Updated: Mar 29
Before you Split: Find What you Really Want for the Future of Your Marriage, by Toni Nieuwhof, poses a question on the back cover, “What would it take to leave unhappiness behind instead of your spouse?” Toni writes from her rare perspective as one who has spent years as a trained family law attorney and divorce mediator while being married to a pastor. Toni remains refreshingly transparent about her past marital difficulties - including the near break up of her own family. Her personal and professional experiences allow her to offer more than the usual insight. She hopes that the book will inspire someone struggling to give deep thought whether or not they could give their marriage a second chance. At the very least, her goal is to inspire the reader to take a step toward personal growth. The book’s first section titled “I can’t do this anymore” asks, “Is there no way out of stuck?” Toni recounts the struggles she and her husband, Carey, faced at the 15-year mark of their marriage. Looking back several decades later, she shares brutally honest details about the obstacles they overcame to revive a relationship breathing its last. She does not whitewash their conflicts, including confessing that she threw her wedding ring onto the floor of their car during an argument that marked a seminal moment in their marriage. She describes at length what being “stuck” felt like for her and Carey, as well as other example couples from her practice. “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.” This book is not neutral. While in her position as a family law mediator and former divorce lawyer Toni has certainly helped couples pursue divorce as amicably as possible, as one who has won a hard-fought battle to save her marriage and emerged stronger on the other side, her prejudice is for the reader to consider that alternative if possible. She’s the first to admit the journey’s not easy, but she provides convincing reasons to try – not the least concern for their children’s well-being and the improved emotional/mental health therapy can engender. Her thoroughly documented advice from prestigious experts in the field of marriage is sound and tested by not only herself, but many couples she has seen in her practice and through the Nieuwhof’s ministries. Toni raises interesting challenges:
“Is it possible that one of the existing barriers between you and a fully satisfying marriage could rest within your influence? Within you? You owe it to yourself to answer that question before you leave.”
To reap the benefits outlined in Before You Split, the reader must be willing to agree with Toni’s assessment that their marriage is worth at least trying to save and take the first step.
Inside the book:
Toni defines an unhappy marriage in descriptive terms like “drifted apart, lost the passion, stuck in what seems like endless conflict” in contrast to a harmful or dangerously unhealthy marriage. Toni directs the reader to seek help from a professional they trust to help discern whether their marriage crossed the line into harmful territory. She assumes the reader has reached the end of themself and offers those who want change a choice. Split, Survive, or Save – defining the terms and sharing pros and cons of the options. “The three paths converge where you are right now, but over time will lead you to dramatically different destinations,” she writes, and challenges the reader to assess what they really want. “Throwing off my 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?” she asks. Toni exhorts the reader to become teachable – which she defines as paying “close attention to the advice and marriage experiences of relatives, friends, professionals, counselors, authors and pastors.” Toni’s honesty normalizes the truth that couples will experience ups and downs in their relationship. But she declares those obstacles are surmountable by looking at expectations and the “why’s” behind negative emotions. She suggests developing strategies to learn better methods of coping and dealing with conflict. Toni found it helpful to enlist the help of a third-party expert when conflict reached an impasse, engaging a financial advisor to resolve money quarrels. Her website offers a personal accountability plan, conflict resolution cheat sheet and communication tips at toninieuwhof.com. Toni’s thoughts on the option to split: “Most couples I worked with in my practice wanted to leave behind the pain of their broken relationship. They wanted to close that chapter of their lives and move on. However splitting isn’t as simple as you may think.” She details examples of damage/disruption to finances, children, family relationships, community relationships, loss of home.
“The reality is that splitting up may get rid of an issue or two, but it will create other problems you can’t foresee,” she writes.
“I’ve also worked with some clients who, after divorcing, told me, ‘If I’d known then what I know now, I would have tried harder to save my marriage.’ They discovered they hadn’t actually signed up for better stories, just different ones. They hadn’t considered that transforming their marriages was a viable option, and once the divorces were over, it was too late. … they wondered whether or not the divorce was worth the problems it created.” Another motivation to try to uncover and work on problems, the likelihood that unresolved issues will follow the person, continuing to affect relationships in the future.
“Your marriage can change. Dramatically. What if there’s joy on the other side of your heartbreak. What if there are real feelings on the other side of saying yes to a step? Why not give your future self the benefit of your best shot.”
