Should I get a divorce? 5 questions to ask before you do it

The New York Times has an 11-point list of questions to ask yourself to see if you’ve done everything you can to save your marriage. I coach a lot of people who are thinking about getting a divorce. Almost everyone feels that their spouse is impossible, unresponsive, and/or doesn’t care about the issues at hand.

The biggest problem with divorce is that people who struggle with money divorce the most, but people who don’t struggle with money are the people who have a better life after divorce; and it’s almost always the men in one way or another.

So what’s the best way to know if you’ll benefit from divorce? Think about divorce in terms of what life will be like after the divorce. Because the reasons divorce is a bad idea, besides being terrible for the kids, is that unless you are a high earner, you have little ability to control what happens after divorce.

When you imagine your life after divorce, consider these things:

1. Your standard of living will plummet. The person who earns the money will have to give up half in order to keep both parents at the same income bracket. That is what the courts order. If you are the breadwinner in the marriage, you will be supporting your ex (and their new significant other) in a new house. And if you are the non-breadwinner of the marriage, your income will plummet, and you will probably have to get a job (and trust me, the  jobs you can do while your kids are in school are awful.)

2. You will lose your kids 50% of the time. Just like you shouldn’t bet your money unless you can afford to lose it, you shouldn’t ask for a divorce unless you can handle losing your kids for 50% of the time. Your spouse will likely ask for more and more time with the kids. It may be because of social pressure, or to make your life miserable, or because the spouse really wants the kids, but regardless of motivation, courts generally give 50% time to each parent if they want it. Even after the parent has abused the kids.

3. You will lose your friends. All the friends you have who are couples will fall off the radar. It’s not on purpose. But people like to be friends with people who are like them. And now you have a whole new set of issues to deal with. None of which are trying to make a marriage work. Also, people are friends with people in their income bracket, and after a divorce you end up in a completely new socioeconomic arena. Also, it’s hard to be friends with people who have kids when you are single 50% of the time. And it’s hard to be friends with single people because you have kids.

4. Your spouse will remarry and the new spouse will care for your kids. You might not like how your current spouse takes care of your kids, but at least you have influence. Your spouse can remarry, and give your kids to their new spouse to raise for 50% of the time. There is nothing illegal about that, and your kids will put up with it because kids want to see their parents.

5. Divorce agreements are not enforceable. I mean, they are, but you have to go to court each time. With a lawyer. That costs time and money, and in the meantime, you are in limbo. So only rich people enforce divorce agreements. Other people deal with the fact that their spouse is doing what they want, not what is in the agreement. So instead of assuming you will get court orders for everything, assume you will negotiate with your spouse every week until your kids are out of college.

Exceptionalism may be your biggest problem
I have found that most people considering divorce do a lot of research but they suffer from exceptionalism. They think their partner is more terrible, or more impossible, or more uncaring about the kids than the typical spouse. But it’s statistically unlikely that your spouse is that different from every other spouse, and statistically you likely have confirmation bias.

Unless you want to give up your kids when you give up your marriage, you will always be involved very closely with the other parent of your kids. And you will have less control over that involvement after a divorce.

A better solution than divorce is understanding why you chose to have kids with that person in the first place. The more you understand your own impulses the more you can manage yourself from inside the marriage, and that will make a good deal of difference.

People who have good impulse control do better in life than everyone else. Here’s the research. And divorce is a great example of this. If you stay married you will be better off in the long run.

