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Elizabeth “Libby” James is the woman no one wants to go see — until they have to. The 38-year-old Charlotte resident has been a divorce lawyer for 13 years and has had a lot of women come through her office in that time. She’s seen it all and says divorce is actually the easiest part, it’s figuring out spousal support and dividing up the assets — and everything else — that gets so complicated. (North Carolina law says you have to be separated for a year before you can be divorced.) Libby says, “Of course there is never just one reason a marriage falls apart. People assume it’s usually because someone had an affair, but one of the main causes I see is just dealing with the daily grind, and often the problems can be intermingled. Couples get so busy that they lose touch with each other.”

And it turns out, this is the time of year they most often come to grips with that. Libby says more people tend to start down the divorce path after the holiday season. “I see a pretty big uptick in consultations because a lot of people try to stick it out through the holidays and then go see an attorney,” she says. We asked Libby to get real with us – about why marriages fall apart, how to keep your marriage strong and how to know when it’s time to walk away.

Libby James, a Charlotte, NC, divorce attorney, gives her insight on how to make your marriage strong — and when to call it quits. Image: Horack Talley

5 Common Reasons Marriages Fail

1) Attrition

“People grow apart and give up over time. Everyone’s lives are so busy that we wind up being ships passing in the night, we lose touch, and you stop feeling like you’re in a marriage,” Libby says. “People look for other ways to fulfill the need and wind up having affairs – sexual or emotional — and lose things to communicate about with their partner. They lose that feeling of being a unit. The affairs are usually a symptom of a marriage that’s disintegrated.”

2) Mental Health Issues

When one or both parties have mental health issues, it can lead to divorce. Libby shares, “I see a significant number of my litigation cases with some sort of narcissistic personality because those people tend to be very hard to live with, refuse to accept blame and start accusing their spouse of anything that goes wrong with their life. It can interfere with child relationships — the narcissistic parent has trouble interacting, and that can be very hard for the other spouse to live with.”

More serious mental health disorders such as depression or bi-polar, can be hard to recognize, and society has put a stigma on them for so long. Libby says it makes it hard when one spouse is going through that for the other spouse to cope.

3) Alcohol and Substance Abuse

This issue can certainly fall under mental health when people rely on drugs or alcohol to deal with anxiety. But sometimes alcohol and substance abuse is its own separate issue, and living with someone struggling with substance abuse can be difficult. “If one spouse can’t kick the habit, it drains the bank account, they disappear for days on end, and it can lead to the downfall of a marriage,” shares Libby. “The addiction rate has become so prevalent, there’s not as much of a stigma, but it’s just as dangerous —and in some ways, more expensive — than a mental health disorder.”

4) Financial Issues

Financial issues in a marriage can run the gamut. Libby cites a scenario in which one spouse may be gambling and losing significant amounts of money. “It becomes a secretive thing, and financial infidelity – gambling the family money away — is tough,” she says. “The other spouse becomes frustrated with secret spending and sometimes when the finances get so bad, it becomes an additional stressor and becomes too much to work through.”

5) Adultery

“With the rise of social media, it’s much easier to fall into these emotional or sexual affairs,” says Libby. “It’s easier to connect these days — to meet old boyfriends, the high school sweethearts coming back together — but a lot of time rarely is there just one thing. An affair could come from someone who feels their marriage is already being pulled apart.”

Time to Call It Quits?

Now that we know some of the most common reasons marriages fail, perhaps the toughest questions is knowing if it’s time to call it quits or stick it out. “This is a hard question,” Libby says. “Certainly, if someone is in an unsafe situation or the children are suffering from conflict between the parents, then it is time to call it quits. Children deserve to see happy, healthy relationships.” She explains that if parents are working on repairing their marriage, then it makes sense to stick it out. However, if the children are suffering due to tension and conflict in the house, it’s likely best to move forward with the divorce.

Tips for Keeping Your Marriage Strong

“Stay connected. Communicate. LISTEN!” Libby suggests. She underscores the importance of finding something you can do together with your spouse that brings you both joy but also something to connect over. “It doesn’t have to be exciting, it could be watching a television show, just so the two of you have something to talk about, something to look forward to. It can be an activity — go to church, learn to cook, take dance lessons — something where it’s the two of you having something that brings you together.”

Libby says that communication is key when trying to keep your marriage strong.

If Nothing Else Works

“One thing to remember is that when you’re going through a divorce, you get lots of advice, but this is such a case-specific area. No family is the same, and no divorce is the same,” Libby says. “There are so many factors in every case, so listening to friends — or your hairdresser — is not always helpful.” For reasons such as that, it’s important to seek assistance from a family law attorney with whom you have a good rapport and open communication. “One of our jobs is to help people see that you have to be able to communicate with each other,” Libby says. “It’s not always an option, but in most cases it is. And you are going make it through!”


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