How to Tell Your Spouse About Divorce

two people discussing divorce options

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 and your spouse each spend a lot of time together and you each have your own perspective of how your history brought you to this point in your marriage. You are each entitled to your own “truth” and it is normal and expected that your truths may not align.

While every relationship is entirely unique and the dynamics for divorcing spouses 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 and it is never easy letting go and even in the most amicable divorce there are feelings of loss.

You may have tried marriage counseling or a trial separation. Marriage counseling — particularly Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) — has shown much success when both spouses are committed to repairing and improving the relationship. Marriage counseling is only an option if spouses are amicable and committed to making the marriage work.

Whether you drifted apart over a long period of time or specific actions lead to a sudden loss of trust, the divorce process most often brings with it a roller-coaster of emotion. If, after thoughtfully weighing your options, you decide “I want a divorce”, you now face some difficult conversations and you may even fear your spouse’s reaction. Many report that the feelings of loss and loneliness at this point can be overwhelming. Most people have no idea how to best approach having a divorce conversation with their spouse.

How you go about breaking the news to your spouse can have a tremendous impact on the quality of your divorce process. Your divorce can evolve in a healthy, amicable way, with minimal conflict and minimal cost, or you can take opposite sides and a conflict can erupt and lead to years of court battles with aggressive divorce attorneys.

Be honest and direct, but as kind as possible

Before having a divorce conversation, make sure that you have taken care of your own mental health and well-being. Think carefully about what you want your divorce process to look like. Amicable, collaborative divorces are based on both partners committing to keeping conflict low and reaching mutually-beneficial agreements. Mediators help these couples to communicate in a new way and to identify the issues of their divorce and to thoughtfully address each of them.

Commit to being honest about your feelings and being cognizant of your spouse’s feelings. This may be hard, especially in cases where you have recently been hurt. You might acknowledge that married your spouse for positive, loving reasons, even if you do not have the same feelings now.

If you attended marriage counseling, you may have heard the phrase, “attempt to use ‘I-statements’ rather than ‘you-statements.’ This simple action can help keep conflict low and get your divorce process off to a productive start.

Imagine how you or your spouse, might respond to these two very different messages:

“I-statement” message: “I am no longer happy in our marriage. I feel we have grown apart and do not have things in common anymore. I have spent a lot of time coming to this decision and I understand this may be very difficult to hear. I want to move forward with a divorce and more than anything I want it to be as amicable and peaceful as possible.”

“You-statement” message: “You destroyed our marriage and I am done with you! You caused all these problems, and I getting a divorce! Make no mistake, this is your fault!”

In the “I-statement” message, removing blame allows the spouse to react in a non-defensiveness manner. This greatly improves the chances of having a productive conversation about how to complete the divorce process.

Be prepared for your spouse’s reaction

One can never know for sure how their spouse will react to the initial divorce conversation. Reactions range from quiet numbness to hysteria. Although you may not ever be fully prepared, one helpful approach is to take a few moments to placing yourself in their shoes. Consider how you would want to be approached if the tables were turned.

Plan ahead to stay on topic, to speak in a low, soft voice and at a slow pace.

Prepare yourself in the case that your spouse’s initial reaction is offensive or shocking. You want to avoid getting off topic and allowing conflict to escalate. Regardless of how your spouse’s behavior may have contributed to your decision to divorce they still may experience extreme feelings of loss and pain. Try not to take erratic behavior in an initial conversation too personally.

Be aware that spouse’s frequently resist the idea of divorce. They may believe that even a trial separation is unnecessary. If you face initial resistance, be mindful not to go on the offensive. Be aware that your instinct may be to express your anger about how your spouse could be so unaware of the current state of your marriage.

Your spouse is 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 let go and move forward with divorce. You can do this empathetically, whether 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.

Choose the best time and place

The saying is true, “timing is everything.” When you have 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 begin the conversation with your spouse. Begin by scheduling some uninterrupted time so that you can both give your full attention to the discussion. This will help set the tone for a thought discussion.

If you are currently in marriage counseling, many spouses report that this was an ideal place to have a supported conversation about divorce. Plan for your discussion so you don’t bring up the topic of divorce in the middle of an argument. If tensions are running high, and you throw out an “I want a divorce”, it will likely be counter-productive and make any divorce conversation more difficult.

If there has been a recent major life event, such a death, major illness or job loss, it is important to be extra thoughtful in your approach. We understand that in spite of major life events, life goes on and divorce may need to be done at an unideal time. If that is the case, do what you can commit to a collaborative divorce process and maintain a dedication to limiting extreme reactions.

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 avoid this conversation at together. However, this can lead to a divorce attorney being hired and filing divorce papers, which are then “served” on their spouse without warning.

Yes — you have effectively avoided the conversation, but ultimately you have set off a powder keg of divorce conflict. In some cases, particularly where you may have concern for your safety, such as in situations involving domestic violence, 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 deputy sheriff in a public place with their friends or at their office surrounded by their colleagues. Divorce papers might be aggressively handed to them without any explanation. So that the moment they open the envelope, is the moment 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. Initially, they will be hit by shock and soon after, anger may become all-consuming.

Immediately thereafter, the most likely move is for your spouse to retain their own divorce. 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, we suggest first having a conversation with your spouse and including valuable information you have about different options you have for completing your divorce process. In your first conversation, let them know that you have the choice to go through a 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 the details, such as how you want to 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.

talking to your spouse about divorce

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 complimentary consultation. Many of our clients find it helpful to forward this email to their spouse or provide it to their spouse when they propose the idea of divorce. That way, both spouses get on the same page from the very beginning about how divorce mediation can provide a respectful, lower conflict path through divorce. We also provide a link to our website and blogs, which provides a wealth of resources and information that allow both spouses to feel educated and supported, especially where children are involved.

In your complimentary consultation, your potential mediator will explain 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 necessary to fully answer your questions.

The vast majority of spouses report feeling relieved after the consultation, knowing they understand the process and knowing they will be supported throughout their entire divorce process. 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 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 of the 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 can help inform your approach with your spouse..

Focus on the future, and be guided by your desire to have a low conflict divorce

A healthy, respectful divorce that is focused on finding the best solutions, and when children are involved puts them first, is possible. The likelihood that you will have a 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 at the moment. Also, be strategic in what you say, the tone you say it, and what you choose not to say.

If you are sharing with your spouse that you want a divorce, your goals are now shifting forward. Your new goal might be a divorce with as little financial and emotional harm as possible for you and your children; to maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship with your spouse if you have children or 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.

In certain cases, a marriage counselor working with both of you can help you to 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.

Divorce is not easy, but you can get through it. Stay true to yourself and lay the groundwork for a healthy divorce.

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