41 replies
  1. Kieran
    Kieran says:

    Please tell me you don’t think this is true for abusive relationships. Mental illness so commonly spirals after having children, so “remembering why you had children with this person” may be completely irrelevant in the face of newly-triggered mental instability (ie. the relationship wasn’t abusive before children, and is extremely abusive after). Divorce is hard, and all of your reasons why it’s terrible are accurate, but I still think if it’s unsafe for you or your child, physically or emotionally, to stay in the marriage, then all of the difficulty is better than remaining in the marriage.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      There is a wide range of behaviors that fall under the term “abusive relationships”. And in almost all cases, the “abusive” parent will have the right to take care of the children alone, 50% of the time. So ask yourself: if the person is THAT abusive, why are you letting the kids be alone with them 50% of the time? Life is not so binary as abusive/not abusive. Bad parenting is complicated, bad marriages are complicated. Bad bosses are complicated. I don’t know why people think you can change bad to abusive and then it’s binary.


      • Poppy
        Poppy says:

        “I don’t know why people think you can change bad to abusive and then it’s binary.”

        Wow. This sentence made me think so much. I guess “abusive” takes the responsibility off yourself because you become a victim in a dynamic where the other person is, by definition, taking advantage of his/her position (abusing it). It’s such a disempowering word. I had never thought of it in terms of being binary, but I guess it’s a way to see it. I’d love to hear more about this from you, Penelope.

        • Butcherbaby
          Butcherbaby says:

          Poppy, she is wrong. Abuse is not a “bad marriage” it is ABUSE, and the ONLY one at fault or to blame is THE ABUSER. People don’t volunteer to be abused, nor do they cause an abuser to be that way, that’s why we have the binary of abuser & abusee. To imply anything otherwise is blaming the victim for their own abuse, which is absolutely HEINOUS.
          Penelope is (or was, I don’t know if she’s still with the Farmer) in a marriage with a man who has physically abused her, and for whatever reason does not wish to put the blame where it belongs, on the man who CHOSE to abuse her.
          Now she is trying to foist that point of view on other victims of abuse, who already have a hard enough time being believed, or not being told they are complicit in their own abuse. It is an extremely irresponsible and toxic point of view. For more information, please look up Lundy Bancroft’s website, and his book about abusers, Why Does He Do That?

      • Keiran
        Keiran says:

        Thanks Penelope. That logic makes sense, as in my case the abusive partner is NOT allowed 50% access. This changes the list of challenges slightly (I have my child close to 100% of the time and it’s hard to ever get a break), but the result is still overwhelmingly difficult, and feels in no way like a “blank slate”. Your statement about negotiating with the other parent every week for 18yrs is poignant and accurate.

      • Laura
        Laura says:

        I was married to malignant narcissist who emotionally and verbally abused my kids, his kids, his former wife. He was a man who would threaten to kill me if I ever left and I was a nervous wreck, nearly suicidal by the time I grabbed the kids and walked to the nearest shelter (I wasn’t allowed to drive the family car). Five years later, I’m still suffering from the effects of narc abuse and my kids are still in therapy. His kids are now over 18 and cut off all contact with him. He snapped last year and tried to choke his fiancee after finding out she had been applying for a job. (He isolates his wives and stops them from having work, having friends, having contact with family.) He was arrested but let go the next day. He still has a firearm. His fiancee went back to him. I should have divorced him early in the marriage once he showed his true self but don’t tell me I made a mistake in divorcing that monster. You have no idea what you’re talking about, Penelope. An abusive marriage with a malignant narcissist or sociopath will often end in suicide or death or real destruction when he goes on a smear campaign –sending nudes to your new employer, showing up at your door despite restraining orders, posting stuff online that results in your own family questioning your mental health and integrity. There is no healing or living with a man like that. 24/7 walking on eggshells, constant interrogations, gaslighting, no privacy, false accusations, followed by threats of suicide or death should you try to leave or do anything that causes him anxiety. Jesus, I’m so angry that anyone would tell me I should have stayed in that marriage. I left to save myself and my kids from a horrible situation. We’ve had to move twice because of him and we’re moving again, this time across the country, in order to get as far from this devil as possible.

        • Kevin
          Kevin says:

          She’s not saying you should have stayed, she’s giving advice to a group of people using statistics. It sounds like you made the right decision.

