You’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Maybe you have spoken to your therapist or clergy person, trusted friend or family member. You’ve most likely spoken to an attorney to educate yourself about what’s ahead, financially at least. Your marriage, despite all the hard work you did together or separately, is over.
As much as it may be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to say, it’s time to tell your spouse you want a divorce. But when? How?
Don’t blindside your spouse.
Those are not easy questions to answer, but much will depend on whether or not your spouse has any idea of how you feel. If you have been in marital therapy together or have had numerous discussions about how troubled you are by the relationship, or if the feelings are clearly mutual, you will have more options. The words, “I would like a divorce,” as challenging as they may be to say and hear, won’t necessarily be a shock. But if your spouse has no idea, you will likely blindside him or her and that can be devastating. It may also result in a much more difficult transition for both because your spouse will be experiencing the early stages of grief — denial and anger — while you are not only accepting that the marriage isn’t working, but also ready and eager to move on with your life.
It’s all about timing.
Ideally, you’ll want to tell your spouse you’re considering divorce as soon as you realize you want to end your marriage. Saying it when you’re calm and have time to talk about it together, such as at the beginning of the weekend, is a good idea. You already know when your spouse is open to hearing bad news; take that into account. When it comes to finding the right words to say, it’s much more powerful to state your feelings about the relationship clearly, honestly and as kindly as possible, than calling your spouse on all the things you think he or she has done wrong in the marriage. Saying, “I feel sad that we don’t spend time together anymore and that we’ve grown apart,” is easier to hear than a blaming, shaming, “You never do things with me anymore, and it’s your fault that I feel lonely.”
Think things though.
If you haven’t yet told your spouse that you are contemplating divorce (or you have but he or she hasn’t heard you or doesn’t understand the seriousness of your thoughts), then it’s important to have a well thought-out strategy on how and when to share your feelings. It’s always kinder to give your spouse notice of your feelings. This gives him or her a chance to respond and perhaps even work toward improving things. Saying something like, “I haven’t been happy for a long time. I’d like to tell you what’s going on for me, and see if we can work on some of the things that are troubling,” is a good place to start — assuming you truly are open to fixing the marriage. If you’re not, don’t give your spouse false hope.
Be calm, kind and direct.
When you’re ready to say you want to split, be as direct and compassionate as you can: “I know this may be hard for you to hear, but I believe our marriage is over and that we need to get divorced.” After all, this was a person you once loved and may even still love but can no longer live with. While you not be able to consciously uncouple, if you have children together your soon-to-be former spouse is going to be in your life for a long time; you’ll have to learn how to effectively co-parent in separate households. Parting in as loving and respectful a way as possible goes far toward making that transition happen.
If you’re concerned about your safety, you may want to tell him or her in front of a neutral third party, such as a therapist, or you may want to say it in a public place where people will be around you. You can’t control how well your spouse takes the news, but there are ways that you can reduce the anger and encourage understanding.
Divorce is a big decision, especially if you have young kids at home. Never use the “D” word as an idle threat — that’s manipulative and cruel — and don’t blurt it out in the heat of an argument no matter how tempting it may be. But if you have done all you can to make your marriage work and divorce still is the way to go, then knowing how and when to tell your spouse will help both of you accept, adjust and eventually move on.
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Susan Pease Gadoua is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the founder and director of the Transition Institute of Marin (T.I.M.). Based in San Rafael, Calif., T.I.M. provides support and education to divorcing women and men. Susan is the author of "Contemplating Divorce: A Step by Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go", "The Top Ten Misguided Reasons to Stay in a Bad Marriage," and "Stronger Day by Day: Reflections for Healing and Rebuilding After Divorce." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.