Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The whirlwind romance of my grandparents.

A photo taken of my grandparents (the couple on the far right) on the Santa Monica Pier. My grandmother had run away from home to visit friends in Los Angeles. While there, she fell in love with their brother. Nate and Bella were married shortly after this picture was taken but they divorced a few years later, when my grandfather discovered that life in grandma’s home town of Tucson was not for him. They both went on to have very different, but happy, lives.

I recently met a very courageous woman (I’ll call her Mary), who is struggling to bring herself and her children out of poverty and homelessness.  Mary’s story is not mine to tell, but I will share that she has experienced more loss and abandonment at a young age than one person should have to bear.  Just before the holidays, she had a bit of unexpected financial difficulty and I asked if she and her children were going to be okay.  They had just found a temporary housing situation and it seemed so unfair that they would have another setback now that things were finally looking up.  But Mary wasn’t upset, instead she was filled with gratitude because this time, as she put it, “there is nothing we need that we are having to go without”.  I was floored by her words. In the days that followed, I found myself in tears as I considered Mary’s words and the place of deep gratitude they were spoken from.

I don’t think it is just a coincidence that I learned this wisdom from Mary now.   This is the time of year that so many people come  to me and ask if I think they should leave their marriage.  As I thought about it, I realized you could apply Mary’s perspective to a decision about a job, a house, and yes, even a marriage.  I’ve always struggled with how to respond to the “should I stay or should I go?” question, knowing that my job is to lead people to their own answers, not to give them one.  Mary gave me a better response than I’ve ever come up with on my own, “is there anything you need that you are having to go without?”  This question gets to the down deep heart of where our discomfort lies.

The decision to divorce requires an unwinding and inspection of all the hope, fantasy, fear and expectation that the institution of marriage means to each of us.   I have found in my 15 years as a divorce attorney, that there are certain times in our lives that we come to the place of unraveling and I’m sharing them below.  It is my hope that if you are walking through one of those unraveling times, you might find that you don’t need to end your marriage – maybe you just need to make some shift with your partner (or your job, house, etc.).  And if ending your marriage is necessary, I hope you’ll be kinder to yourself, knowing that the change may open up space for everyone to have their needs met in ways they couldn’t imagine.

When it’s time to become a grown-up…At about the time that you are considering adding children to your life, you may find that you can no longer envision an adult life with a person that you fell in love with as a younger person.  You may need to see greater strength or maturity in your partner.  Or maybe you have discovered that your spouse’s idea of what marriage is “supposed to be” is constricting you in a way that you can no longer bear.

When it’s time to get your mojo back…Once your youngest child has become somewhat self-sufficient (usually around age 5), you may look up from motherhood and find that you need to reclaim or even reinvent yourself.  Fathers may wonder at about this same time whether their wives will ever look up from the children and notice how much they need their lover and friend, and whether she can see how lonely he has become since the children became her focus.

When the kid chapter has ended…As the children enter young adulthood, you may find you need a partner that wants to play in the same way that you do or maybe you need to find meaningful work or a volunteer opportunity that makes you feel alive and gives you purpose.  You may not feel supported in your need for newness and adventure if your partner is feeling content and settled when you reach this place.

When we realize we aren’t going to live forever…When facing retirement or grieving the death of a parent, you may find that you can’t imagine the next chapter of your life with your current spouse.  You may feel that you have given up many years out of a sense of duty or self-sacrifice and that you no longer want to be tied to that role.  The roles that have served you in the past may begin to feel stale and you may need something that your spouse simply isn’t able or willing to provide.

I believe that many divorces come from a place of feeling stuck, without hope of change.  Maybe we’re stuck in the deep grooves of poor communication or marital roles based on how things “should” be.  Maybe you have twisted yourself like a pretzel to fit someone else’s dream, only to reach the place where you can’t twist further.  Maybe you’ve reached a point in life where you feel an overwhelming need to unfurl into who you truly are.  It can be very difficult, even impossible, to change the pattern of a long relationship and it’s okay to forgive ourselves, and each other, if we aren’t able to.

Maybe the thing you need can be found without ending your marriage (or quitting your job or selling your house).  Maybe it can’t.  But if you don’t know what the “thing you need” is, you won’t find it in the next marriage either (or job, house, etc.).  And as I say to my clients – take some time to figure out what it is that you truly need, because repeat business makes me sad.

I know that many of my readers have been through a divorce, or you’re going through one now.  If your marriage ended during one of the unraveling points that I list above, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


  1. Kathy diaz says:

    Hi, boy did this blog come @ a god given time. you see, i have been in a abusive (in the beginning physical, but always verbal, mental & emotional) marriage for 31 yrs. married @ 19. so now, we have lived separately for 2 yrs. he has done some changing, but my kids will tell me how he treats them, at times, so I really know its not enough & if i go back and the new wears off, he will be the same. financially we have lost everything–he didn’t work for almost 3 yrs. now he is an over weight fibermyalgea stricken man with no retirement, ss, disability in hopes to get me back. with the warm and fuzzy holidays, his charm, and the talk he wants to have to move on, i find myself thinking about going back.. i fear that i cannot live without being manipulated and if i can due it financially on my own, though i have for 2 yrs, now, by the grace of god, and of course guilt, because im the one that left. will i be making a mistake to go through the divorce? im soooooo scared, in so many ways. i have changed i can’t tolerate the person he is, but i have my home to come back to so its bearable. and of course he has soooo much charm, that you sometimes forget of the reality, that if things don’t go his way, there is hell to pay. another concern i have, is , i dont want to finde myself in a relationship with another man, just because i fear not being able to suppor myself. i truly want friendship and love for all the right reasons. if there is something you could share with me i would be ever so grateful. i wish so bad i could afford to talk to you, but at this time i cant, financially. like i said its only by god’s grace that i get through every month and now my daughter & her two boys want to move in with me & my son, cause life at her dads is so demeaning that she tends to turn to drugs. i want her drug free but cant afford her, at the same time. hard times for me financialy and emotionally. I love my children.

    • It sounds like you already know the right path. Sending you love and encouragement to get through these difficult days. xoxo

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