Toni believes that as long as the reader and spouse are experiencing ambivalence about a decision to divorce, they have the option of moving in the opposite direction, taking steps to move closer. “Feeling disconnected at times or moving in and out of stressful emotions is normal for married people.” Toni highlights pitfalls when trying to re-open communication: blaming and shaming, and destructive patterns of language. Instead, learn how to de-escalate conflict and to forgive, she writes. Fighting is another oft-cited reason a couple considers divorce. Toni cautions that fighting negatively affects children and introduces the idea that divorce does not stop it all. Instead, she has seen divorce open more avenues – custody, visitation schedules, finances, about which to fight. “You can quit your marriage, but you won’t quit being co-parents,” she writes. Toni acknowledges that splitting might provide a solution to escape constant fighting, but suggests learning more respectful and effective ways to communicate will bring about greater peace that will spill out into other areas of life. “If you split to get rid of the fighting or tension, you still will not get rid of your need to improve the ways you communicate with each other as co-parents. … The issues you’ve left unresolved will continue to trip you up and burden your children. Your kids will be far better off if you both find a way to cooperate.” Toni mentions how perceived victimhood on the part of one of both spouses clouds a true view of relational circumstances, points blame at the other, and allows a person to duck out of taking responsibility for their own part in the problem. In fact, she states “Possibly the most significant peacemaking decision you can make is to stop believing you’re a victim, at least the sole victim, in your marriage. You and your spouse are both unhappily married. You both have something to contribute to your unhappiness. You are two broken but lovable people trying to make sense of how you ended up here, so far from your dream.” She encourages couples to “fight for we” instead of themselves. Another helpful concept, realizing that the answer to a difference of opinion is not necessarily binary. In all likelihood, there is no one “right” way. Being able to have a conversation without criticism that allows for collaboration and creativity will help couples find common ground where they both can agree. Bottom line: “What if you focus on achieving peace and better cooperation between you and your spouse before you make a final decision about splitting? What if you park divorce, and all the logistics that go along with it, long enough to allow you to work on better shielding your kids from your unhealthy conflict now? Perhaps set the marriage decision to the side and learn a few new skills or strategies to help you manage the conflict between you as parents.” As Toni puts it, “Slow is your friend.” This point marks where Toni transitions from vision casting the benefits of reconsidering divorce and moves toward unpacking best practices for relationship building from a variety of top marriage researchers and experts. Things like: be kind and respectful, value your children’s relationship with the other parent and their family, and co-parent from a posture of unity. The stress of parenting could be one of the factors that began deteriorating a marital relationship. Just applying these few practices alone could make a difference in a marriage. At the end of the day, “Your goal in all this is to offer your kids stability and security and to give them the benefits of appropriate boundaries. … The time for peace is now!” Toni acknowledges the difficulty of being the first one to take a step forward. She brings up the point that even if a spouse does not reciprocate, the one working to improve their emotional health will reap the benefit of the ability to have richer relationships – if not with the spouse, then with children, friends, other family members, at work. “You stand to only gain, not lose, by becoming a more loving version of yourself. You’ll be prepared for a more joy-filled future,” she writes. Once a couple has moved forward, Toni offerings enrichment ideas, like how to experience good moments – even during a challenging season. She recommends finding a shared activity that both spouses find exciting – Toni and her husband have explored sea kayaking, paddle boarding, zip-lining, a cooking class, and took up each other’s choice of snow shoeing and road biking. Sharing experiences leads to a more satisfying connection. There’s truth in the old adage, “the couple who plays together, stays together.” She reinforces the concept that God grants every person worth and dignity and describes the help she’s found from her spiritual walk. “People over the centuries have written about the value of faith in cultivating personal growth,” she writes, and purports that even for someone who isn’t sure about their faith, a church can offer friendship and fellowship with likeminded peers, especially if one finds them in a marriage building class or small group. She recommends couples who desire to strengthen their marriage surround themselves with others also committed and warns about heeding the siren song of those who might be championing a divorce that is not in the reader’s best interest. Finally, Toni reminds the reader that they will leave a legacy for themselves, their family, and their community, whether they split or stay and try to work it out. What does the reader want their legacy to be? She casts vision that they can think before they act and encourages them to pick one step to say yes to.
“If you can identify just one next step toward building a stronger marriage or deeper bonds with your kids, will you risk saying yes?” and, as Toni ends, “Someday you’ll marvel at how the exhilaration of saying yes has echoed into the future.”
About Toni Toni Nieuwhof and her husband, Carey, live an hour north of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, and have two grown sons. She entered law with a goal of pursuing child advocacy. As Toni began practicing family law, she realized she could help children best by strengthening marriages. When Toni began working on Before you Split in 2018, she closed her divorce law practice, although she still works in the area of separation mediation and continues to complete the requirements to be credentialed by the Ontario Association for Family Mediation. She developed material for the book both from her experience as a divorce attorney and her own season of struggling in her marriage. She and Carey were convicted to work on their marriage after realizing their unhealthy coping mechanisms and emotional baggage were contributing to the untenable state of their relationship and, worst of all, potentially damaging their sons. Seven years ago, the Nieuwhofs felt their marriage was sufficiently healed to be able to offer wisdom to others. In addition to publishing the book, Toni speaks at events and hosts podcasts that foster marriage and family. Toni’s website, Toninieuwhof.com, offers resources she’s created from her own personal tool kit. Toni and Carey’s goal is to inspire others to love being home.