Duty to Warn Your Spouse If You Are Unhappy in Your Marriage

If you're unhappy in your marriage, work on things before deciding to leave.

Posted May 16, 2010

This past week alone, I spoke with five people whose spouses told them quite unexpectedly that they were not happy in the marriage and that they wanted a divorce. All of these situations were after long-term marriages, and in none of these situations was there a precursor discussion or incident. The announcement seemed to come out of the blue.

Why is this important enough for me to write about? 

Two reasons:

1) It happens far too often;

2) It's cruel and incredibly hurtful to your spouse to end a marriage that way.

In an average divorce group I run, as many as 70% of the participants were dumped by their spouse without prior warning. I'd like to see some laws imposed to change this.

As therapists, we have what's called a "duty to warn." Normally, what clients tell us is confidential. But if a client tells us they plan to attack or kill another person, we have to notify proper authorities. The "duty to warn" (aka Tarasoff) is analogous to what I feel should be a spouse's duty to warn their mate when they are unhappy in the marriage. 

Given that marriage is a legal contract, what if all 50 states created a law that made it illegal to fail to let your spouse know of your intentions to leave and required that you give a minimum of six months notice that you want a divorce? After all, you are causing great emotional, mental, financial and other harm to your spouse when you don't give them a head's up (and sometimes even when you do).

Most states have marital dissolution waiting periods—a minimum time period the couple must wait from when they engage in the legal divorce process until when they can actually divorce, so why not impose a warning waiting period?

This would give the leavee a chance to ask questions, find out if therapy might be appropriate, and pull resources and facts together to prepare for what may come.

But when a divorce is sprung upon someone, it's as if they have been hit by a Mack truck and it can take the person months before they are able to integrate what just happened and that their marriage is ending.

In trying to understand the logic of the person who exits in this manner, the best explanations I can come up with are:

A) They have been badly hurt by their spouse so they want to hurt him/her back;

B) They feel trapped and need to "escape" suddenly;

C) They think ripping the bandaid off quickly will hurt their spouse less;

D) They have a new relationship that is getting serious and they don't want to work on the marriage any longer;

E) They are immature;

F) They don't know how to communicate their needs in the marriage;

G) They are only thinking about themselves;

H) The vows they took don't mean that much.

None of these explanations warrants the cruel act of announcing out of the blue that you are leaving the relationship.

If, in your best judgment, the marriage is not working, express your needs, get outside help, do all in your power to be respectful to your spouse before taking action to exit.

Here is an example of how to ease in to letting your spouse know your feelings: 

"Nicki, I'm feeling frustrated by how much we've grown apart in the past two years."

This gives your spouse a chance to tell you her thoughts and feelings on the matter. She may say something like, "I don't know what you're talking about," or, "I've been feeling the same way too." You can then have a conversation about what has happened (with or without the presence of a therapist or mediator).

When you handle the situation like this, you show your spouse common courtesy. This can go miles in terms of having a better experience.

If you are building up your nerve to "spring the news" one of these days, you should know that you are making everything harder—not only for her, but for yourself as well. (More on why this is so in next week's post).

An important note about domestic violence

If you fear for your safety when telling your spouse you want a divorce because there is a history of physical, emotional or mental violence, that is a different matter altogether. In extreme cases, you may have to leave suddenly, but that is not the kind of situation I am referring to in this post.

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