It only takes ONE to make a marriage, but TWO to make a divorce.

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It only takes one to make a marriage,
but two to make a divorce.

© Al Turtle 2004 

After many years of working with couples, I have come to this conclusion.  It takes two people to start a Marriage, or an intimate partnership.  It takes both to decide to divorce and carry the splitting through to its end.  But it takes only one of them to lead the way into a great relationship. The idea is that either one of you can stop a divorce from happening.

This idea has, over the years, proved to be my most upsetting contribution to couples work.  More people have written me about how angry the thought makes them.  Great!  Get angry, but please engage this idea, and its truth. 

So many people who are divorcing, point their fingers at their partner, placing blame and responsibility as far away from themselves as they can.  And I certainly don’t want to blame the “blamers”.  The pain and distress of a Power Strugge is awful.  No one likes it.  Getting away from that pain and that distress are very important.  I am completely with you all on that.

But how much of the pain and distress is a result of what you are doing?  That’s a pretty good question.  And here’s what I have found is the awful answer!  100%.  I don't mean that you are responsible for all of the the trouble and that your partner is not responsible at all.  I mean each of you is 50% responsible for the mess and 100% responsible for your part. That’s my belief.  Sounds crazy?  I don’t think it is.  But it has taken me years to see it.  I was kind of slow.

While both people contribute to the distress, who is resolving it?  If one of you really (and I really mean REALLY) starts doing the work, to become a really cool, responsible partner, the other will have to follow suit – in time.  But as long as both of you are waiting for the other to start changing into a really cool, responsible partner, nothing will happen.  No wonder people feel so frustrated.

The usual problem, I see, is that neither of you know what to do that works.  I like to think that to have a great relationship takes 10 skills and requires that you solve 10 problems.  That’s it.  Now, when you start off, both of you have, say, three of the needed skills – three out of ten.  And you have tools to solve 3 of the problems.  You use those three skills and you solve those three problems.  Now you are left without 7 skills that are needed and this lack begins to drive you crazy.   And now you are left trying to solve 7 problems for which you have tools that don’t work.  You do what you think will work, and it doesn’t, over and over and over.  Aaaarrrggghhh!

Here’s the deal.  The traits of a really cool, responsible partner are measurable, learnable, trainable, specific. That’s my belief.  You don’t have to wait for your partner.  Learn new skills. Change yourself.  As your partner sees the change, they will be forced to change also.  That doesn’t mean you will force them.  It seems to me more like the principles of passive disobedience that Gandhi taught.  If you become a really cool, responsible partner, who the hell wants to divorce you?  Get it!

If you change, they have no reason left for them not to change except one – perhaps they are stuck.  So give em a really, cool responsible partner’s kick in the ass

But most people are not so much stuck as they are just not seeing a reason to change or a way to change.  If you start, lead the way, show the way, and get out of the way, I believe they will follow.  I say, “Divorce the relationship, not your partner!”

I can hear you saying, “Yeah, yeah.  BS!”  And thats ok with me that you don’t like this idea.  I’ve just learned differently.

Who does not want a great relationship with a cool, responsible partner?  If you are struggling with your partner, part of the problem is your partner may look to you like a pain in the butt.  Why should you please them?  Why should you stay with them?  I know this point of view.  However, you probably look like a pain in the butt to them, too.  Why should they stay with you?  Think on that!

But if you turned yourself, trained yourself, into becoming a cool, responsible partner, now what?  All bets are off.  And you have nothing to lose. 

So get to work and get a kick out of it when you see them changing too. 


Sandra and I this spring

Feels great.



It only takes ONE to make a marriage, but TWO to make a divorce. — 17 Comments

  1. Meh… It *can* take two to make a divorce. But one person alone can get the job done. Alcoholics in denial are especially talented at it.

    • I hear you, Dana, and I think you are sharing some conventional wisdom. Which I no longer agree with. Of course my views are just my views, but I see an Alcoholic as a person in recovery. Their recovery may take longer or shorter depending on lots of factors. I believe they will recover – or die first. I think it’s inevitable. Some of what makes their process longer is the amount of “enabling” they get from their partner(s) and friends. Sure their behavior is causing lots of trouble in whatever relationships they have, but so is their partner’s behavior. My general rule of thumb is that we all tend to partner up with people just as dysfunctional as we are. So, in your comment, I look at the (understandably dysfunctional) alcoholic and their (usually equally but unidentified dysfunctional) partner. I think that both need help in growing up and recovering. Who goes first?

      If both decide to postpone recovery then divorce often happens. And if divorce does happen, chances are both are perpetuating dysfunction. It takes two. This is what my article is about.

  2. Al, thank you for sharing your wisdom. As I read your site, I can’t help question whether I was truly an unworthy husband or my wife simply wasn’t ready for marriage. Initially, I took on all the blame and really beat myself up. But with more distance, I wonder.

    At 24, she was nine years younger and had lived at home through college. Great lady in most ways but somewhat immature, spoiled, and in no way tough–none of which were her fault. We dated 18 months, married, and moved to Guinea with my job–a move that was on the horizon throughout our courtship. She brought up divorce within the first month over something she later couldn’t recall and continued to do so regularly despite me pointed out that it really undermined a sense of trust, i.e. security.

