Why How You Exit a Marriage Matters

Tactics to leave you think will help might actually backfire.

Posted May 23, 2010

Not only is it cruel to leave your marriage abruptly, it's a bad strategic move because your spouse will be surprised, angry and hurt. This is not a good way to start a dissolution process.

To illustrate this, I will use an imaginary couple named Carl and Mia.

Part I: The Buildup

Mia is unhappy in the marriage because she and Carl have become like two strangers living under the same roof. They don't interact, they barely co-parent and the tension in the house is palpable.

They have tried therapy and various weekend retreats for couples and, while things always get better for a while, they ultimately go back to "two ships passing in the night."

As time goes on, Mia become increasingly dismayed with their relationship and she lets Carl know that she is thinking about leaving. He doesn't seem to hear her, or he doesn't seem to care. She has made this threat before but has never followed through on it so he thinks she is just PMSing and "it's just talk." In any case, he doesn't respond in the way that Mia had hoped, which was to put down his newspaper, ask her what was that matter and let her know he would do anything he could to save the marriage.

Mia is now at her wit's end and feels that Carl's response is evidence that he doesn't care about her, the kids or the marriage. She is hurt and angry. As such, she decides she has to begin to plan an exit.

Part II: The Jumping Off Place

The following week, Mia confides in her best friend who got divorced 18 months earlier and contacts an attorney. She is really going to go through with it this time.

After speaking with the lawyer, her friend and even some others, Mia is now feeling strong enough to tell Carl but she has to do it before she loses her nerve (as she has so many times before).

In order to not change her mind, Mia thinks she has to have all her ducks in a row so she packs a bag, tells her friends and creates an entire exit plan.

It's a Friday evening after a long hard week for both of them but Mia feels the strongest she ever has. The kids have play dates. It's now or never. Within 20 minutes of Carl getting home from work, Mia tells Carl she is leaving him and that the marriage is over. She has her bags packed and she and the kids will be moving in with her sister until they can sell the house.

Part III: The Reaction and Fallout

Carl is shocked. He didn't see this coming and he feels ambushed. In his mind, he and Mia have the same problems as everyone else who is married and has kids. He didn't think things were all that bad. 

Mia leaves and Carl is all alone in the house. He is hurt but as each hour passes, he gets more and more angry and feels utterly dumped. This anger continues to grow the next day and the next. It climaxes when he is served at work with divorce papers.

Mia didn't know any other way to go about doing this and she was afraid the neighbors would see if Carl were served at home.

What Mia doesn't realize is that everything she is doing is actually triggering the worst in Carl - he's feeling rejected, betrayed, angry, and humiliated.

Mia also didn't realize that she had more choices (and better choices) that could have set a whole different tone for the divorce.

As Mia set things up, Carl is more likely to try to hurt her back, put up barriers to the dissolution process, argue for more custody, not want to give her alimony (or want to take as much as possible from her if she earns more than he does) and so on. If he is still in shock from not being given much warning, he will also be stunned initially and, therefore, probably immobilized for some time.

Part IV: The Quick Exit Backfires

As you can see, the sudden announcement works against the leaver who wanted the divorce over with now that they were ready to move on. Not only will everything take longer, but it will likely be much more difficult due to the fact that the leavee's higher, more mature self will not likely show up during the divorce proceedings.

Part V: Conclusion

Not giving your spouse ample (and clear) heads up of your unhappiness or your intention to divorce is not only incredibly hurtful, but it will make your spouse much more difficult to work with as you divide your lives.

I know from the responses I received after last week's article that some of you feel you did try to talk to your spouse but that he or she didn't listen and didn't take you seriously (that's why I used an example of someone who tried to tell her husband). Without knowing each party and the details, I can't really explain how or why that can happen, but I will say that there are often ways that people can be clearer or more direct than they are being.

Next week, I will say more about the "Dos and Don'ts" of paving the path to divorce.