        • Deb
          Deb says:

          Laura–My heart goes out to you and your children. You did what you needed to do to be safe and to start healing from a toxic situation. Penelope’s article was not taking into account your kind of situation. Simple checklists (or a list of numbered questions) posted on blogs often don’t address some of the terrifying situations that people live through. I think they are good for attracting website traffic, and they may be useful for those who are in more middle-of-the-road situations but are not imagining their futures post-divorce. People who are facing more normal marriage conflicts do not always think things through and think of divorce as an easy way out. Rarely is any divorce easy for any of the people involved–spouses or children, as those of us who have gone through it know well. May the road rise with you, and may the wind be always at your back.

      • Rachel Shockley
        Rachel Shockley says:

        Penelope, great read. You’ve got a typo near the end I believe: you will always be involved very closely with the child of your kids.

        This article made me think of the divorced dad down the street from us that killed his kid. You may have heard of it when it was national news. Here’s the Dylan Redwine Dr. Phil clip.

        This man was obviously abusive, but that didn’t protect Dylan. I don’t think the mom was wrong for divorcing though. The court was wrong for ordering the visit. I’ve wondered what would have happened if she’d come along for the visit as an escort. Would she have been arrested? Killed too?

        Thanks for talking about this issue. Relationships are hard, and even when divorce is the right answer, it doesn’t solve some of the most important problems.

    • Poppy
      Poppy says:

      I’ve seen too frequently on the Internet how, after someone writes a compelling post with lots of valid points, people go straight to attacking the corner case of the argument.

      I’m a psychologist, and in my experience with couples, most divorces don’t happen because one of the parents is abusive towards the kids or the wife. They happen because of “lack of passion”, “I don’t feel the same”, “there’s got to be more to life”, or a third person. And I agree with Penelope that most people underestimate the consequences of a divorce, maybe falling into the trap of thinking that starting over gives them a clean slate and the opportunity to be “truly happy”, whatever that is.

      My conclusion is that people go straight to the corner cases so they don’t have to a) discuss the more subtle, nuanced points of the actual points the post makes or b) take the advice they’ve been offered, even though there is an extremely high chance that theirs is, in fact, not a corner case.

      • Keiran
        Keiran says:

        Your conclusion conveniently overlooks the very straight forward point that people want to know where their story fits. I asked about the corner case because I am the corner case. I think Penelope’s point on exceptionalism is an interesting one, because this is certainly a territory where everyone feels like they’ve got it worse. Still, it’s pretty dangerous (for you, not P) to completely dismiss the fact that some situations are objectively dangerous. Not common, obviously, but also not irrelevant to the conversation.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Thank you, Rachel. I think the next time I write about divorce I’m going to say in the post that I don’t want people to talk about abuse in the comments. It’s not useful.

        When there is abuse in a marriage it’s often very difficult to leave, and none of these points matter. So obviously this post isn’t for that type of marriage.

        For those of you who are new to this site, I write about abuse a lot, because I’ve lived through it a lot. It’s not like we don’t talk about it here. It’s just that if we talk about it every time we talk about anything then our world gets very small.

        And there are other extreme cases of divorce that aren’t abuse, that we are not talking about. Like, if you married someone who lives in a country that doesn’t allow divorce and you want to bring your kids back to your home country that does allow divorce. Very different set of issues to deal with. But we are not talking about that.


        • Rachel
          Rachel says:

          Penelope, thanks for your thoughts. Please don’t limit your discussion on divorce to exclude abuse. It’s just too common to leave out:

          I get that not every marriage is torn apart by a murderous violent rage, and that adults abuse each other in small, petty ways too. I think if violence is a spectrum, with meanness on one end and violent abuse on the other, couples who hate each other wonder where they fall. And how far to the abuse side they might slide before they separate.

          Maybe people divorce, or stay married, so they can live with themselves?

  2. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    These are great points; I’m curious if there are any pros to divorce, especially when children are involved.

