Telling your spouse you want a divorce is difficult. What comes after can be even more difficult.
In my previous article, I talked about how to prepare for telling your spouse that you want a divorce. You know your spouse better than anyone, but if you’ve never had a discussion specifically about the reality that you will be divorcing, you cannot predict how he or she will respond.
A surprising number of people who divorce say they never saw it coming, and had no idea how unhappy their partners were. So, even if you have been miserable and thinking of moving on for months, your spouse may be shocked by your request. And even if you and your spouse are equally unhappy in your marriage, you’re moving ahead with getting a divorce, and that has the potential to sting.
Imagine how you would feel if your boss came into your office one day out of the blue and told you that you’re fired and your replacement will be here in the morning, so please leave now. You would certainly feel strong emotions and need some time to get yourself emotionally together before being ready to make decisions or move on.
If Your Spouse Is Angry
Be prepared with a plan for how to respond if your spouse lashes out at you. Avoid the temptation to defend yourself or strike back. Listening intently and actively to your spouse at this moment will take the wind out of his or her sails; making excuses or hurling back accusations will add fuel to the fire and change the focus of the conversation from what is going to happen to what a jerk you are.
When there is a pause in your spouse’s litany of reasons why a divorce will be your fault, you can say, “I can hear that you have also been unhappy for a long time, and I’m sorry that I did not realize that sooner so that I did not continue adding to your misery.” Remember, this is the moment in which you set the tone for your entire divorce process, so put all your energy into making it one that will be most likely to take you in the direction you feel will be most beneficial for you and your family over the long term.
If Your Spouse Blames You
Refuse to engage in the blame game. You can repeat what you have already said emphasizing four points:
- Your decision is irrevocable and you will not change your mind.
- You are determined to have a civilized and decent divorce in which everybody’s needs are addressed including your spouse’s.
- You will not engage in a discussion about fault. You’re only willing to talk about how to organize the divorce.
- You’re also aware that your spouse needs time to accept the situation and you will give him or her a reasonable amount of time for that.
Tell your spouse that you are aware that the two of you will have to negotiate many decisions and that you want to work toward a fair and reasonable resolution. But emphasize that this is not the time for those discussions. That will come when he or she has had time to reflect on the situation and feels ready to begin.
If Your Spouse Requests Reasons
Anticipate that you will be asked why you want a divorce, and be prepared to give an answer that is truthful, but not hurtful or insulting. “I’m just tired of all the fighting and I feel that there’s no hope for our marriage” will be much better received than “You’re a horrible person who has messed up our children beyond belief.” Accept responsibility for your part in the decline of your relationship, but avoid long confessions that will change the subject from moving forward with separation and divorce to who created the problems. “I can’t be the person you want me to be” will work better than reciting a list of anyone’s bad behaviors.
If Your Spouse Wants You to Reconsider
If your spouse doesn’t think divorcing is the right option for your family, he or she will likely ask you to change your mind about getting a divorce. In the case that you’re willing to go to counseling, be very specific about the purpose. “I’ll go to counseling to attempt to save the marriage” is very different than “I’ll go to counseling to work on our post-divorce co-parenting relationship.” If you are sure that you won’t change your mind, you must state that fact as clearly and compassionately as possible.
A spouse who wants to save a marriage will interpret everything you say and do in a way that supports a belief that there is hope for the marriage to remain intact. When those hopes are dashed, the whole process of angry lashing out will begin all over. Be careful about using pet names, sharing inside jokes, and acting as if everything is normal. You may begin to feel that it is not safe for you to be nice to your spouse because it continues the cycle of hope and disappointment. As difficult as it might be, you might need to say, “I want to be able to be nice to you without causing you to think that we’re getting back together.” If it’s hard for your spouse to immediately switch to a friendly relationship, it’s best to limit contact to businesslike interactions until tensions subside.
Additional Dialogue to Consider
Also, be careful about statements that are subject to interpretation. “I will always take care of you and the kids” might create unrealistic expectations for a wife who just learned that she will be a single mom and is anxious about her financial future. “I know we both want what’s best for you and the kids, so I promise that we’ll work together to figure out how that will look” is more accurate and less likely to get you into trouble later.
You might want to reassure your spouse that you have everything already figured out regarding property settlement and parenting schedules. Do not fall into this trap, even if your spouse wants to talk about a settlement. Settlement discussions are not productive, and can actually be counter-productive, if they’re not done when you and your spouse have collected all the information you each need to make an informed decision and at a time when both of you have regained your emotional equilibrium.
Discuss only immediate arrangements, including where you’ll stay in the short-term to give your spouse space to process, and agree that longer-term plans will be discussed at a later time. Assure your spouse that you intend to be fair and you are confident that the two of you will work out a reasonable agreement when the time is right. Be understanding, but be firm on this – it will make things better for both of you in the long run.