Knowing how to tell your spouse you want a divorce is important, and I’ve written elsewhere about it. But knowing when to give the news is also important and can make the difference between an adversarial divorce or a respectful one. Timing is (almost) everything.
It’s been said that January is “divorce month” and that divorce filings surge in January. While this is not always the case, there are some reasons that January is the month when my phone starts to ring.
People start the new year with intentions to change their lives in some way. Perhaps it’s to go on a diet or to start to exercise. In some stressed marriages, people are ready to change their lives. While the decision to divorce may have become clear to you in October, you should hold off (if possible) till the holiday season is over.
Often, when the announcement comes in January, it’s because people have waited till after the holidays to break the news. People want to have one last “normal” holiday season, with all the usual family traditions. If you announce your intention to divorce around Thanksgiving or Christmas, every holiday season will bring back that painful time. It probably isn’t fair to your children to associate Christmas with their parents’ divorce every year.
How do you know when you are ready to tell your spouse?
- Be certain of your decision. Divorce should never be used as a threat or ultimatum. Divorce threats are words that your spouse can never “un-hear.” Have you found clarity or do you still have doubts?
- It’s unfair to blindside your spouse with the news. Often the anger I see in an early divorce situation is when one side never saw it coming. This happens when conflict-avoidant people hide their emotions so that when they announce their desire to divorce, the spouse is flabbergasted. Communicate your unhappiness early, when it starts, and convey your conviction that your marriage needs help. Ask your partner to work on the marriage with you. Be open to marital counseling before the problems become a crisis. Problems in marriage don’t go away on their own and you can sweep them under the rug for only so long. This is when you feel like you’re living with a roommate. You’re both ignoring the elephant in the room.
- Don’t tell your spouse until you know you’ve left no stone unturned. You’ve read books, talked to friends, begged your spouse to go to counseling, or perhaps your spouse has refused because “I don’t believe in therapy.” You’ve tried everything you can think of. When you know you have no other options, it may be time to tell your spouse.
- Ask yourself, “Is there anything my spouse could do to keep me in the marriage?” If “yes,” then perhaps you could invite them to make the change/adjustments. If “no,” then you at least know you have few options other than leaving.
- Don’t sit on it for months or years. If you’re determined to stay married, do what you can to repair your marriage. If an argument 6 years ago was the “final straw” do something before your anger poisons the relationship.
- Clients have often asked me whether to “stay together for the sake of the kids.” There are different ways to think about this. If there is a lot of conflict and arguing in the house, your kids may be relieved to see that end. If there is abuse, protecting your children is primary. Ask yourself, what message you are sending your children when you stay together. If you and your spouse can co-parent well under the same roof, then a “parenting marriage” might be a reasonable solution. In a parenting marriage, you and your spouse agree to stay together despite the absence of romance in your relationship. Perhaps you see yourselves as good friends, raising children together. If you agree and can live together without stress and arguments, it is a viable alternative for some.
- This should go without saying, but don’t ask your child “Do you think we should divorce?” Parents worry about how divorce might affect their children; this is normal. Sometimes they’ll test the idea out on a child, usually a teenager, and often an adult child. But divorce is your decision. Asking your kids’ advice puts a burden on them that they should never have to carry. There are some topics where kids get a voice, but not a vote. Where to go on vacation, or what movie to watch, might be one of those topics. Divorce is not.
When (and when not) to have “the talk.”
- Find or arrange a time when the children aren’t home (if you have kids) and you have some hours ahead of you. Don’t spring it on your spouse when he/she is about to go on a travel-for-work trip or out to a business event. Avoid giving the news on “special days.” These are birthdays, holidays, vacations, or getaways.
- Opening the conversation after a long day at work is a setup for a bad interaction. You probably already know when your spouse is most open to difficult conversations. Choose a Saturday morning when you’re alone at home. If you have kids, send them to their grandparents or friends for the weekend.
- Plan what you will say before you bring it up. Words said in anger set the stage for a difficult divorce. Be clear about what you want to communicate, how to say it, and how to respond to the inevitable questions. You may say something like “As you know, I have been unhappy for a long time. I think we have both worked to heal our relationship, and I’ve thought long and hard about what to do. I have decided that I want to divorce.”
- It probably isn’t going to be a quick conversation. You and your spouse will need time to calm down before your kids are home. This may be one of the hardest conversations of your life, and you’ll always remember it. Choose a time when you aren’t stressed out about other issues in your life, or in a rush.
- Don’t do it on the phone. If you are worried about your own safety, suggest that you meet in a public place (like a coffee shop or park) or your therapist’s office.
- Don’t throw it out in the middle of an argument. Your marriage and your spouse deserve a more thoughtful approach.
- Avoid getting into the “nitty-gritty” of your marital history, your resentments or unexpressed anger, or the grudges you may hold. Avoid getting into everything your spouse has done wrong, avoid blaming him/her, avoid contempt. Even if in your heart you blame it all on your spouse’s affair, you can still say “I know we’ve both made mistakes, and we haven’t been able to heal the hurts.” A respectful conversation paves the way to a respectful divorce.
- Don’t bring divorce settlement proposals into the conversation. There is plenty of time later after the news sinks in. Now is not the time. You might say, “I want to do this in a peaceful, amicable way so that we don’t hurt each other more in the process.” If you are parents, you will need to have a decent co-parenting relationship after you separate.
Telling your spouse of your decision to divorce is a very painful thing to do. You have thought about it for a long time and are now clear about your decision. Thinking carefully about what to say, and when to say it, will make this conversation a little bit easier.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020