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Telling Your Spouse You Want a Divorce

How you tell your spouse you are divorcing shapes the outcome.

Key points

  • How a person asks for a divorce and what they say are both critically important, since it will shape how the divorce unfolds.
  • When asking for a divorce, one should expect a lengthy discussion, or a series of discussions.
  • Once one partner has decided on divorce, it can be counterproductive to discuss who is to blame for the erosion of the marriage.

You have been unhappy in your marriage for years. And for the last two or three, you have been thinking about divorce, even fantasizing what life would be like if you were "free." You have distanced yourself from your spouse, and have slept in separate bedrooms for months. Although there is civil dialogue between you, there is no warmth and occasional flare-ups in which whatever the issue is gets pushed down rather than resolved. The only thing that has held you in the marriage is your guilt about the children, but you have been working on that with your counselor. Now you have finally reached a decision: Even with all its disadvantages and the dislocation and problems it will cause, you have determined to get a divorce. All that is left is to tell your spouse your decision.

(From this point on to make the writing easier I am going to treat the divorcing spouse as the wife. Since about three-quarters of divorces are initiated by women, it is not unrealistic to do so.)

The Beginning

How you tell your husband, and what you tell him, are of critical importance because it will shape how the divorce unfolds. There are several factors to consider: First, how surprised will he be? In most cases, he, like you, will be dissatisfied with the marriage. He has wished for a long time that things would get better but has not known how to make that happen. He is probably aware that you are unhappy but may not realize that you are so unhappy that you want a divorce.

In a few cases, a partner is so oblivious that he actually thinks everything is fine. By analyzing what you know, you can make an educated guess about how surprised he will be. The more surprised or shocked he is, the longer it will take him to accept the divorce. And the less he accepts the more he will try to talk you out of your decision.

Choose a moment when the two of you will have some uninterrupted time. Turn off the phones and make sure the children are elsewhere and fully attended. Your statement could be some variation of the following:

"I have some difficult news to share with you. I have decided that this marriage cannot continue and that I must seek a divorce. This is something I have been struggling with for a long time and I suspect that you are at least aware that we have been having a hard time together. But I have reached the limits of my pain threshold and just cannot go on any longer. I know this will be a difficult and painful process for all of us. But I believe that we can do it with decency and reasonableness and I hope you will come to believe that as well."

You should be prepared for a lengthy discussion or series of discussions. If he is not yet ready for the divorce—and chances are good that he isn't—his first impulse will be to talk you out of it, tell you that you are wrong, or even express anger that you would do this to him or your children. His tone may become angry and he may accuse you of all sorts of terrible things. All of these responses are normal and predictable. Now is when you start making choices about what kind of divorce you will have.

Do Not Defend

If his commentary is accusatory or critical, you will be sorely tempted to strike back. You want to tell him how his behavior and neglect, his insensitivity to your needs, his deficits as a husband, father, provider, and partner all justify your decision and that you should have made it years ago. But if you say these things, you will have a mess.

Despite your intuitive and reflective impulses, it is vital that you do not defend yourself and that you do not critique his failures and deficiencies. Listen quietly and do not interrupt. Hear him out. He is in acute pain. If you have ever learned anything about active listening, now is the time to use it. Not only should you not try to shut him up, encourage him to talk more. It will be useful if you summarize your understanding of his feelings so he feels understood.

In 30 years of mediating divorces for thousands of couples, I have never succeeded in helping a couple agree on history. And there is no chance that the two of you will do so, either. Instead of recounting who did what to whom, you must simply say that the marriage has not worked for a long time. You no longer believe it can be fixed and divorce is the only alternative you can envision. Acknowledge that both of you have contributed to the erosion of the marriage and that it is pointless to try to figure out who is more to blame. In fact, it is a discussion that you will not have. Instead, you are willing to talk about how to build a future for the family so that you all come through the process able to rebuild and thrive.

If he tries to draw you into a discussion of fault and recrimination you must refuse it. You can repeat what you have already said, emphasizing four points:

  1. Your decision is irrevocable and you will not change your mind.
  2. You are determined to have a civilized and decent divorce in which everybody's needs are addressed including his.
  3. You will not engage in a discussion about fault.
  4. You are only willing to talk about how to organize the divorce.

Reiterate that you are also aware that he needs time to accept the situation and that you will give him all the time he needs. You know that the two of you will have to negotiate many issues and that you will work with him to get to a fair and reasonable resolution. But this is not the time for those discussions. That will come when he has had the time he needs to reflect and feels ready to begin. You should also say that you will not precipitate any kind of legal action and that you hope to minimize contact with lawyers and the courts.

Ending the First Discussion

This is all you have to say for the first discussion. There will be many more. There are some things you should not do in this first discussion. He may be very anxious about economic issues or he may be anxious about his contact with the children. So he may begin with provocative statements like, "Well don't expect me to move out. I'm not going to be one of those pathetic dads who lives in a hole in the wall while you keep everything for yourself. And don't expect me to pay you alimony. If you want this, you go support yourself."

Simply reassure him that you will be fair and that you are confident that the two of you will work out a reasonable agreement. But tonight is not the time for that. Don't take the bait and don't have any discussions for which you are not both ready. Reiterate what you have already said and end the discussion. Reassure him that you empathize with his feelings and that you will work with him as he becomes ready. Then end the discussion.

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