The Mindful and Healthy Approach
Coming to the realization that you want a divorce can be one of the hardest things a person can experience. You have a history with your spouse. You have your own perspective about that history and all that has led to this point in your marriage. You have your own truth based on your own perspective. Most commonly, your individual truths about the history of your marriage do not align. While every relationship is entirely unique and the dynamics between you and your spouse are likely complicated, it is true that you once loved and cared for the other person. You have shared a part of your life with them — good, and bad.
Perhaps you have tried marriage therapy. Marriage therapy — particularly Emotionally Focused Therapy — has shown much success where both spouses are committed to doing the hard work of turning towards the other in efforts to repair and improve the relationship. However, it is possible that you are already past the point of no return. It is also true that couples therapy is only an option if both spouses agree to participate.
You may feel that for years you both have drifted apart. Sometimes, recent specific actions lead to a loss of trust that cannot be recovered. Once you have thoughtfully weighed your options, divorce may still be your ultimate conclusion. Now, fearful of discussing your feelings you sit with your own reality. Many report that the feelings of loneliness at this point is overwhelming. Most have no idea how to approach their spouse, or what the best next steps are moving forward.
Telling your spouse you want a divorce and the first steps toward divorcing can make a tremendous impact on the quality of your divorce process. Your divorce can evolve in a healthy way with minimal conflict and minimal cost, or fighting can explode that can cause years of court battles with aggressive attorneys.
Be honest and direct, but as kind as possible
Regardless of your circumstances, first take a moment to breathe and acknowledge the past that you have had with one another. You married your spouse for positive, loving reasons, even if you do not share the same feelings now. You may have each made mistakes in your relationship, and to at least some degree, are responsible for certain aspects of the state of your relationship today. Consider beginning the conversation with your spouse with honesty about your feelings, while also being conscious of their feelings. This may be hard, especially in cases where you have recently been hurt.
If you ever attended marriage therapy, you may have heard the phrase, “attempt to use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements.” This simple action can start your process off with a low level of conflict. You can imagine the different reactions you may see from your spouse by approaching in the following ways:
“I am no longer happy in our marriage. I feel as though we have grown apart and do not have things in common anymore. I understand this may be very difficult to hear, but I want to move forward with a divorce and more than anything I want it to be as peaceful as possible.”
“You destroyed our marriage and I am done with you! You caused all these problems, and I want a divorce! Make no mistake, this is your fault!”
By limiting blame, you are also limiting your spouse’s ability to react with defensiveness, hopefully leading to a productive conversation about how to end your marriage.
Be prepared for your spouse’s reaction
One can never know for sure how their spouse will react to the initial divorce conversation. Reactions can range from quiet numbness to hysteria. Although you may not ever “be prepared” for how the conversation unfolds, one approach would be to attempt placing yourself in your spouse’s shoes. If the tables were turned, and you were reacting to the news, would you want to be treated with compassion and respect, regardless of your initial reaction?
Try to avoid going down a rabbit hole of fighting because you are immediately offended or shocked by your spouse’s initial reaction. Regardless of how your spouse’s behavior may have contributed to your decision to divorce, they are only human, and may likely experience a rush of hurt and pain that can cause them to say or do erratic things in an initial conversation.
Resisting the idea of divorce is also a common reaction. Often times a spouse does not believe a separation is necessary. If you face initial resistance, be mindful not to go on the attack offensive, even though your instinct may be to express your anger that your spouse could be so unaware about the current state of your marriage.
Your spouse is actually more likely to hear and understand your feelings when you speak from a place that calmly, clearly, and consistently communicates that you are ready to move forward with divorce. You can do this empathetically, even while your spouse struggles to keep calm, or reacts in a dismissive manner. Avoid threatening your spouse, or reacting harshly to threats, even in situations where you feel your spouse is not taking you seriously.
In certain cases, a marriage therapist working with both of you can also help you be heard in a different way. A good marriage counselor’s goal is not to save the relationship, but rather to support the relationship regardless of what that means for the outcome.
Choose the best time and place
The saying is true, “timing is everything.” Although you may have finally come to your own conclusion that a divorce is the path you want to follow, be conscious of the time and place in which you open up the conversation with your spouse.
For example, raising the conversation in the middle of an argument is not ideal. Raising it at a time where there are only a few moment to discuss is also less ideal. When you both have the time, and a quiet place without interruption, this will help set the tone. If you are currently in marriage counseling, many spouses report that this was an ideal place to have a supported conversation about divorce.
