After the holidays, many couples having marriage trouble decide it's time to file divorce papers. Here's how to know if you and your spouse could be among them.
It's divorce season.
The opposite of December's engagement season, divorce filings begin to spike in January, peaking in February and March.
It's not the gloomy weather that does couples in. Typically, it's the post-holiday jolt back to reality that has them questioning their future together.
"What I find is that most people in December want to get through the holidays. Nobody wants a divorce summons put into their stocking," Jacqueline Newman, a managing partner at a top New York City divorce law firm, told Business Insider.
For couples with kids, it can be especially important to "hold things together" during the holidays, Kathryn Smerling, a New York City-based psychotherapist who helps couples going through divorce, told Business Insider. That's true, Smerling said, even if kids are well aware that something's going on between Mom and Dad.
But once the holiday glow has waned and spouses settle back into old habits, many people flock to Newman's office to get a better idea of what a divorce would look like. She calls it "keeping your options open" month.
"They want to be able to be in a position to make an educated decision," Newman said. "They come in and they say, 'What would happen with my kids? What would it look like financially?' It's the information-gathering stage."
From there, clients are able to digest the practical sides of a split, and many return in February and March ready to commit to the decision. But not every person who consults an attorney ends up actually filing for divorce.
"One of the first questions I ask clients is, 'Are you sure you want to get divorced?'" Newman said. "Because I suggest trying everything you can before you come into my office because you never want to look back. Divorce is financially expensive, emotionally expensive, and you have to make sure that this is exactly the choice that you want to make."
The numbers look different for every couple, but Newman said a typical divorce in Manhattan might cost between $20,000 and hundreds of thousands.
Across the US, the next 12 months may be a more popular time than ever for couples to get divorced.
That's because under the new tax plan recently passed by Congress, alimony payments are no longer tax-deductible. That particular change takes effect January 2019, so couples may rush to get their divorce finalized before then.
It's unclear exactly how this change in the tax policy will affect every divorcing couple. But Newman said that ultimately, there may be "less money in the pot to split" between ex-spouses.
So how can you tell if you and your partner are on the precipice of a permanent split?
While there are no hard and fast rules — by no means do any of these indicators guarantee you're destined for divorce — there are a few signs that could indicate you're in troubled waters.
Newman often sees clients who have experienced a complete breakdown in communication. Spouses stop sharing their issues, let alone talk them through.
"It gets to a point where you're not speaking anymore, and then you start to not care that you're not speaking anymore," she said. "Or one person cares and they get angry about it and the other person doesn't want to deal with the anger because they're exhausted or they have their own anger issues. That will ultimately lead to indifference."
Smerling added that couples approaching a divorce are often "not engaged with each other" and wind up living "parallel lives," even if they're living under the same roof.
Smerling talked about "stonewalling," which happens when one partner completely shuts down and displays no empathy for the other. For example, the person might "sit there and roll their eyes while the other is talking."
(Interestingly, leading relationship psychologist John Gottman cites stonewalling as one of the key predictors of divorce.)
Smerling often sees one partner trying to make a connection with the other, who keeps retreating further away because they've lost trust in their partner.
"Nothing the partner says resonates," Smerling said. "You can see a roadblock in communication."
Typically, the more the pursuer tries to rekindle the connection, the more the distancer withdraws, which only prompts the pursuer to work harder. Smerling described it as a destructive "cycle" that's hard to break.
Alternatively, both partners might withdraw from conflict, which can be an equally unhealthy dynamic. "Those are the people that quietly divorced and surprised everyone in the neighborhood," Smerling said.
Failed expectations of what marriage should like can leave spouses feeling unhappy or unfulfilled, a trend that especially holds true for men, in Newman's experience. "It doesn't pan out the way they want," she said.
For example, after kids come into the picture, oftentimes one parent will want to stay home to take care of them, leaving the other parent as the sole breadwinner. While the money-earning spouse is under pressure to support the family themselves, the one who stays home feels the stress of raising kids and managing the household. This change in dynamic can cause both partners to lose sight of where the other is coming from.
"It gets into this whole terrible cycle when their expectations aren't met and that leads to the breakdown," Newman said. "The factors definitely feed into each other, and they end up in my office."
"Money is one of the top reasons people argue over things," Stanley Corey, a certified financial planner and managing director at United Capital in Great Falls, Virginia, told Business Insider.
If one spouse is hiding money, making large purchases without discussing it with their partner, or buying things that don't benefit the marriage, such as a boat or a new car, it leads to distrust and tension. Overspending and taking on debt can also put stress on a marriage, Corey said.
"It comes down to the breaking of trust," Corey added. "If you're carrying a lot of debt, it creates a lot of anxiety. Money is a very emotional issue."
Newman said that sometimes, someone who's guilty of breaching their spouse's trust will all of a sudden become very generous with gifts or vacation plans. That can also be a red flag.
It's important to think through the practical aspects of divorce and not make any rash decisions.
"As much as you feel like someone's not contributing to your marriage, there's an element of them contributing," Newman said. "Not to say that that's enough that you should stay married, but you have to really weigh in what it's going to look like."
Newman recommends therapy and counseling to any couple considering a divorce — not only is it cheaper, but it can potentially spare you the emotional cost as well.
That said, Smerling noted that each partner has to display some "intention" to make the marriage work. It's about the willingness to be vulnerable, to change — and to put saving the relationship "above your own ego gratification."
A previous version of this post was written by Emmie Martin.