  3. Kyra
    Kyra says:

    Great article Penelope! I totally agree that it should be a logical decision. Weigh the pros and cons and don’t just assume the grass will be greener. Sometimes it will, most of the time it won’t. A book called “Beat that B*tch” discusses this when it comes to cheating and why women shouldn’t immediately run away the minute they catch their spouse cheating. Your no-nonsense article reminded me of her book.
    In my case, the marriage was less than a year, no kids, no joint assets and he was already becoming abusive, I suspected cheating, and was not interested in counseling or working on it. I was the breadwinner too, so I was able to leave. That being said, I still racked up debt and had to “start over” socially. In the long run for me, it was worth it.

  4. Carol Stiver
    Carol Stiver says:

    I have divorced 2 husbands in different states, one with no children and one not. Neither was expensive or had financial ramifications. I don’t regret either of them.

  5. Don
    Don says:

    Seemed a good summary of the issues of divorce. As with many things somethings what you need to do is minimize the damage and cost. Hard choices usually work best if each or at least one does some accomodation and forgiveness. I feel for both people. I try to retain friendships with people. I notice as I age widow and widowers see loss of friends and income that compounds the hurt. The loneliness is apparent so I try to visit, dinner, theatre as a way to keep them in a loop with friends.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The New York Times article is a good one. I think you owe it to yourself, spouse, and any children you may have to thoroughly examine relationship problems. I think you want to know you’ve done everything that you possibly can to arrive at a reasoned, logical outcome – whatever that may be. One thing I’d add to that article which immediately comes to mind is the timing of asking yourself questions about the health of the marriage. When you’re asking – should I get a divorce? – you’re pretty far along in marital difficulties. If possible, start asking what’s wrong with the relationship before it even gets to asking about divorce. Don’t procrastinate. Letting small problems become big problems makes them all that much harder to overcome.

  7. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I’m doing okay 12 years after my divorce, but it took a long time to get there. I have good relationships with my sons, and even my stepson from that marriage. I am not doing as well financially as my career peers who stayed married, but I have a decent house and reliable cars and retirement savings. I’d be better in both areas had my marriage stayed intact and gotten healthy. I’m not sure it ever was going to get healthy, and its level of un-health was harming us all, and so I have to fall on the side of it was best that it end, even with the consequences that came of it ending. But when it ended, I obviously had no way of knowing that.

  8. AustinJon
    AustinJon says:

    Last year, my spouse of 17 years was ready for divorce. Things were really bad; my startup was finally getting funding but it took years, her mom died the year before, she was finally stepping off meds, etc. So I turned down my volume – one partner alone can actually impact things a lot – and we started to quietly make an effort to spend more quality time together, and we’re in a better place (although things may still not work out, that’s kind of part of the deal).

    I’m a child of divorce, she is not. We have two teenagers. Penelope’s words about exceptionalism and confirmation bias ring very true. I tried to address it, but she was kind of blinded by her “divorce fantasy.”

    One of her college friends is going through a divorce now. My spouse is seeing firsthand how her friend’s relationship with her traditionally sweet teenager has turned very sour, and it’s causing my spouse to reassess her fantasy of what things will be like with a divorce. Trading one set of problems for another can be very difficult with unanticipated long-term consequences.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think this is a great example of how marriages stay together. Less magic and more grit than people anticipate.


  9. J
    J says:

    I needed this Penelope talk today. My divorce fantasy was in high gear just hours ago…and Penelope is right. My life would be infinitely worse after a divorce. My marriage is not the exception, despite mental health struggles.

  10. Panda
    Panda says:

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
    Great manifesto for why you should never get married in the first place.

  11. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    In Mailbag, Penelope often advises people to get married and have children. Maybe there can be similar articles in this blog on the questions to ask before getting married and having children. That would help. Thanks.

