A former divorce attorney lays out the hidden benefits of staying together, whether you’re frustrated with your marriage, on the brink of giving up completely, or simply want to strengthen your relationship to withstand the inevitable hard times.
“Toni Nieuwhof is the guide you’ve been waiting for. Deeply wise, genuinely empathetic, and uncommonly insightful, Toni is a fresh voice with tried and true experience that offers a proven roadmap.”—Ann Voskamp, New York Times bestselling author of The Broken Way and One Thousand Gifts
If you’ve ever wanted to say, “I can’t do this anymore!” out of frustration with your marriage, you’re definitely not alone.
In this practical and insightful guide, former divorce attorney Toni Nieuwhof shows that even if you feel disconnected or stuck in your troubled marriage—and worry about its impact on your kids—there is a way forward.
Before You Split helps you find what you really want from your marriage and how to move forward to a better future by:
• seeing yourself and your spouse more clearly
• dealing with unrealistic expectations
• empowering you with constructive ways to respond to difficult emotions
• engaging the power of forgiveness
• increasing your peacemaking skills
• advancing your journey of personal growth
Even if it feels like it’s over, it’s not too late. Change takes place one step at a time. Before You Split will help you make choices with your eyes wide open.
About the author
Toni Nieuwhof is a family law mediator and former divorce attorney. She is the wife of Carey Nieuwhof, who is an influential leadership author, podcast host, and international speaker. Toni and Carey often speak publicly about their marriage of more than three decades. In her downtime, Toni enjoys outdoor sports and spending time with Carey, their two grown sons, and their extended family and friends.
Excerpt: Before You Split: Find What You Really Want for the Future of Your Marriage (by (author) Toni Nieuwhof)
Is there really no way out of stuck?
One day, fifteen years into our marriage, we reached the tipping point. My husband, Carey, and I had endured years of conflict, now layered with ever-growing bitterness and contempt.
I was working a challenging job in legal affairs and governance for a hospital, and Carey was pastoring a growing church that demanded his full-time attention. Our schedules were packed with managing our careers and caring for our two children, ages nine and thirteen. Along with all the responsibilities of leading, serving, and volunteering at our church, we were involved with our kids and their school and all their extracurriculars, such as music lessons and team sports. Though our lives were full, we still tried to connect as a couple.
On this particular day in early summer, I breezed out of the hospital and into the front seat of Carey’s Mazda. I looked forward to catching a lunch with him, just the two of us. The last of the cold bite in the air had been replaced with tropical warmth. It felt good as I breathed it in.
The lightness of my mood didn’t last.
As soon as I closed the car door, Carey muttered something about how I had kept him waiting. My attempt to explain my tardiness didn’t help. He criticized again. And in rushed the flood of frustration and resentment I had held back since our most recent unresolved argument.
Keeping our lunch date suddenly seemed futile. And I wasn’t hungry anymore. Thick and suffocating silence hung between us. My hope for a better connection this time disappeared.
What was the hidden issue behind this argument? It went deeper than my being late. Because we had so many resentments, neither of us really knew for sure. On the surface, we had an endless supply of fuel for our disputes: who would be responsible for driving to the game the next day, who was cooking what for dinner, how the last discipline incident went down, whose family’s event we would attend, who was working late that night, and on and on.
This day’s argument followed the same old pattern: I would get upset over something Carey said and I’d shut down. Carey would respond by trying, progressively more insistently, to provoke a response from me. The more he tried, the more upset I’d become. The angrier I felt, the more I’d withdraw into my silent and zoned-out world. And then at some point, I would break the silence and explode into either anger or tears. It was as though this pattern had worn a rut so deep that neither of us could steer us out of it. We were stuck.
This day, it was impossible to hold my emotions back. I dissolved into tears. Head tilted toward the passenger window, I watched as drops patterned the sleeve of my navy suit. I looked at my hands clenched in my lap. Gripped with despair, I pulled at my wedding ring and forced it off my finger.
“There,” I said, throwing the ring on the floor at Carey’s feet. “You have it. I don’t want it anymore.”
Inside, I was a tangled mess of conflicting thoughts and emotions, desperate for our marriage to be anything other than what it was. I didn’t want to be divorced, but I couldn’t endure another hour of what our relationship had become. Unwanted anger, bitterness, and resentment filled me, but I didn’t know how to get rid of those feelings. I hated being hateful. And I melted into one more self-pitying episode of “I just can’t do this anymore.”
Even with my thoughts clouded by anger, I knew the significance of my ring. When Carey was a cash-poor student in law school, he’d sold his prized Ford, the one that was a gift from his grandparents, for the money to purchase that ring. It was everything he had to offer at the time—a symbol of his steadfast love, devotion, and sacrifice. And now there it lay, discarded on the floor. That day, I was dead to compassion.
It became clear to both of us that something needed to change, and though the time for change had been many yesterdays ago, today would do.
How did I end up here?
How had my wedding-day dream of living “happily ever after” turned out so bad? And how did I end up here, writing a book about it? Not only did I go through a desperate season in my own marriage, but I’ve also learned from the struggles other married couples have gone through that I’ve seen from various vantage points.
I’m a lawyer trained in divorce law. Even before I threw the ring off my finger, I had a clear picture of the consequences of divorce. Perhaps I felt then as you do now—I didn’t want to go there. Since the time our marriage was that bad, I helped hundreds of people through the often painful journey of separation, and I still do as a family law mediator. Being a divorce attorney is like practicing palliative care—only not caring for people through life’s end but caring for people through the death and aftermath of their marriages. I wasn’t motivated by any desire to help people end their marriages. On the contrary, out of compassion, my aim was to help people by ensuring their legal affairs were taken care of during a very difficult time of grief and transition.
