you adults when any of you do that, and I really need to respect you!" And…

      10) “I need you to show and tell me how to name, understand, and grieve my losses well. I need you to accept that I’ll grow my own way of mourning, and that’s OK – even if it’s different than your way. Please help me feel safe to mourn.

      11) "I need to trust that you adults are in charge of our homes. When you give me or any other kids too much freedom or power, and if you don't see that my "disobeying" is really testing for safety or calling for help, I get real scared. I need to feel safe enough!"

      And imagine each resident or visiting child saying clearly to you…

      12) "I need you to not blame me for your adult problems or expect me to fix them. Also, please don't blame me for testing over and over, to see if I'm really safe in my home/s and who’s in charge. I start to believe I'm bad when any of you grownups blame me, and I have enough to feel bad about already! Please help me see and believe in the good in me, while you set and enforce limits, and work out your problems to keep us all safe." And…

What Your Kids Will Need, continued

      13)  "I really need you adults to learn how to

  • identify and assert your primary needs,

  • listen empathically to each other and me,

  • respect each other as equal family partners despite your disagreements, and

  • fix your and our problems!

When you fight and yell, or go quiet or run away instead of team up to separate the problems and fix them together, I get real scared and hopeless. I get angry too, because you're not doing your jobs! Then I feel guilty and ashamed, and I want to scream or cry or hide or run away."

      14)  "Speaking of that, I need each of you adults to know (a) what you want our family to grow into, (b) what your parenting job is, and I (c) need you to want to learn how to do your job well for both our sakes."

      15)  "I need to trust that (a) you feel hopeful about a good-enough future for all of us, and that (b) I'll be OK enough as an adult. When you sound or look sad or depressed too often, I lose hope and get scared. I also get worried and confused when you deny what I see and hear, or you tell me that I'm wrong."

     16) "I need to trust that you really care about these and my other needs, day by day. I need to feel that I really matter to you! Your words are far less important to me than what I see you doing or not doing.

      17) If I'm not used to naming my feelings and needs, show me what an adult sounds like naming theirs, and ask me about mine from time to time. Then  please listen to me! Help me accept that all people have needs, that being 'needy' is not being weak, and that it's good to try and fill our own needs, as long as we don't put them above other people's needs."

      18) "I need you adults to find help fast, if you can't fix our big family problems by yourselves. When I see you doing that, I feel more like asking for help when I need it, without feeling like a wimp." And…

      19) "I need you adults to show me what being genuinely loved looks like, feels like, and sounds like. I also need to see what it looks, sounds, and feels like when two grownups really love each other, specially when they're angry, confused, or scared." And also...

      20) "I need you parents to respect my boundaries, my dignity, my integrity, and my rights as a person. Please do that because you want to, not because you have to. Just because I'm smaller and younger and know less than you, I’m still as much of a person as you are. I need the same things that you grownups need, every day." And...

      21) "I need you to read this memo from me and these wise guidelines. Show these to my other adults, and talk together about them. I need all of you to keep those ideas in mind as you lead our family. They say really important things that I can't say myself."

      22) "I also need you to stay aware that even if we're not talking together, we're communicating (decoding messages and meanings) all the time. Most of the messages we decode from each other come through our eyes! Do you know what your actions have meant to me recently?"

      Add your own need-statements from your child/ren...

+ + +

      Sit quietly now. Breathe well, and experience the flow of your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Consider journaling about them, as an explorer.

      When your Spirit is troubled, your personality subselves are disorganized, and you're not getting your primary needs met well enough, it's tough to keep these many concurrent child-needs in mind and fill them the way you want to. Affirm without guilt or anxiety that you have real limits, and that all you can do at any time is your local best.

      Talk back to your Inner Critic and Perfectionist subselves if they rant too much! Letting these myopic, well-meaning subselves insist that you should do better than your best is self abuse. It signals that you're ruled (locally) by a false self. It increases the burdens of the inner children who carry your old guilts and undeserved shame, and hinders you from providing the refuge you all need.

      If you're skeptical about some of these typical children's needs, reality-check them with other veteran parents, clinicians, and the real experts: each of your kids. If your kids are grown, review the needs above and see if you think they've "outgrown" any of them...

+ + +

      Unless you’re emotionally enmeshed (boundary-less) or codependent with your parents, it’s easy to be unaware of their needs and feelings as you re/divorce. You are not responsible for filling their needs, and it can help you all to talk honestly and clearly together if you empathize with them. Have you ever paused to imagine…

colorbutton.gif What Do Your Parents Need?

      Seniors have universal and personally-unique needs. Your parents' universal needs probably include…

regularly knowing (a) how you’re feeling, and (b) how they can best help you and any grandkids as your marital decisions unfold;

knowing if and why you’re deciding to divorce, and (b) whether you’ve exhausted all other options;

venting their feelings, needs, and opinions, and being respectfully heard, if not agreed with; and your parents probably need to...

stay clear on their boundaries with you and your kids, and to not take on your problems or give you theirs; and to...

grieve their own set of losses (i.e. to feel and express confusion, anger, and sadness), and to support you and their grandkids as you grieve yours;

      And your parents and in-laws probably need to…

face and heal any shame and guilt that they “failed” you and their grandkids as caregivers – specially if this is your second or third divorce, and/or they divorced when you were a child;

make thoughtful decisions together on if and how to continue relations with your partner and your in-laws – specially if you mates have a child; and they need to…

settle any religious or spiritual confusions, anxieties, and judgments they each may have about your divorce; and to…

decide how and when to talk to their friends about what’s happening to you all;

And your senior adults need to…

seek and accept emotional and spiritual help to keep them clear and resilient through all your family-system's changes; and to…

resolve any confusion or conflicts about what your divorce means to their wills and estate plans; and they need to …

balance the needs of their other kids and grandkids with their own and yours as you all move through your family reorganization together over many months; and also to…

have periods of rest and refreshment from reducing their discomforts; and they probably need to…

decide honestly if they need professional help in filling all these dynamic needs, as they try to balance their daily lives.

      Add any other relevant parental needs that you’re aware of…

      Again, pause, breathe, and notice what you’re thinking and feeling. Would you feel comfortable discussing this needs-inventory with each of your parents and in-laws? Would your mate? Doing so is a chance to build intimacy and empathy among you all, if you can help each other stay centered amidst the welter of emotions that will probably arise…

colorbutton.gif Recap

      This Lesson-4 article proposes that divorce starts in courtship, when wounded, needy, unaware partners commit to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. It then offers three primary reasons for the U.S. divorce epidemic: (psychological wounds + unawareness and ignorance +  incomplete grief), and 16 alternatives to divorce for first-marriage and stepfamily couples. The article ends with a summary of what typical kids and parents need if mates divorce.

      For more perspective, also see...

  • keys to a satisfying primary relationship

  • Q&A about divorce and divorce recovery, and...

  • this divorce-recovery worksheet

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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