  12. Satya
    Satya says:

    My husband walked out so I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but it lit a fire under my ass and fortunately my career exploded as a result (my standard of living went up, his went down). The kids live with me in the house and he visits them daily and he moved out to a studio apartment nearby. So we’ve gotten creative around the typical setup, which I think is good for our kids given the givens.

    Downsides: he’s always here eating my food, I have no idea how I’ll date if/when I’m ever ready for that, he does have a girlfriend who hangs around my kids, and I had to do a lot of work to get over what happened since we co-parent so closely.

    I don’t know about the kids but for my own sake I’m glad. I may be lonely sometimes but at least it’s honest instead of being in a fake marriage that only I thought was real.

  13. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I tend to have a second ability to spot a marriage on the rocks – before divorce is a word, but when it’s starting to tip, and I think so many people downplay the small things, but it is the small things that cause a divorce. I am happily married for 17 years, and I think part of it is, we treat the small things as big things. My therapist would say it’s because we have opposite triggers. That probably helps.

    I do think treating a marriage like a business, where you review it yearly, decide what’s working and not, and together work on it, really helps. Marriage isn’t magical. It’s work. Its financial meetings, and team relationship building weekends.

    I think, if you are in a marriage constantly bickering, and putting each other down, this advice is worthless (that I’m saying) Because how do you know when it starts to get worse, vs have already been bad? Bickering and put downs are the warning signs in my marriage.

    HM. Maybe the real problem is couples don’t know what boundaries should look like in a marriage, so they don’t know when it’s taking a turn for the worse.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Opposite triggers seems really essential to me, though I can’t remember hearing anyone articulate it so clearly as you just did.

      I noticed it in my own marriages – I picked people with the same triggers as me and then it’s difficult to de-escalate. I also see it in mothers taking care of kids with Aspergers. If the mother has Aspergers the fighting is almost nonstop because the mom and kid have the same triggers.


  14. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I guess I’m in the Exceptionalism category because 7 years divorced from my 15 year marriage, I’m making 426% of what I was making while I was with him, I’m *finally* able to use the graduate degree I earned that he frowned on me using because he couldn’t handle his wife making more than him, all my friends came with me, and I’m living the life I never thought I could possibly ever attain when I was with him.

    As far as the 50% kid-share thing, I’ve seen most of my hetero-divorced friends with young children have to battle with their former partners to take the kids on the agreed days because the other parent would rather spend their time with their new honey or on the golf course than with their own children.

    Sometimes spouses are boat anchors and divorce is a godsend.

  15. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    While I agree that you should ask yourself serious questions before you consider a divorce, I disagree with all the points you have presented here as “facts”. Some may be relevant to some people some of the time but they definitely do not apply to everyone in all cases.

    I am divorced (and have since remarried). I divorced after taking a number of steps, including undertaking marriage counselling. My ex was not abusive (your views on this Penelope astound me but that’s another topic) but he was a gambler. So my standard of living did not plummet after my divorce – remaining with him would have seen this take a nose dive though. In fact, divorcing him saw an immediate improvement in my financial position. As well as my personal well being.

    I did not lose my child 50% of the time-he was not interested in the work of being a parent, so he had access every-other-weekend. Until that dropped away entirely due to his lack of interest.

    I did not lose my friends. Being “like them” (ie part of a couple) was not the foundation of our friendship.

    I did not have any issues enforcing the divorce agreement. But perhaps the laws here in Australia are different – divorce, property settlement and custody arrangements are three entirely separate matters. Custody arrangements can be enforced here. And often are. I did not chose to have formal custody arrangements in place, which served me in my particular circumstances.

    My career survived my divorce. And my income continued to grow. In fact, it more than doubled.

    I can categorically say that I would not have been better off if I had remained married to my ex. Not the least because it would have prevented me from finding my current partner who is a wonderful husband and parent to my child. My child who, by the way, will freely tell my husband that he loves him and that he wishes that he was his biological father.

