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It Takes 2, Baby!? Or, What Happens when Only One Person Wants the Divorce?

Rachel Alexander Sept. 20, 2016

{6:48 minutes to read} In New Jersey, divorce requires only one willing party. So what about the other party? The one who doesn’t want the divorce? And how can this work in mediation?

Mediation is sometimes believed to be an alternative only when both parties want divorce. I would suggest that mediation is still the best alternative, even for the party who doesn’t want to end the marriage.

Because a divorce will occur, with or without the consent of the non-moving party, the question becomes not whether there will be a divorce but how it will be reached. Mediation is always the better process, but perhaps even more so for the one who hasn’t had the opportunity to initiate the divorce.

In this situation, mediation has the potential for sensitivity to such issues as:

  • How can a reluctant participant be helped to face the inevitable and unwanted change?

  • How can the situation be normalized, understood and processed when its very nature is fraught with pitfalls of disempowerment and potential humiliations?

First, parties are helped to appreciate the situation as quite customary. Rarely are two people on the same emotional page at the same time. Usually, divorcing couples are “emotionally staggered,” and often this has more to do with individual thresholds for given situations. Both people are unhappy, but only one person’s unhappiness barometer has exploded.

People divorce because one or both parties are not thriving in the current situation. A therapist friend of mine once said, “If a relationship isn’t working for one person, it’s not working.” That means no matter how much one person wants the relationship, if their partner doesn’t, neither person is in a workable relationship. More about this in a moment.

In Inter-Relational Focusing, one branch of Focusing, it is specified that the intent of any interaction is to improve the lives of its participants. Relationships are to move life forward. They’re not, as commonly believed, to scoop out the other’s proverbial insides like spaghetti squash and ring them out to meet one’s own needs. There is the me, the you, and the what’s between us. Only the last part is the relationship.

By definition, if one party wants to continue the relationship in spite of the knowledge that the other person needs to leave it, she is not behaving congruently with a loving partnership. A loving partnership has room for both people’s needs. It respects the other, even when the other’s wants diverge from one’s own. In a healthy relationship, both participants must be unwilling to compromise the well-being of the other.

But a marriage is not necessarily a relationship, just as a romantic or loving relationship doesn’t necessarily constitute a marriage. It’s often helpful to unpack these things in order to identify what’s actually wanted. Often marriages develop into organizations, with friends and second homes, children and activities, a structure that provides comfort and stability, identity and belonging. These are important to almost everyone, but they can be distinct from the actual relationship between husband and wife.

Modern marriages in this country are no longer arranged, but they often morph into “arrangements.” In divorce mediation, when one spouse doesn’t want the divorce, it’s helpful to know why. Really, why – that is, what they are holding on to, and what they are most afraid to lose. It’s almost never the loving companionship of their spouse.

Sometimes they are wanting some aspect that the marriage provided, but that is not necessarily about the other person. Sometimes the heartbreak one thinks he is experiencing has little to do with the relationship, but more to do with other aspects of married life.

This is important, because what’s really valued and needed can be both addressed in mediation and worked towards after the divorce. The divorce itself, while still unwanted, can be understood as less of a total loss of everything. Much of what feels threatened by the divorce can be supported and maintained.

Some examples from mediation:

  • A parent who equates divorce with “losing his family” is helped to understand that his imagined version is incommensurable with the reality that could have him sharing physical custody equally and spending time with his children virtually daily.

  • A spouse who associates divorce with imminent poverty is helped when she learns that appropriate financial support will afford her a standard of living reasonably comparable to what she currently experiences.

Recently, I asked a client who absolutely did not want his marriage to end, this: “If it wasn’t a marriage, if you were just in a relationship, with no financial implication, would you fight this hard to keep it together?” Without hesitation, almost as if the question was absurd, he cried, “No, absolutely not.” Sometimes the attachment is not to the other but to what has been created during the time spent and in cooperation with the other.

Identifying what is hard to relinquish reveals what is valued and what can be worked with and carried forward into the next chapter of life. Loss is implicit in divorce. In fact, loss is implicit in life. Clarifying what we are actually losing can help us regain a foothold and focus our energies on what we can control and how we intend to shape our lives going forward.