When my ex-husband decided he wanted a divorce, I remember feeling like my life was coming to an end. I could feel the physical pain of grief and anxiety over what my life would now look like. I kept thinking to myself, why didn’t I act upon the obvious red flags I saw prior to marrying this man? It’s not like his actions or behavior was completely different from the person I was getting to know. But I wanted to marry him so much that I ignored so many things that were not only important to me in my future spouse, but what I discovered further down the road, are also destructive to a marriage. How was I going to move on or meet someone new?
Now that I have moved on and am considering marriage again, what actions should not be tolerated in a marriage, and how can one save their marriage if they are going down a road of destruction? In this piece, I came up with a few FAQs that I remember wanting answers to post-divorce. I have also had discussions with close friends and family who also experienced a divorce about these very questions.
These questions were answered by Marriage and Family Therapists Amal Killawi and Nadia M. Bazzy.
- What are some red flags a person should look out for in their marriage?
Some red flags to look for in a marriage include hidden bank accounts, secret online identities, a major change in your spouse’s schedule that was not communicated, and new behaviors like drinking, gambling, pornography, and drug use. It is also equally important to look for red flags in how the relationship is functioning. Turning away during conflict, withdrawal, yelling, not resolving issues, anger, and resentment are all signs of relationship breakdown.
- What are some things that are “unforgivable” and should not be tolerated in a marriage?
Every marriage is different, and each person will determine what he/she is willing to tolerate in a relationship. Some situations may warrant a divorce because it is healthier for the family. For example, in cases of physical or emotional abuse, it is rare for a marriage to survive without major rehabilitation of the perpetrator, and it is usually safest to leave the relationship. Some marriages can heal from major challenges such as infidelity, substance abuse, gambling, and porn addiction, but it will ultimately depend on the willingness of the partner engaging in these behaviors to receive professional counseling and on the level of support, emotional stability, and commitment to the marriage.
- What are some things you can do if your spouse is asking for a divorce and you do not want one?
Ideally the person who wants a divorce should be able to name and identify the breakdown in the marriage that is prompting them to ask for a divorce. Many times, couples go to a few sessions of counseling to decide if they want to stay together or not. A couple may attempt to separate before they divorce to see if they feel differently about divorce. Many people express that they want a divorce because they are flooded with overwhelming emotions that they cannot work through. Oftentimes, couples counseling can help establish new patterns. While you may want to stay married, you also have to ask: How are you helping the marriage stay together? Change has to occur for the couple to survive.
- How long and how much should you keep trying to reconcile? When do you stop trying? What should you do if your spouse is not open to couples’ therapy?
Does saying no allow you to have more agency in your relationship and create a power struggle? If your partner does not want to be married to you and is unwilling to attend couples counseling or seek out third-party help, it is best to ask yourself: What you are trying to hang on to? What are you afraid of? Address the fear of the divorce process.
Does your partner say they only want a divorce in the heat of an argument? Often, one partner feels “done” with the relationship but is really just done with the patterns in the relationship that are not fulfilling his or her needs. If that pattern can be addressed, the couple can overcome the situation.
Some people choose to seek individual counseling, and through that, make personal changes in their relationship that may as a consequence, encourage their partner to stay in the marriage. Some people may request their partner to participate in at least one session. Others may seek friends, family members, and/or community leaders to encourage their partner to seek couples counseling. Ultimately, change cannot be forced, but rather has to come from within. No one can force another person to remain in a marriage, and there is no timeline for reconciliation. If your partner is adamant about divorce and is not willing to reconcile, then you do your best to separate in kindness and seek support to heal through the divorce.
- If your ex-spouse keeps reaching out to you and wants to maintain communication but does not want to return to the marriage, why might they be doing that and what are ways to stop it? Can exes maintain a friendship?
It is not uncommon for people to want to maintain a friendship after the marriage. While it is rare, it is still possible and healthiest if there are children. The Qur’an instructs us to deal with each other in a kind and civil manner. However, there are different types of communication. If they are reaching out with intimate communication, that is a boundary issue and should not be tolerated. You need to say no, and mean no. If they are reaching out in a friendly way that is respectful, it is your personal preference at that point to maintain a relationship or not. Some people find it emotionally difficult to continue a relationship with an ex for many reasons—inability to deal with the separation, dependency on the partner, and hope that they will get back together. Note that being friendly and able to communicate after a divorce does not mean that you can manage being married!
- What are some things a person can do to help with the difficulty of divorce and the pain?
Healing from a divorce is a journey that will take time. It is important to allow yourself to grieve the loss of the relationship, but also not lose sight of the big picture. Your life does not end with divorce. Divorce may provide you with an opportunity to make changes in your life, to embark on new adventures, and to grow personally and spiritually. Seek support from family and friends, solace in prayer, and challenge yourself to learning something new. Counseling can also be helpful in your healing process.
- Should you share with a potential suitor about your divorce? When and how much do you share?
You are in charge of what you share about your previous marriage. You may prefer to share openly from the beginning of the courtship or wait until you get to know them more and feel a sense of trust. However, it is important that a potential suitor knows that you were married. If you do not share, you will be keeping a secret, and secrets are a sign that there is distrust in the relationship—which can eventually lead to breakdown of the relationship. It is easiest if someone is aware upfront that you are divorced. This will establish trust and demonstrate that your potential suitor is aware of the situation and willing to work through it. Also, often times there are multiple connections with the person that you are divorced from if there are children, or if the person was from within the family or community.
You should be able to successfully identify why your marriage ended. This is a sign that you have the needed insight to move into a new relationship. If you are afraid of being rejected by a potential suitor because you were divorced, that is an issue that you will need to work through.
- How soon after a divorce should you consider remarriage?
It is important to not use a new relationship to heal the hurt and pain of the last relationship. This is dangerous, as it sets you and your new partner up for failure. Additionally, the chance of divorce in a new relationship increases if there was a previous divorce. Divorce is a form of loss, even if divorcing was for the best.
It is normal to experience a range of emotions after divorce including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and identity confusion. Many people remark that they need to focus on themselves, rebuild self-confidence, heal the hurts of the last relationship, gain perspective, and learn new relationship skills. Often times, people can be attracted to a personality type that is unhealthy for them, so it is important to identify this before you move on to the next relationship so that the pattern can be broken. You will know you are ready to move on when you have created new insights from your last relationship, are no longer wondering “what if” when you think about the last relationship, are emotionally stable, and have healed from the pains of divorce. If you are asking: “Am I ready?” it is important to press the pause button, and ask, “How will I know when I’m ready?”
- How soon should you introduce your children to a potential marriage prospective?
There is no standard timeline, but a sudden remarriage can be difficult for children to accept. Children will need time to deal with their parents separating, changes in their life as a result of the divorce, as well as feelings about the divorce. Introduce a potential slowly and communicate openly with your children about their feelings with this new person in your life.
Some helpful resources:
Nadia M. Bazzy is a Limited Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LLMFT) and holds a M.A. in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding with a concentration in Psycho-Social Recovery. She specializes in couples and family therapy and maintains a private practice in Novi, Michigan.
Amal Killawi is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialization in mental health and marriage education. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan, where she is also currently pursuing a Certification in Sexual Health. She is also a researcher focused on addressing health disparities among American Muslims and providing patients with culturally-competent care. As a community activist, Amal serves on the board of several non-profits, particularly focused on cultural competence, mental health, marriage and family life education, social services, and youth empowerment. She has been involved with the Muslim Students’ Association at the local, regional, and national levels. Amal formally contributes to the Virtual Mosque VMCounselors advice column designed to answer readers’ personal questions.