Can the Irreconcilable Differences in Your Marriage Be Reconciled?

Solve those personality differences and unmet needs

Couple sitting at kitchen table discussing bills
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Irreconcilable differences are the usual basis for granting a divorce (dissolution) in no-fault divorce states. If one party says the marriage is irretrievable and refuses to reconcile then such differences are proved to exist.

The term “irreconcilable differences” came into use by the courts with the inception of no-fault divorce laws. The idea behind the concept of differences in a marriage that are “irreconcilable was to take away the need for a spouse to blame the other for some wrongdoing in order to divorce.

One definition I read said, irreconcilable differences are those which are determined by the court to be substantial enough reason for not continuing the marriage.” In other words, the courts will grant a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences if it determines that the spouses can’t agree on certain basic issues.

I find the language, “the court will determine” interesting since I’m not aware of a divorce case under no-fault divorce laws in which the courts “determined” anything. Especially not anything to do with the problems in the marriage. These days, the family court system doesn't care why there is a divorce, they care about getting couples divorced and off their dockets. And perhaps that is the problem with the concept of “irreconcilable differences” when dismantling a marriage or family.

The courts accepting irreconcilable differences as a reason to divorce has directly played a role in society's lessening respect for the institution of marriage.

Everyone, couples, the courts seem to be focused on a quick resolution to a problem than an actual proactive response to dealing with our high divorce rate.

An unhappy spouse wants out and wants out now. The court wants your case and your marriage off the judge's docket. File for divorce, slap a stamp on it and everyone moves on to the next marriage and next divorce.

It's disheartening that we've lost sight of the value of working through conflict and providing our children with intact families. 

Some of the factors a court will use to determine whether a marriage suffers from irreconcilable differences are:

  • Differences in personality
  • Unmet emotional needs
  • Financial problems in the marriage
  • Built up anger and resentment
  • Lack of trust in a spouse
  • Squabbling and bickering
  • Aggressive feelings or behaviors

In my opinion, one of the seven items listed above is “irreconcilable.” Aggressive feelings and behaviors is a grounds for divorce but what about the others? Let’s take the other six one by one and discuss how they might be reconciled in an attempt to save a marriage.

How to Reconcile Irreconcilable Difference in Marriage

1. Differences in personality: No two people have the same personality. The personality traits that first attracted us to a person may end up being the ones that irritate us the most. Is being irritated by the personality traits of another good reason to divorce though?

Normally these differences are magnified during times of stress like the birth of a child, financial difficulties or the ins and outs of everyday life. If you fell in love with him because he was easy going and laid back, it makes sense that you will find it irritating when he is late to dinner or can’t seem to get up the gumption to light a fire under the auto mechanic.

That easy going, laid back personality that complemented your Type A personality now drives you up the wall.

How do you reconcile this difference? You let him take care of the issues he is good at; you take care of the issues you are good at. If you are more able to light a fire under the auto mechanic, let that be your job. You should play off each other’s strengths instead of focus on the differences between each other.

2. Unmet emotional needs: Most of us deal with childhood wounds that keep us from being able to identify what are truly our emotional needs. We look to our spouse to fill a need that is not his/her place to fill. We bring toxic beliefs into the marriage and have unrealistic expectations of a spouse that leave us unable to get our needs met because those needs are so unreasonable.

For instance, if a wife’s emotional needs were never met as a child, if she was never given affection, affirmation or praise she will not have a need for those things. In turn, since she has no need she will not realize or be able to meet your need for those things.

Marriage counseling or working with a marriage educator helps couples identify their emotional needs and how to get them met. If you need more touch, you have to ask for more touch, if you need words of affirmation you have to let it be known that such words are important to you.

More often than not, when one spouse is not getting their emotional needs met, the other isn’t either. If you feel your emotional needs aren’t being met, instead of filing for a divorce seek out therapy because divorce is no way to get those needs tapped off.

