Ask Aviva: Just Curious

February 27, 2014

Dear Aviva,

How do you know when it’s time to get divorced?

-Just Curious


Dear Just Curious,

Way to put the marriage therapist on the spot here, huh?

Well, thank you for turning to me. I’ll give it my best shot:

All couples have problems, and most of them are unresolvable. In happily marrieds, the unresolvable conflicts make up nearly 70% of what the couple will argue about. So conflict is certainly not a reason to divorce.

If happily married people have conflict, and have conflict that they can’t ever get past, then how are they able to stay happy? Are they idiots?

No, they’re not idiots. (Well, actually, don’t quote me on that since I’m sure that some of them are idiots. But being happy within conflict isn’t what makes them so.)

They are able to be ok in the face of conflict because of how the conflict lands on them. If they know that their spouses are here for them, and will respond to most of their needs, then it’s ok to disagree. It can even be cute and fun.

But when a disagreement lands on a person in a way that confirms that his or her spouse doesn’t give a darn about them, then that conflict equals bitter, bitter pain.

An example:

Hubby asks Wifey not to text so often when he is spending time with her. She tries to comply, but doesn’t always remember. Usually Hubby doesn’t mind that she forgets. But one day Hubby is trying to talk about how worried he is about his job security. Wifey happens to look down at her phone and texts “Ok np” to her carpool-mate. In a fraction of a second, Hubby’s heart will start pounding and his body will go into fight-or-flight mode. Yesterday he handled her texting just fine. Today, watch out central nervous system.

The difference is because today he needed her. He was vulnerable in sharing with her, trying to lean on her a bit, and she wasn’t there. It took merely a glance down and that was it. She wasn’t there. And that is scary. We are hardwired to respond to that the same way we would respond to an out-of-control taxi speeding toward us on the sidewalk. And you know what that means, right?

It means that Hubby is not very likely to be his sweetest self. He is likely to snap at her (though really he’s pursuing her, asking her if she is there for him. He’s just doing it in a way that will ensure that she will not be there for him).

Or, he may withdraw and get quiet because he doesn’t feel safe leaning on her. That may make her wonder where he went, which then causes her nervous system to do the same thing his did. This all goes on in fractions of seconds and can easily lead to a negative downward cycle.

It perpetuates until it becomes so bad that the couple truly believes that the other is not there for them at all.

Is this couple ready for divorce? No. The couple is ready to fight for their marriage. They can fight for their marriage by getting ahold of Dr. Sue Johnson’s gem of a book, “Hold Me Tight.” It walks them through all the steps and stages of the best couples therapy modality in the whole world (and it’s backed up by rigorous neuroscientific studies. Fun!).  Or if they aren’t ready to actually do exercises together, they can each read “Love Sense,” also by Johnson, the founder of emotionally focused therapy.

Or, of course, they can try therapy. (I strongly recommend that they pick a therapist who doesn’t just do marriage therapy, but is trained and successful at it.)

Some things that make marriage complicated are abuse, affairs and addiction. It is much more difficult to get on track if any of these exist in a marriage. If they once existed in the marriage but ended long before, it is possible to repair the marriage, albeit with lots of hard work by all parties..

And I will take this opportunity to say that if a spouse is in physical danger, it is not recommended that he or she wait around to fix the marriage. Safety first, kids.

So even though I don’t know anything about you, aside for the fact that you are randomly curious, I suggest you get moving before one of you becomes too burnt out to try.

Wishing you strong connections.



Aviva Rizel, MA, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Aviva maintains a busy private practice in Cedarhurst, NY where she sees couples, families and individuals. She previously served as the Clinical Director of The Five Towns Marriage Initiative. She is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), the most effective, research-based model for strengthening couples’ connections. Aviva is also active in educating therapists and laypeople about EFT. Mrs. Rizel and her husband, Meir Rizel, MS, a Mental Health Counselor, enjoy co-lecturing across the tri-state area together almost as much as they enjoy raising their three children together in Far Rockaway, NY. To reach Aviva, email AvivaRizel.mft@gmail.com or call 347-292-8482 To find out more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, go to iceeft.com.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.