When You Know It’s Over—How to tell your spouse you want a divorce

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You’ve been unhappy for a long time. You’ve tried hard to make this marriage work but have felt the distance growing between you and your spouse. You’re at the end of your ability to stay in this painful situation. And yet the next step feels overwhelming, frightening, and seemingly impossible.

How do you tell your spouse you want a divorce?

Telling a spouse your marriage is over is one of the most difficult conversations you’ll ever have, and it’s the beginning of a long, complicated process. There’s just no way to make it easy and no perfect way to do it that works for every couple.

But there are strategies to make the first conversation go more smoothly and set the tone for a peaceful divorce process.

Be honest with yourself. Once you’ve said the D-word, you can’t unsay it. Before you dive into this conversation, make sure you’re sure. Is there any hope or chance to salvage your relationship? Are you willing to try therapy—or try it again? Is it a divorce you want—or is this a last-ditch effort to get your spouse to listen to your concerns? Are you using divorce as a threat because you feel angry, hurt, frustrated, resentful, betrayed, or fill-in-the-blank? Are you still in love? If you have any question in your mind that you want to end your marriage, pause.

Choose a time and place carefully. If you’re sure it’s over and it’s time to ask for a divorce, be very intentional in how you plan the conversation. It’s not something you want to blurt out in the heat of the moment. Pick a time when there’s minimal stress, no important events, or urgent work commitments. Select a place where you can speak comfortably, free of disruptions and distractions, for as much time as you need. Ensure the children are with a friend or relative and can stay as long as necessary. Unless you’re concerned about your safety, choose somewhere private. Turn off devices.

Prepare yourself for your partner’s reaction. Your partner probably already knows that things aren’t working. But they may not be aware that, for you, it’s over. Sometimes, the other person has no idea you’re so miserable (that disconnect may be part of the problem). But in any case, your partner may feel shocked, blindsided, devastated, outraged, embarrassed, total denial—or any of a vast spectrum of emotions. They may lash out and say hurtful things. Be ready for this. Consider speaking to a professional beforehand. A counselor can help you prepare for a strong reaction, learn how to de-escalate, and practice staying calm and on message.

Be direct and firm but gentle and respectful. Think seriously about what you want to say and how to deliver this news. It’s a good idea to let your partner know ahead of time that you need to have a serious talk. When the moment arrives, briefly explain why you’re unhappy. Make sure your spouse understands that you’re in earnest. Clearly state that the marriage is past the point of fixing and you want a divorce. Then stop.

Allow your partner to respond. They may try to talk you out of it or tell you it’s wrong. They may get angry and accusatory. Resist the urge to strike back. Don’t try to control their feelings. Remember, your partner is hurting. Listen quietly, without interrupting. Remain calm and open even if they’re riled up. Active listening can be helpful—encourage them to talk more, and reflect on what they’re saying. But don’t give false hope.

Don’t go into specifics or place blame. Refuse to argue. You will never agree on exactly what went wrong. Each of you will have your version of history. Acknowledge that you have contributed to the marriage falling apart, but be resolute that you’re unwilling to point fingers, discuss fault, or fight over who did what.

Don’t get ahead of yourself. Remember, this is just the initial conversation. There will be many more as you enter into the divorce process. Now is not the time to discuss details or begin negotiating financial issues, living arrangements, custody, division of property, etc. You will need a professional for that part. Assure your spouse that you want a fair and equitable settlement to get through the process peacefully and do what’s best to rebuild the family’s future.

Moving forward.

The more surprised your spouse is by your decision, the longer it can take to process and accept it as fact. Ideally, given some time, they’ll realize that the divorce is happening whether they cooperate, and it’s in everyone’s best interest—especially your children’s— to move forward civilly. Also, remember that therapists are not just for saving a marriage—they can help end one as harmoniously as possible.

Maintain privacy. Take time to let the dust settle. Then you can discuss how to let others know. You don’t want your friends and family’s feelings and opinions to complicate matters right now. Keep a healthy boundary around your marriage as you begin the complex process of taking it apart. When you’re ready, you can share the news as you decide, and your loved ones can be of support.

Getting divorced is a highly personal, emotionally charged, and complex experience. Knowing what to expect can help ease the stress and create a sense of security when you may be uncertain about your future. Our veteran team of attorneys at SFLG focuses exclusively on divorce and family law. We offer experienced and compassionate guidance through the complicated process of divorce.

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