How to Tell Your Spouse You Want a Divorce

Updated 04/22/19

Telling your spouse you want a divorce is tricky. It's not a conversation to look forward to; it likely means facing conflict and hurting your spouse, and most of us shy away from either of those situations.

Regardless of what you feel about your spouse and your marriage, respect for that person's station in your life is the only fair option you have. So, when telling your spouse you want a divorce, do it the right way. And, yes, there's a wrong way. 

How you tell your spouse you would like to seek out divorce will greatly depend on whether or not divorce has been a subject of discussion in the past. If your spouse is under the impression that all is well in the marriage, the conversation will play out differently.

Whatever has been going on in the marriage, you should always consider how the news is going to affect your spouse emotionally. Don't let your fear of telling your spouse you want a divorce tempt you to do something that will only make the situation worse.

If there have been discussions of divorce in the past, breaking the news that you've decided to divorce should be met with less conflict, anger, and hurt feelings. If your spouse is unaware of your unhappiness, asking for a divorce will be a hard conversation.

Ways Not to Tell Your Spouse You Want a Divorce

While you may feel your marriage has fallen apart, you should still treat your spouse with respect when telling him or her you desire to divorce, and sometimes respect is hard. Don't skip the divorce conversation and go straight to serving your spouse with divorce papers. This tactic is an easy way out, but the easiness is temporary. By failing to discuss your desire to divorce, and moving forward with the paperwork, you will likely miss out on an amicable split and begin a war.

Another way to not tell your spouse you want a divorce is to pack your bags and leave one day—never to return again. This tactic is not a mature way of dealing with a subject as serious as divorce and dismantling a family. It may send a clear message of "I'm out of here" in a way that can't be misinterpreted, but you will probably find it hard to live with your cowardice once the dust settles.

You need to discuss divorce with your spouse, and your spouse should be the first to know of your intentions to divorce—don't tell your family and friends before the talk. Would you want to find out from your friends and family if the situation was reversed? Divorce is hard enough when it is between two people. By bringing others into it, you make the situation more complicated and will also look foolish.

Dealing with Your Spouse's Reaction

If your spouse is surprised by your desire for a divorce, there will likely be a lot to address once you share your feelings.

Let's look at the situation from the perspective of your feelings: Divorce is something you've been thinking about for a long time. You've already worked your way through feelings of loss, hopelessness, and depression and have now detached from your spouse and the marriage.

When you share you want a divorce with your unknowing spouse, they are going to begin the process of working through the feelings of loss, hopelessness, depression and a myriad of other negative emotions you have already worked through—only they didn't want the divorce.

You are ahead of your spouse in the grieving process. I once spoke with a man who was surprised by his wife's reaction to the news he wanted a divorce. He told me she was "fragile" and "seems to be falling apart." He couldn't understand why she wasn't sharing his sense of relief and he had no idea how to live with her behavior.

There can be a huge contrast between what you are feeling and what your spouse will feel with your announcement of your intentions to divorce. You are ready to move on with your life. Your spouse will question how you are ready to move on so quickly and be hurt by the fact you are.

It is helpful to the spouse being left behind if the spouse leaving is able to show compassion and empathy for their pain. It may not be easy to be around the person you've hurt, but taking the time to give your spouse closure is something you won't regret down the road.

Be Mindful of Emotional Harm

When a spouse is left and handed an unwanted divorce, they feel like they've lost control over the path of their marriage and plans for their future. You, the spouse who wants the divorce, are now in control, and if you behave badly toward the spouse you are leaving, this will only promote more conflict and do more emotional harm.

I'm not telling you that you have to like your spouse's reaction. Most likely, there will be a difficult response to your desire to divorce. Showing compassion for what he or she is experiencing, and the transition they are going through will make the process of divorce easier for all involved.

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