3. Financial problems in marriage:

When either spouse starts making financial decisions that don’t take into consideration the financial needs to the marriage, the marriage is in trouble. Being in trouble doesn’t mean there is not a solution to the trouble, though.

I had a friend who was a shopaholic, so much so that she had credit card accounts her husband knew nothing about. She had a post office box for the account statements to come to in an attempt to keep her secret from her husband.

Secrets like this don’t stay secret for long, though!

Her excessive shopping and spending habits were exposed and her husband quite unhappy. His response was not to file for divorce, though, he took pro-active steps and sent her a clear message that her behavior was unacceptable and would not be tolerated.

She had to get rid of her credit cards, he paid off the debt and then she had to repay him with interest. Their marriage survived her financial infidelity because her husband knew how to set boundaries with her AND being the parents of two children they realized that keeping the marriage intact was more important that going their separate ways.

They have recently celebrated their 30 anniversary, are the proud grandparents of two and have a loving, kind and respectful marriage. They chose to solve their marital problems instead of dissolving their marriage.

4. Built up anger and resentment:

Built up anger and resentment normally come about when a couple has a long-term inability to communicate their angry feelings with each other. We go into marriage with high and unreasonable expectations. When those expectations are not met it can be hard to communicate disappointment to your spouse.

When disappointment and hurt feelings are not communicated anger and resentment build up.

Problems in a marriage are inevitable; not discussing problems as they arise is destructive to the marriage and relationship. John Gottman, a marriage therapist, and researcher observes that the healthiest couples tend to see problems as temporary. Rather than dwell on the troubles, happy couples look for the good, dwell on it, and believe it to be the core of their relationship. He encourages us to "find the glory in our marital story."

You can’t dwell on what is working well in your marital relationship if you are brooding on the troubles. Instead of divorce, hone your communication skills and take the lid off those built up resentments.

5. Lack of trust in your spouse:

Trust is all about whom you believe your spouse to be. You believe he will not cheat, you believe he will stand up for you; you believe the love you give will be returned. Due to those beliefs, you have “trust” in him and the marriage.

When he behaves in a way that you never believed he would, trust is lost. If trust has been broken and he is willing to admit his mistake, make honest changes in himself, share any needed information about the mistake with you and take full responsibility for his behavior, trust can be regained.

I spoke to a woman recently who is divorcing her repentant husband after he cheated on her. She said that he “has done all the right things and loves her,” but she can’t get over the humiliation and shame she felt when others found out about his infidelity. For this woman it isn’t about rebuilding trust and saving her marriage, it is about pride and her own selfish need to be viewed in a certain way by others.

If your heart is in the marriage and the marriage is your ultimate priority trust can be rebuilt if he is repentant and willing to participate fully in healing the problems the loss of trust caused in the marriage.

6. Squabbling and bickering:

When two adults are constantly bickering they are engaging in silly behavior. If you are old enough to be married surely you are bright enough to find a solution to marital problems that doesn’t include constant harping and arguing.

I know a couple who’ve been married for nearly 40 years and for nearly 40 years they have been bickering, arguing and engaging in pissing matches with each other. Their marriage has been one long power struggle! It seems to work for them but, for most, it can destroy an otherwise healthy marriage.

If you and your spouse are caught up in a cycle of bickering and arguing learn the relationship skills needed to help you calm down and stop bickering as a cycle. 

For most “irreconcilable difference” happen when we love in an immature way. As adults who have a true sense  of autonomy, we don’t expect someone else to meet all of our emotional needs. We don’t hold our tongues until anger and resentment poison our relationships and we don’t bicker or get into power struggles with those important to us. We are able to recognize that our spouses have their own sense of self and due to this will do or say things that rub us the wrong way at times.

No one has to give up who they are and what they want from their marriage. They do need to be reasonable about who their spouse is and what they are able to give and not fault him/her for not being able to meet unreasonable needs. If you find yourself in divorce court, could it be because the differences in your marriage are irreconcilable or you are refusing to look for a way to reconcile them?