    I stumbled across your blog only recently, having read a recommendation about it from another site. But reading a few more of your posts, including this one, has left me feeling your views are more dangerous than interesting. The world is not black and white and trying to categorise it is such may get you views but will not offer anything more substantial to your readers.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      Did you see Penelope’s post showing the bruises the Farmer left on her? Also, she asked him to come with her when she and the kids moved, but he didn’t. He made his choice, there’s nothing ‘poor’ about him.

      • Dee Baker
        Dee Baker says:

        Hey ! I dated a “ gentleman” PT farmer ( with a job and degree) for 9 years.
        Farmers don’t generally leave their land, that’s crazy, especially if it was in the family for generations etc. my didn’t ( and even though I loved him when I left the state for my own reasons I never wanted him to leave his farm ). People are different but almost any farmers I have ever known or dedicated to their property it’s their life where they do it full-time or part-time there’s something about land that gets in your bones don’t you remember Tara in gone with the wind!??

  16. Lucy
    Lucy says:

    I love almost everything you write and I so appreciate the honest take on the effects of marriage. Question—while I agree with much of your article—and I especially agree women are usually the ones worse off —what advice do you have for a woman who wants to work on the marriage and the man really has no incentive to change since he has the higher paying job, stable family etc. While I would hope that the spouse works on the marriage bc it’s the right thing to do, I am finding that his family and friends don’t bother to find out what’s going on and my husband has no real incentive to change.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Marriage is not about getting someone else to change. Working on the marriage, for the most part, means working on yourself and accepting the marriage, so you are a better teammate.

      When you say “it’s the right thing to do” that’s your perspective. Your idea of what’s right is not a universal idea of what’s right. When you bug your husband to see things your way, it’s a losing battle. He is allowed to see things his way.

      To be honest, I think you need a coaching session. I think you’re an INFJ and you are having typical INFJ problems. INFJs are the most dissatisfied with marriage. In a coaching session I can show you how to change that.


    • Lucy
      Lucy says:

      Ok so was it my verbosity that gave me away or what you term INFJ “pudginess?” Yes, I am an INFJ and would be very open to a coaching session so I will send separate email asking. Perhaps this is a false distinction or I am just trying to redeem myself but I think the readers and I would all like to know… what do you think the purposed of marriage is if it isn’t some sort of agreement upon certain values or ideals? By saying “it’s the right thing to do…,” I don’t mean imposing my values but trying to remind my husband of what our agreed upon values were/ are…. it seem like many marriages fall apart precisely because the two keep looking at each other and not an agreed upon good. I feel like I am going to get shredded on this :)

  17. AnneMarie
    AnneMarie says:

    Eh… You say that a person *will* lose their children, then you mention that divorce decrees aren’t enforcable. Exactly. And that works both ways.

    My ex was just a generally bad parent, vaguely racist, and couldn’t earn enough to fully support the family. He got about 30% custody. After a couple of years I took an obviously much better job a thousand miles away. Bam.

    He didn’t have tens of thousands to throw at it, especially when he wasn’t guaranteed a win anyway. This happens so often that they invented a whole new term, parental alienation, to *try* and get sympathy/easier enforcement. Hasn’t worked.

    No reason to assume the other side will play dirty pool but you can’t.

  18. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Hi, I want to recommend the book “The Secret Lives of Wives”.
    It described a variety of marriages–fascinating.

    I also remember an article stating that there are different phases of a normal marriage–and that some people get divorced when the first phase is over. Then when they get remarried and experience the ending of the first phase again, they realize that they could have stayed married to their first spouse!

  19. Lawyer For Divorce In Pune
    Lawyer For Divorce In Pune says:

    Divorce is never easy, it always stressful for children. Most of the children do not want their parents to separate. Divorce introduces a massive change in the life of children no matter what the age. because of parents, divorce children can suffer from psychological and behavioral problems. Children also suffer emotionally from their parents’ divorce.

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