No one walks down the aisle anticipating that their happy union might come to an unhappy end. But when the problems pile up and it seems like your relationship is no longer salvageable, divorce just might be the healthiest option. At that point, the only thing left to do is determine how to tell your spouse that you might want a divorce.
Of course, this isn’t a conversation you should take lightly. In the end, if you’ve decided there’s absolutely no other solution, telling your partner you want a divorce is the first step in the long process of undoing a marriage. To help you navigate this conversation effectively, we asked marriage and relationship counselors for their best advice about how to tell your spouse you want a divorce.
Make sure this is really what you want.
Open a dialogue with your partner and see how they feel about the relationship, too. “If you think you want to tell your partner you want a divorce, the first step might be to ask your partner if they think the problems you are having are so bad that the two of you should consider divorcing,” says relationship therapist and dating expert Dr. Susan Edelman.
You might be surprised to learn that they’re much more open to counseling or other types of therapy than you had thought. In other words: “If there’s something that can be fixed, therapy is a lot cheaper than divorce,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and the author of Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today.
Choose a time when stressors are low.
Telling your partner that you want a divorce can inspire emotional reactivity, and you want to make sure you’re in the best state of mind to answer any questions your spouse may have. That means avoiding the chaotic hours after a long workday, as well as the ones before you’re scheduled to host company, head out to an event, or do anything else that could make this conversation even more stressful than it already is, advises Virginia Williamson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Fairfield, Connecticut.
State why you’re unhappy.
One landmark study by relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman found that many unhappy couples wait an average of six years before getting help for their problems. The research also found that oftentimes, the first sign a relationship is headed for divorce is that one person shuts down emotionally and doesn’t address their relationship woes until it’s too late.
Being clear about the things that have been bothering you will further validate your own feelings, while explaining to your partner why it has come to this. “The ‘divorce’ word often gets a lazy or disconnected spouse to shape up,” says Tessina. “But don’t threaten, it takes the power out of what you’re saying. Be calm, and say ‘I’m not happy, and if we don’t change something, I’m going to want a divorce.’”
Be firm and compassionate.
Striking the fine balance between being clear about what you want and being compassionate toward your husband or wife can be challenging when the other partner didn’t see this coming or wants to try and make it work. It can also circle things back to why this conversation started—the fact that the two of you are not on the same page.
“Try to have this conversation without anger or blame,” suggests Edelman. This isn’t time to get nasty or bring up knit-picking specifics, it’s about you expressing where you’re at right now.
But remember that this is your choice, and once you’ve decided, it’s okay to not want to talk about it in circles. “You do not have to defend yourself or your decision,” says Williamson. “You do not have to be held hostage in the conversation with your spouse justifying why you want to divorce.” If you can, be as clear and as rational as possible without being cold.
Get a professional’s point of view.
If divorce is something you’ve been considering, it may be worth consulting a professional—such as a therapist or family law attorney—before diving into the talk with your spouse. “You may change your mind, or you may have your decision to divorce firmly validated,” says Dr. Marni Feuerman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Boca Raton.
Don’t try to control the outcome.
After expressing your thoughts and feelings, acknowledge that your spouse’s feelings may not be aligned with your own. Do your best to hear the other person’s point of view and let them react without judgment.
“Your spouse may not have thought the ending of your marriage was a possibility and may not be where you’re at emotionally,” says Williamson. “Allow them to feel whatever they need to and don’t try to talk them out of it.” The end of a marriage signals a huge life change for both parties involved; know that each person has a right to take it how they may (so long as that reaction doesn’t harm the safety of the other).
Keep the boundary around your marriage.
Williamson advises that you maintain some privacy about your decision until you can talk together about how to let others know—in other words, give it a minute before you change your status on social media. This way, other people’s opinions don’t cloud what is already an emotional process. Once you’ve decided how and when to tell people, you can lean on close friends and family for support.
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