I’m also a pastor’s wife. Carey and I have spent several decades serving and leading our local church. Maybe you think being a church leader stacks the marriage odds in our favor. After all, we should know a thing or two about love, right? But I wonder whether it sometimes does the opposite. I believe authentically following Christ from a healthy emotional place does benefit a marriage. But if you’re not emotionally healthy—as Carey and I weren’t—you still get tripped up. Being in church leadership adds a pressured and complicated layer. We were passionate about serving Jesus but naive about love, and we lacked mentors.1
Much of what I have to share relates to what Carey and I went through. I was desperately unhappy in my marriage, and I didn’t have a clue what to do about it. Since then, I’ve learned that the story I was seeing and believing at the time was not the full story. During our tough season, when I wondered if I should leave, I was unaware of how the emotional state I brought into our marriage was integrally wrapped up in the struggles and conflict we were experiencing. I had developed strong feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward Carey, which had risen from our unending conflict. All I knew was I would look at our young sons and all we had built together, and I’d ache with the knowledge that I had to make a choice about what to do with all this negativity. And I thought, It feels like it’s over. So now what?
Looking back, I know if I’d listened to my negative emotions, I would have taken my escape.
I’m grateful that I didn’t.
What about you?
Perhaps you and I have something in common. Maybe you fell madly in love with your spouse and, for at least a while, you couldn’t think of anyone else. You could have been surrounded with people, but your spouse was the only person in the room. Fast-forward to now, when at times you can’t stand being in the same room.
You may have found, as many couples do, that the spark that carried you through the first few years vanished far more quickly than you expected. Maybe you still have sex sometimes, but you’re not fully engaged or interested in it. You aren’t that attracted to your spouse anymore. Bad blood has followed you into the bedroom.
Maybe your marriage has you feeling overwhelmed. It’s been tougher than you thought it would be. Your dreams on your wedding day now seem like someone else’s. You feel trapped when you look at your old wedding photos and wonder, How did we end up here?
You look around, and your other friends seem happier than you are. You may have even spotted better prospects. The one guy on your work team seems to have his life together, and he’s a lot kinder to you than your husband is. You’re trying to dismiss the nagging thought that you’re wasting your life by staying.
Maybe you’re in that season of a long drawn-out argument. Or perhaps you and your spouse just drifted apart over time and the feelings are gone. Maybe your partner has changed so much since your wedding day that you hardly recognize the person you married. Or maybe you’re dealing with the fallout from a betrayal.
How did you go from “I can’t wait to see my spouse” to “I can’t stand my spouse anymore”? Something has shifted so massively in your relationship that you find yourself thinking:
I didn’t sign up for this!
I just can’t do this anymore!
How can marriage be this hard?
This is not the same person I married!
My heart is breaking for you because I too have been to that awful place where I thought the only viable solution was to give up and escape. Even in the quiet moments when your brain comes up with reasons to stay, your feelings ambush you in the next storm, shouting, That’s it. I’m done. It’s over. I know the unhappiness that escapes words. And as real and as forceful as those emotions are, they may be trying to tell you something—something deeper than “I’m done.” There’s probably more of a story underneath your marriage angst than you realize.
Maybe you can identify with how I felt when I flung my wedding ring on the floor. Throwing off the ring was my way of saying, I’m done with this version of our marriage. We needed to get honest and seek help or we weren’t going to make it.
Is it time for you to do the same?
“Divorce is a serious decision with lifelong consequences. Toni has given people an excellent way to hit the pause button and really consider what is best. Thank you, Toni, for this contribution to such a difficult process.”—Dr. Henry Cloud, clinical psychologist and author
“Toni Nieuwhof’s Before You Split offers practical guidance and time-tested advice to make it through the messy middle while building the marriage you’ve always wanted. If you’ve ever thought, I wonder what it would take to make my marriage awesome, then read this book.”—Jon Acuff, New York Times bestselling author of Finish
“If you’re stuck in your marriage or know someone who is, Before You Split is the practical help you’re looking for. Toni Nieuwhof is not only someone we trust personally, but she’s also a voice that needs to be heard when more couples than ever find themselves struggling in ways they never expected.”—Mark Batterson, New York Times bestselling author and lead pastor of National Community Church
“Before You Split is a unique and wonderful gift to marriage. Toni’s clear-eyed experience as a divorce attorney, her vulnerability about her own marriage, her familiarity with marital research, her spiritual sensitivity, and her wonderful writing voice make this unlike any book on the subject we know.”—John and Nancy Ortberg, authors and speakers
“From the perspective of a psychologist who helps many couples navigate marriage restoration, I urge you to read this book to help you make the best decision you can for the future of your relationship—one not rooted in emotion alone but in wisdom.”—Charity Byers, PhD, executive director of Blessing Ranch Ministries
“This book is filled with real-life tensions that every married person has had to live with and genuine solutions that Toni has found through her vast experience and personal struggle. It’s authentic, practical, applicable, and useful for every couple who wants to live their best life together.”—Danielle Strickland, international speaker, advocate, and author of Better Together
“Deeply wise, genuinely empathetic, and uncommonly insightful, Toni is a fresh voice with tried and true experience that offers a proven roadmap. Before you even think about splitting—split this book open and find the hope you’ve been looking for.”—Ann Voskamp, New York Times bestselling author of The Broken Way and One Thousand Gifts
“Toni Nieuwhof is a quiet storm—a brilliant mix of intellect, compassion, and revolution. Her book is sure to revolutionize your marriage.”—Sam Collier, international speaker and author of A Greater Story
“As a pastor, I have already recommended this amazing and helpful book, full of practical tips and relatable stories, to many couples and have assigned it as mandatory reading for those I am counseling.”—Mark Clark, senior pastor of Village Church, and author of The Problem of God and The Problem of Jesus