    She got homesick, which was understandable, and didn’t like the responsibility of budgeting or even working together to keep our house clean. In retrospect, she started trying to justify leaving early on, never once forgiving any time I accidentally hurt her feelings, repeatedly bringing up a handful of things that simply came out wrong several months prior. Once she said she was leaving, she refused to entertain the idea of me finding another job that would move us back to the States. Her parents seem to have encouraged her to come home, which she did while I was away overnight for work (only our second night apart since being married eight months prior). I never heard from her again. Her folks refused to speak to me too. That’s pretty cold, right?

    I followed your advice for when someone leaves. I think it was reasonable but wonder if me taking on all the blame may have made her feel justified–not that I did anything close to warranting divorce, not by man’s law or God’s. Her best shot at articulating how she felt was ‘people who love each other aren’t supposed to hurt each other’s feelings’. At any rate, I never heard a peep despite being very understanding and patient–I never once lost it or freaked out. Her lawyer emailed me divorce papers on Valentine’s Day.

    I never once insulted this lady or was spiteful, never purposefully hurt her feelings, never raised my voice or even expressed anger at her. In the last four months we were together (out of eight) I took her to Paris three times and spent a month at her parents’ for the holidays.

    Anyway… all that to ask: do you see young women just wanting to be married and have a big wedding and expensive ring (like the one she kept even though she knows I will be paying it off for some time) who seem to not really be up to any kind of work in a marriage or have any concept of what it might actually feel like? Again, I didn’t marry a bad person, but I think she got in over her head and wasn’t aware or mature enough to deal with the situation and we both really misjudged that.

    In all fairness, Guinea is a tough place and I was in a sad spot, dealing with my grandfather’s death and my dad’s sudden passing and sorting out estates among my siblings, which was stressful. The ring and wedding stressed my finances and I was very unsure of having moved us to to such a place. The work environment has been as tough as any I’ve faced. I’m still over here paying off the debt ‘we’ incurred.

    On the upside, I have a better appreciation for Country and Western music.

    So, what do you think? Am I a bad guy, Al? How can I tell?

    • Well, Clint, I don’t think for a moment that you are a “bad guy.” I’m glad for your questions and sharing.

      First thought is to that subject of “blaming” and “guilt.” Pretty common problem My answer to that is in my paper on Whose to Blame. And that leads to the other thought that comes to mind.

      One thing we face in life is the process of “growing up.” Probably the central issue for parents is the long process of leading their children into responsibility – self-responsibility. Ideally childhood is a time of learning and growing with others watching over you and providing the hamburgers and movie tickets. That irresponsible time ends, but often it takes a time for kids to make the transition to adulthood. One sign is that they still want someone else to “do it” or “buy it” for them. My general rule is that after 8 or so, you are lucky to get oxygen. And what you get you have to earn. Tough lesson.

      These lessons often show up in relationship, in the Power Struggle. I don’t think this is more a male or female problem. In fact, one of the challenges is that it is often seen as a problem in “the other partner,” but not in the “self.”

      You ask if I’ve seen women who want… be take care of? Sure and men too. Once you have worked out mutual responsibility, I think it is still nice to be taken care of … for bits of time. And to take care of others, for times. Part of living and maintaining a nurturing environment. Taking turns.

      • Thanks for the reply, Al. I guess I should have tried to ensure we both had an understanding of what responsibility looks like in a marriage. Practically speaking, it seems she thought hers ended at being young and pretty and happy. Lesson learned, I suppose. I’ll keep reading through your site. Thank you again.

  3. I’m not sure how it takes one to have a good relationship. H and I are near to divorce. I don’t want it but I had to file since he is my only means of financial support right now. The divorce has progressed and now we’re on the final stages of discovery and coming to an end. I still don’t want this but he is living with ow and seems determined to let go of me. Can I still do something at this point? My attorney is meeting with me soon because she wants to file a motion to compel since H has not answered some questions in the discovery process. What can I do? I’m working on me and to be a better person. I recognize my mistakes in the relationship with H but our contact is limited to emails. I’ve written him a letter of apology and sort of invited him to be friends but he keeps shutting me down by blaming me to excuse his behavior.

    I just don’t see how I can stop my divorce to him when he is starting a life with ow and can’t wait to be free of me? I would appreciate some input on the matter and other’s experiences. Thank you for your efforts in this forum.

    • Yes, that’s a tough situation you’ve got and you probably have to play out the hand dealt to you. One way of looking at it is that you both worked hard (through his mistakes and your mistakes) to build this situation. It’s probably been coming for years. Had one of you learned the lessons of a great relationship and changed direction oh, years ago, this divorce would not be happening. But here we are, lots of pain, disappointment.

      Seems like time for a new start. I like to think that the only good part of a divorce is the building of good boundaries of responsibility. You end up responsible for (and in possession of your stuff) and he his. Then you can consider rejoining in something new. The OW may continue to be a choice for him or just part of the learning. Good luck and keep your feet on the ground.

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