Written exclusively for It’s Over Easy by Relationship Maven, Dr. Abby Medcalf
I'll bet you never imagined that you’d be wrestling over the 80's band called The Clash’s epic line, “Should I stay or should I go?” Yes, this indecision is bugging you!
The waffling back and forth, the feeling of uncertainty is the worst. You don’t want to regret your decision. You want to be 100% confident that divorce (or staying in your marriage) is the right decision.
In my over 30 years of working with couples, many of whom are wrestling with this same Clash line, I’ve identified two main things you should be thinking about first, if you’re thinking about an online divorce, lawyer-driven divorce, or an uncontested divorce that you and your spouse manage yourselves.
#1: Your Partner Doesn’t Hear What You Say, They Hear What You Mean
Your conscious brain processes information at a rate of 50 bits per second while your subconscious brain processes information at a rate of 11 million bits per second. This means that your partner doesn’t hear what you say, they hear what you mean.
You can say all the right things but if your unconscious believes something else, that’s what your partner is listening to.
Have you ever been walking down a street and noticed someone walking towards you who gave you a “funny feeling?” Or maybe you were speaking to someone at work and they were saying all the right things, but you got the sense that they were full of BS?
I know you’ve “had a hunch” that something’s going on with your partner even if they’re acting like everything’s fine. These are all examples of times that you’re picking up on that 11 million bits versus the 50.
And your partner does it with you too! They’re very tuned in to what you’re “really saying” every time you interact. So, maybe you’ve been working on your marriage. You’ve read a book, taken a workshop or you went to couples counseling and now you’re trying out some new tool or strategy to try to change your relationship.
Consciously you’re thinking, “Yes, this is really going to help!” But, subconsciously, there’s doubt and maybe some resentment. Your subconscious dialogue goes something like this:
“We’ve had these problems a long time, it’s going to take forever to make changes and I don’t know if I have it in me!” Or “We’re never going to make changes because my partner refuses to do anything differently!” Or, my favorite, “We make changes, but we always end up slipping back to old behaviors. Nothing ever works!”
Even though this is below the surface, you start using the new tip or technique you learned but your partner picks up on your doubt, resentment, anxiety and hopelessness which makes them not want to change because it feels the same. They’re picking up on your incongruity.
Your partner is subconsciously thinking, “Sure, you’re doing some new things but how long is this going to last? I’m just going to wait it out.”
Then you don’t see the changes you want in your partner (despite all these great changes you're making) and you think, “See? Nothing works!” And you revert to your same old patterns, which leaves your partner thinking that they were right not to waste time trying to do anything differently. Sadly, it’s this cycle that keeps us relationship counselors in business.
Knowing this, you’ve got to make a full commitment. If you’re going to really try to make your relationship work, you’ve got to be fully, 100%, every ounce of your being, committed. To help figure out if you want to make that commitment, write down your answers to these three questions:
Write down your overarching goal for your relationship (this must be stated in the positive and not dependent on your partner doing or not doing something). For example, this is a goal: “My goal is to have a relationship with rich communication, love and appreciation.” This is not a goal: “My goal is for my partner to nag me less.”
Write a quick paragraph covering the pain you’ll have if this goal is not achieved (What will you lose? What will no longer be in your life? How will you feel if this relationship goal isn’t reached?)
Write down what you’ll gain by keeping your relationship and achieving this goal. Make sure you include what you will gain emotionally.
Answering these questions will help you define your commitment in your relationship and will then help drive you emotionally when you’re in doubt.
#2: Your RAS is Keeping You Stuck
If you’re thinking about an online divorce, you’ve likely been spending quite a bit of time focusing on all the things you think are wrong with your partner and your marriage. When you start thinking like this, you start to see the negative everywhere.
Essentially, you’ll start proving yourself right.
This happens because of a little-known, but very important part of your brain circuitry, called your reticular activating system or RAS for short. The RAS is a network of neurons located in the brain stem and it’s where most of your senses come in.
Your RAS is a filter between your conscious brain and your subconscious. Specifically, it takes instructions from your conscious mind and passes them on to your subconscious. You’re constantly giving your RAS instructions by what you’re thinking about – the problem is that you don't even realize it.
So, if you’re thinking, “My partner is always judging and criticizing me”, the RAS hears this as the instruction or order: “Look for my partner criticizing me.”
Sure enough, your partner is “always” criticizing, you hear it constantly. The RAS is the reason you’ll suddenly notice a lot of pregnant women when you’re pregnant or the amount of Toyota Highlanders on the road after you buy one.
So, if you’re thinking:
“If she’d only stop nagging me every day, I could breath and get to everything on my list,” or
“If he’d only stop drinking so much, we’d be great,” or
“The only problem in our relationship is his anger.”
You’re essentially telling that RAS to look for nagging, drinking and anger and it will find it…. OFTEN!
And here’s the really scary part (in case I haven’t blown your mind enough): your RAS will also filter out anything that doesn’t match what you’re thinking! So, when your partner is loving, appreciative, thoughtful and kind you won’t see it!
This is why you get into those “they said/you said” arguments. “I don’t remember you doing that!” “You didn’t say that!” It’s because your RAS filtered those nice things out and you were left proving yourself “right” over and over.
The good news is that you can deliberately program the RAS by thoughtfully choosing the exact messages you send.
If you really want to find peace, happiness and connection in your relationship, you need to shift what you’re focusing on and be conscious of the orders you’re giving to your RAS. You can do this by writing down one thing you appreciate about your partner every day or do one random act of kindness for your partner every day for the next week.
You’ll absolutely start noticing more of your partner’s great qualities as you shine the light on the positives instead of the negatives. Your brain will seek out the healthy and wonderful things your partner is doing or saying as you reprogram your RAS.
Here’s another bonus of doing this: thinking these thoughts and doing these nice things will actually result in your partner changing because, when you start acting nice to your partner, they start acting nice to you! As you start to get those 50 bits in line with your 11 million bits, your partner will feel the change and begin to reflect it back – often without even knowing it!
If you’re thinking about divorce, it also means you’re thinking about staying together. Creating this new way of thinking and being in your relationship will help you move forward with confident, clear decisions and no regrets, no matter which way you ultimately choose to go.
About the Author
Abby Medcalf is a Relationship Maven, psychologist, podcast host, speaker, author, mom, partner, sister, daughter and friend. She practices what she preaches (most the time or, come on, she’d be exhausted)! She likes to love up the people in her life with food when she isn’t trying to control them (hey, she never said she was perfect). You can check out her Relationships Made Easy Podcast or buy her book, Be Happily Married Even if Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing.
Go to this page about online divorce to learn more.