You’re unhappy. The marriage counseling didn’t help. You want a divorce. The only thing left to do is to bring up the topic of divorce with your spouse. But how do you ask your spouse for a divorce? This is likely to be one of the most difficult conversations you’ll ever have in your life. You may feel nervous, anxious, and unprepared for this stressful situation, especially if you aren’t sure how your spouse will react. Don’t let this fear trap you in an unhappy and unhealthy marriage for longer than necessary.
There’s no perfect way or perfect time to ask your spouse for a divorce, but there are general steps you can take to make the process smoother and lower the chances of a hostile reaction. Here are some helpful steps to follow when broaching the topic of divorce with your spouse:
1. Make Sure That You’re Sure
Getting divorced is a major event that will forever alter the lives of you and your family, so make sure this is absolutely the right decision for you. If you decide you want a divorce in the heat of a fight, give yourself time and space to calm down so that you can fully consider all the consequences of divorce. Before you make your decision, we strongly recommend that you attend a Second Saturday Divorce Workshop so you can understand the legal, financial, and psychological consequences of a divorce. If any part of you thinks you’re just experiencing rough patches and hopes to save your marriage, it might be worth pursuing marriage counseling before you make your decision.
Divorce can’t be undone, so make sure you’re sure!
2. Prepare for Divorce
If you’re sure that there’s no saving your marriage, then it’s time to start preparing for your post-divorce life. Even though you may be tempted to have “the conversation” with your spouse as soon as your mind is made up, hold off if possible. Instead, give yourself plenty of time to create a plan of action that will put you in the best position possible to thrive after the divorce.
For example, you’ll want to make sure you have access to funds, which may mean opening your own savings and checking accounts just in case your spouse decides to close your shared accounts when you announce the divorce. (Yes, it happens.) You’ll also want to start gathering important documents that will help you and your spouse fairly divide your assets during divorce negotiations. Finally, think carefully about your living situation. Are you prepared to move out or do you want to stay put and ask your spouse to leave? What do you want to do about child custody during the divorce process? If you think your spouse may not respond well to the conversation, it’s probably smart to have a place you can stay, even if that’s just your friend’s couch.
Another great way to prepare for divorce is to consult with a divorce attorney. A family law attorney can help you understand what to expect during the divorce process. They can give you advice on divorce costs, how to seek the right custody arrangements, and how to get the divorce settlement you want.
3. Practice Your Conversation
When it finally comes time to sit down with your spouse and have “The Conversation,” you’ll likely face intense emotions. You may find yourself struggling to articulate your feelings. To help make this difficult conversation go a little better, practice beforehand. That doesn’t mean you have to memorize a long speech outlining the reasoning behind your desire to divorce.
Instead, jot down notes or bullet points that you want to cover that explain your feelings and reasons for asking for the divorce. Practicing saying the words out loud. Next, try and anticipate how your spouse might react so you’ll be ready. What is their temperament and communication style like? Will they be shocked or are they aware that your marriage has been struggling for some time? Do they tend to get defensive or will they beg you to reconsider? Being ready for your spouse’s reaction will help you maintain control of the conversation.
4. Pick the Right Time and Place
When you’re ready to ask your spouse for a divorce, think carefully about the setting. There really is no perfect time to ask for a divorce, but there are times that could create a worse situation. Try to avoid major holidays or large life events. For example, if your spouse just lost his or her job, now is probably not the best time to add to their stress with a divorce request.
Try to arrange for a time when the two of you can have a long calm discussion without distractions or interruptions. That may mean asking a friend or family member to watch the kids for the night.
5. Just Do It
Many spouses stay in miserable marriages for months or even years because they don’t have the courage to speak up about their desire to divorce. Don’t let that happen to you.
When it comes time to ask your spouse for a divorce, be gentle yet firm. Do not approach your spouse with anger. Also, be very clear that you are asking for a divorce. Don’t allow for any wiggle room. If you need to use notes, go ahead. Rely on your practice to explain your feelings and what led you to your decision. Try to use “I” statements rather than “You” statements so it doesn’t seem like you are blaming your spouse.
Although you may feel hurt, betrayed, angry, or spiteful depending on what led to your decision for a divorce, try to control your emotions as much as possible. The outcome of this conversation will set the stage for your divorce process in a big way. If you lash out with accusations and criticism, you’ll put your spouse on the defensive, which could lead to contentious, stressful, and expensive divorce proceedings.
6. Be Ready for Pushback
Accept the fact that your spouse will probably not react well to your divorce announcement. Your spouse may feel betrayed, angry, frustrated, or heartbroken. Acknowledge and accept their reaction, whatever it is. If their reaction is anger, don’t fight fire with fire. If they get too nasty, leave the conversation.
If your spouse is not ready to accept your decision, don’t lose hope. They likely need time. You can end the conversation if it seems like you can’t make additional progress. You may want to leave the house for a time or even move out if that was your plan and then request a follow-up meeting in a few days when your spouse has had time to digest the information.
7. Stay Safe
At all times, your first priority is to your safety and the safety of your children. Ideally, you’ll want to ask your spouse for a divorce in person, but that’s not always possible. If you have an emotionally and/or physically abusive spouse, then they don’t deserve the courtesy of an in-person conversation. Do what you have to do to stay safe. That may mean asking someone to be present for your divorce conversation (or even on the phone) or asking to meet your spouse in a public place. Or, it may mean leaving your spouse a letter or email explaining your decision after you’ve left the house. You can even consider leaving divorce papers with your letter so they get the picture that you’re serious. Again, you don’t owe an abusive spouse any courtesies.
8. Schedule a Follow-Up to Discuss Divorce Next Steps
Once your spouse has had time to digest your divorce request, it may be a good idea to schedule a follow-up conversation. Make it clear that this conversation is not about rehashing your relationship or an opportunity for your spouse to get all their feelings off their chest. Instead, this conversation should focus on the next steps in the divorce process.
This is a good time to discuss the possibility of seeking an uncontested divorce, which will save you both time, stress, and divorce costs. You may also discuss whether you would like to try divorce mediation or even a collaborative divorce in order to reach a fair and equitable divorce settlement.
Be prepared for this conversation to get off track. Emotions will still be high during this difficult time and your spouse might use this conversation as a chance to blame you for the rough patches in your marriage or even to try to win you back. If you feel your spouse isn’t ready to discuss the next steps of the divorce in person, you may have better luck emailing or texting about topics like divorce mediation, collaborative divorce, or your financial assets.
If your spouse isn’t communicating productively, then it may be best to speak with a divorce attorney and send all communications through them.
If you’re considering a divorce, we strongly encourage you to attend our Second Saturday Workshop. At a Second Saturday Workshop, you’ll hear from divorce experts, like a divorce lawyer and financial planner, in your area and learn about how to best prepare for divorce.
Dropping the divorce bomb on your spouse won’t be easy, but we know you can do it. Think of that conversation as the first step toward the rest of your life.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Women's Institute for Financial Education (WIFE.org), creator of the Second Saturday Divorce Workshops. Founded in 1988, WIFE is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing financial education for women. Copyright 2019.