With Brad Pitt reportedly blindsided by Angelina Jolie filing for divorce this week, how can a marriage deteriorate so badly that the decision to end it takes one side by surprise? Did it really come out of the blue for Brad or did he ignore the alarm bells?
Relationship experts share the warning signs of a marriage on course for divorce and explain how to navigate the rocky ground of separation and come out in one piece. Brad and Angie, listen up.
What to look out for
The experts are in agreement: the biggest warning sign that divorce is looming isn’t arguing all the time, or the absence of intimacy, but simply a lack of respect.
“I often think the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference,” says psychotherapist Arabella Russell, a counsellor for leading relationships charity Relate.
“Indifference, a lack of respect, contempt, scorn: those are very difficult to come back from.”
Is there any way back from the brink?
It is possible to bring a relationship back, even if care and respect have disappeared, if the couple are prepared to work for it, says Liz Hann, couples therapist and Counselling Directory member.
“It can be really quite simple things that make a difference, like agreeing not to swear at each other any more. It’s quite surprising the really horrible things couples say to each other. Giving that up makes a big difference.”
Arabella Russell agrees that you can overcome a lack of respect but says it can be difficult. “When those feelings are in the room, you have to be able to talk about it, and be explicit and upfront. Contemptuous feelings can creep into a relationship almost without people realising. I often say to couples ‘do you think there’s anyone else in your circle of friends or family you’d talk to in the same way as you talk to your partner?’ and often they say ‘absolutely not!’. If they can address the way they’re talking about each other then there’s a chance [they can work things out].”
Is divorce the answer?
Liz Hann says the important question for people to ask themselves when they reach the point of considering divorce is ‘what would my life be like without the other person?’ to try and determine if it’s what they want or not.
The chances are the decision to divorce will be one sided, at least at first. Arabella says: “In my experience most often it’s one or the other [who decides] but then what happens is the more you talk about it you work out that they’re both unhappy. But we all approach relationships and thinking about splitting up differently so it does often fall to one person to take the lead.”
It’s unlikely there will be one moment when it becomes clear divorce is the only solution, she warns. “It will be a build up. You might have moments where you think ‘I can’t take this any more’ but it is just a moment. It’s when you find you have an accumulation of these moments and it’s a long period coming, and you’ve tried counselling and you’ve tried repeatedly to talk to your partner and nothing is working, [that it becomes clear].”
Arabella stresses the importance of talking - to your partner if you can, although if the desire to divorce is one sided it may fall on deaf ears - and to close friends and family. “If despite everything you’ve done you know it’s the end of the line, you need to support of other people.
“Even though it might be your choice, that doesn’t mean divorcing isn’t going to be difficult and painful. Leaving any relationship is hard. It’s change. All relationships in the main start with a lot of hope, aspiration, plans, and now your dreams are having to change. It’s important to recognise that even though you know it’s the right decision you can still feel sad.”
Unfortunately it’s rare that couples manage to split amicably, says Liz Hann, but there are things that a couple can do to give themselves the best chance.
Don’t be too quick to get the lawyers involved. “Try to work out what is best between yourselves,” says Liz. “When lawyers get involved it ends up being very expensive and becomes very adversarial.”
Mediation is key, says Arabella. “Research shows us that it isn’t the fact of a divorce that’s most damaging, it’s how it’s carried out. Mediation gives people a place to talk, and it doesn’t mean they’re not going to argue but it does help keep the process out of the courts as much as possible.”
And think about the children. “Do not use the children as a tool or weapon to threaten the other person. This is quite common, unfortunately”, says Liz.
Instead, make the children your focus, says Arabella. “Children bring out our best sides, and children can become a focus for how you separate. If you’ve got children then you can’t just walk away from the relationship. You’ve got to co-parent and one way or another you’ve got to make that relationship work.”
Wise words. Let’s hope Brangelina take note.