If there has been a death in the family, a job loss, or another major life event, it may be best to give the idea some time before proposing it to your spouse. However, sometimes this conversation is unavoidable and has to be done at an unideal time. Just be conscious that the conversation can lead to stress and conflict, so do what you can to approach with a mindset of limiting those reactions. Much is beyond your control.
Avoiding the conversation will make circumstances worse
Many of our clients are at a loss for words when it comes to starting the initial conversation about divorce. Understandably, many people want to start the process with as little conflict as possible or without having a conversation at all. However, this often leads to one spouse hiring an attorney and filing a Petition for Dissolution, which is then “served” on their spouse without any warning.
Yes — you have effectively avoided the conversation where you inform your spouse about your intention to divorce, but ultimately you have also set off a powder keg of divorce conflict. In some cases, particularly where you may have concern for your safety, serving your spouse unexpectedly may be the only reasonable approach, but in the vast majority of cases, avoidance of a conversation will backfire.
Imagine your spouse being confronted by a process server, or deputy sheriff at their office surrounded by their colleagues. Divorce documents are aggressively handed to them and when opened, they find that you want a divorce. The Petition, written by your attorney reads like a long list of extreme demands regarding each issue of the divorce. Your spouse will also learn that in Arizona, they only have 20 days to respond with a formal Response, or Answer. Shock and confusion will initially hit them, and soon after, anger may become all consuming.
Immediately thereafter, the most likely move is for your spouse is to retain an attorney. From the first moment, your divorce process has started with an eruption of conflict and this will often create an avalanche of conflict to come.
In order to avoid this from occurring, we suggest first having a conversation with your spouse and including valuable information you have learned about different divorce processes. Specifically, in your first conversation, you can let your spouse know that you both have a choice about whether to go through divorce in mediation or litigation. You can make your preference for mediation clear in order to prevent conflict from skyrocketing.
Be careful not to immediately begin discussing how you will divide assets and debts, or reach parenting or custody agreements. A disagreement over a specific divorce issue without the support of an experienced divorce mediator to help navigate and resolve the conflict can cause damage and perpetuate fears, mistrust, and “worst-case-scenario” thinking.
Getting more information about healthier divorce
When a spouse seeking more information contacts us, we send them an email including information about our divorce mediation services and available dates and times for an initial consultation. Many of our clients find it helpful to forward this onto their spouse or provide it to their spouse when they propose the idea of divorce. That way, both spouses get on the same page about how divorce mediation can provide a respectful, lower conflict path through divorce. We also provide a link to our website and blog, which provides a wealth of resources and information that allow both spouses to feel educated and supported, especially where children are involved.
The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation offers a complimentary 1-hour consultation in which you both can attend to learn about how divorce mediation works and how it compares to litigation in the courts. We explain our process in great detail so you both know exactly what to expect. We also take whatever time you both need to fully answer your questions.
The vast majority of spouses report feeling relieved after the initial consultation as now they are fully informed about a fully supported divorce process that can help them through from beginning to end. There is no obligation to move forward.
Remember, you are at different emotional places
Before you inform your spouse that you want a divorce, it can be very helpful to acknowledge that you each are likely at different emotional places on the spectrum of the grieving process. Behavioral health experts agree that spouses grieve the end of a marriage, similarly to how people grieve the death and loss of a loved one. It is important to be aware that the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and loss are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
You have taken the time and made a thoughtful decision about seeking a divorce. While spouses who initiate divorce may be anywhere along this spectrum of grief, the chances are that you are not at the same place as your spouse. In some cases, your spouse may feel completely unaware that you were even considering divorce. You may be at a place of acceptance, while they are still in denial.
Much conflict in divorce stems from spouses being at different emotional places. One wants to move fast, the other wants to move slow. One wants to talk about the past, the other wants to focus only on the future. Awareness of this universal truth may help inform your approach with your spouse.
Focus on the future, and be guided by your desire to have a low conflict divorce
A healthier, more respectful divorce that focuses on finding the best solutions, and when children are involved, puts children first, is all possible. But the likelihood that you will have the more peaceful process that you believe is best for your family all begins with the first conversation you have with your spouse about divorce. Be as thoughtful as possible and consider your spouse’s feelings, even though this may be difficult in the moment. Also, be strategic in what you say, the tone you say it, and what you choose not say.
If you are sharing with your spouse that you want a divorce, your goals are now shifting forward to the future: perhaps a goal to divorce with as little financial and emotional harm as possible to you both and your children; a goal to maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship with your soon to be former spouse if you have children; a goal to be as stable and secure as possible after divorce. Let your goals be your guide in this first conversation, and in all conversations with your spouse about divorce.
This is not easy. But you can get through it. Stay true to yourself. And lay the groundwork for a healthy divorce.