How to Talk to Your Spouse About Divorce

Telling your spouse that you want a divorce is one of the most difficult conversations you can have. To make it go as smoothly as possible, plan out what you are going to say ahead of time.  Be direct and clear about the points you want to make. Avoid antagonizing your spouse and remain calm even if he or she starts to insult or blame you.

Plan Ahead

Spend time considering exactly what you hope to accomplish with the conversation — do you simply want to tell your spouse that you want a divorce, or do you hope to begin talking about the details of the divorce itself? Always set a clear goal for the conversation. Make notes or write out what you are going to say ahead of time. Practice saying it out loud to yourself. This will help you to sound confident and remain calm and controlled when the time comes to speak to your spouse.

Having a plan for what you will do after the conversation ends is equally as important. Even if both of you have been unhappy in the relationship for some time, it will still be a difficult conversation. Arrange for a place to stay for at least the night after you have the conversation, if that becomes necessary. Have packed what you need for the night before the conversation so that you are ready to leave once the conversation is over or if you need to cut it short if it begins to spiral out of control.

Understand Your Spouse’s Mental State

When discussing divorce with your spouse, it’s important to consider your spouse’s state of mind. If you are raising the issue of divorce, then you have probably been thinking about it for a while. In contrast, your spouse will likely be caught off guard when you bring up the topic. This is  true even if both of you have been unhappy in the relationship for some time. Hearing the words “I want a divorce” can be shocking. Your spouse may still believe that the relationship can be saved.

One way of thinking about this is through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. That’s because the emotional journey to divoce is very similar to that involved in grieving. The five stages in order are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s likely that once you have reached the point of bringing up divorce to your spouse you are in the acceptance stage. You have accepted that your relationship is broken and cannot be repaired, and decided the best course of action is to separate. Your spouse, however, will likely not be at that stage. Knowing these stages can help you to better understand why your spouse reacts in a certain way to the news. He or she will likely be starting off in the “denial” or “anger” stage. The fact that parties in divorce are usually in different mental stages of the grieving process is what creates a lot of the emotional turmoil usually associated with divorce.

Understanding that you are likely to be in a better mental state during the conversation means that you need to focus on keeping calm. Do not react to any insults that your spouse may make upon hearing the news. Remember that they are going through a process that you have likely spent months or years working through yourself. Allow your spouse some time to process the information and continue speaking calmly throughout the conversation. Do not allow your spouse to draw you into an argument. Instead, attempt to return back to the point you wish to make whenever your spouse begins to bring the conversation off course. If you feel your temper rising, take a pause in the conversation for a moment and attempt to re-center yourself.

There are two mindfulness techniques that can be used to help you quickly calm down. The first is called 20 breaths; take 20 deep breaths focusing all of your attention on each breath as you take it. For the first 10 breaths count up to 10, and for the second 10 count back down to 1. The other technique is called STOP. First, stop the conversation. Second, take a few deep breaths, third observe what you are thinking and feeling, and then fourth proceed with the conversation. Both of these techniques can be done in a very short amount of time and help you regain control of your emotions. It is important to keep yourself as calm as possible so as not to escalate the conversation.

When to Have the Conversation

Finding an appropriate time to bring up the topic of divorce to your spouse can be just as important what you say in determining the success of the conversation. Find a time when tensions are low and both you and your spouse are relaxed and comfortable. You also want to pick a time where you and your spouse are alone and free so that you can have a period of uninterrupted time together. Needless to say, if you have kids they should not be around.

What to Say: Positive Communication

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all answer––what you actually say to your spouse will be unique to your relationship. However, there are certain strategies that everyone should employ when it comes time to tell your spouse you would like a divorce.

No matter how long this conversation has been in the works, talking about getting a divorce is going to be difficult. The goal is to make this difficult conversation go as smoothly as possible. To accomplish this you will want to adopt positive communication strategies. Positive communication is often used in therapy to assist families with the difficult conversation with a loved one about their substance abuse. However, the strategies used translate very well to any difficult conversation.

Positive communication is typically made up of seven steps, but only six are relevant to discussing divorce. These steps are as follows: be brief, be positive, be specific, label your feelings, offer an understanding statement, and accept partial responsibility.

  1. Be Brief

Make sure you are concise and focused in what you say. Now is not the time to bring up old problems or rehash your relationship.

  1. Be Positive

Avoid insulting or attacking your partner. Making negative remarks towards your spouse will increase the likelihood that they respond with anger. Phrase the conversation in terms of what you want, not in terms of what you don’t want (i.e. “I want a divorce” not “I can’t do this anymore” or “I don’t want to be in this marriage”).

  1. Be Specific

Make sure your statement is specific and quantifiable. Make it clear that you want a divorce.

  1. Label Your Feelings

Let your spouse know how you have been feeling so that they understand where you are coming from.

  1. Accept Partial Responsibility

A marriage is a partnership. Just like it takes two people to make for a successful marriage, both parties most often bear some responsibility for the relationship not working out. Don’t place all of the blame on yourself, but be willing to admit that you may have contributed to the relationship failing (even if you don’t think this is true). This will help prevent your spouse from feeling that the conversation is an attack on him or her and help them realize the relationship itself is flawed. It can also help to prevent your spouse from becoming overly defensive.

  1. Offer an Understanding Statement

Tell your spouse that you understand that they may be feeling, angry, upset, or surprised. You want your spouse to know that you understand this is going to be difficult for them as well. This is also a good opportunity to offer to give them some time to process before continuing the conversation.

Moving Forward

Once you have talked to your spouse about divorce, give your spouse time and space to process the discussion. Keep in mind that this initial conversation will almost certainly not cover everything. It may not even go beyond simply telling your spouse you want a divorce. There will likely be many more conversations in the future covering, among other things, what happens to your home, how to split your property, alimony, and potentially custody and child support. After you have spoken with your spouse, look into contacting a divorce mediator or attorney.

This conversation is likely to be draining and a huge moment in your life. Do something nice for yourself afterwards to help you relax, calm down, and get back into a positive mindset.

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