I frequently get asked for advice on how to tell a spouse that the marriage is over. There are a lot of articles online that have useful information, and that’s a good place to do some research. In this article, I add my thoughts to that conversation.
Take a moment and think it through. This is the time to be honest and realistic about who you are married to, and what type of marriage you have. For most married couples, a discussion about divorce is going to be difficult, but for others it can be dangerous. So, first, if you are married to someone that is objectively dangerous to you, or who has physically hurt you, strategize how to tell him/her with someone like me, or a qualified mental health professional who deals with domestic violence, or WEAVE. You will need to develop a plan to let your spouse know the marriage is over so that you, and any kids you have, won’t be placed at risk or in danger.
For the majority of other folks, who may face an emotionally stressful situation, but not one that creates any risk of harm, I suggest you follow these guidelines:
Pick a place where you deliver the message. You know your spouse. Determine whether it should be in a public location (like a park), or a private one (like around your kitchen table). No matter where, no one should be able to overhear what you’re saying, nor should your spouse feel like he/she is being publicly shamed or ambushed. If you have children, make sure they aren’t around, or even in the house if you’re delivering the message there. For the most part, a private place will be the most respectful; public locations should be selected when there’s a safety issue. One of the best places you can tell your spouse is at a therapist’s office. If doing that, tell the therapist what you intend to do, and strategize the best way to have that meeting.
Pick a time when you are both normally calm, attentive, and not distracted by other things. Mid-mornings can be good, unless you and your spouse over-caffeinate and get jittery, or there are youngsters around. Early evenings can be good, unless you or your spouse drink (alcohol and bad news are a potentially dangerous combination), or there are youngsters around. The key is trying to find a time when your spouse will be at his/her best, and not distracted.
Keep it short. If this news is going to be a surprise to your spouse, remember that they’re only going to hear your first two or three sentences, and then the chances are good they are going to be emotionally flooded, and/or shut down. In either case, they aren’t easily going to be able to process anything else you say at that time. Work from a script if you need one (e.g., bullet points on a flash card), and keep it reasonably short and to the point. An example might be something like this, “You and I have both been unhappy in our marriage for a long time. Though I still care for you, I can’t be married to you any longer. I want to end our marriage”. Or, “We both know our marriage was over a long time ago. It’s time we formally ended our marriage, so we can both move on and both be happy again”. These are my words; you need to use your own, and ones that your spouse will recognize as authentically yours.
Stop talking, and listen. DON’T try to justify your decision with a list of reasons, or get pulled into an argument. You both look at the world differently; trying to prove your decision is right or justified is only going to set the stage for a big fight. If he or she needs it, give your spouse some space and time to process this information. Some people process this information faster or slower than others. If your spouse handles the news well and has questions, it’s okay to have a discussion, but once again, don’t argue; if he/she wants to argue with you, don’t engage, other than to calmly state that your mind is made up. And suggest that the two of you could talk about it some more later, which gives your spouse time to get emotions under control.
What to do if your spouse wants to resolve important issues right then and there? Negotiating money or kid issues immediately after finding out that your marriage is over is a bad idea. If you have to have such a discussion, limit it to deciding whether or not to use out of court processes (like mediation or collaborative practice), or litigate. Most times, spouses will be only too happy to hear that you want to solve issues respectfully, and away from the courthouse.