Having “the divorce conversation” sucks. It doesn’t matter whether you are the person who is breaking the news that you want a divorce or the person who is listening in disbelief as your spouse tells you that your marriage is over. Either way, you are in pain. How to tell your spouse that you want a divorce in a way that doesn't leave both of you even more wrecked than you already are?
12 Tips for How to Tell Your Spouse That You Want a Divorce
1. Have the Conversation.
No one looks forward to jumping into a conversation that could throw them into the middle of a conflict. Few people relish being the bearer of bad news. But, just because a conversation is going to be difficult does not mean you don’t have to have it.
It doesn’t matter whether you were married for 5 months or 50 years. It doesn’t matter what your spouse did or didn’t do in your marriage. Unless telling your spouse you want a divorce will put you or your kids in danger, you need to have that conversation with your spouse – in person.
It is not okay to just walk out the door one day and never go back to your marriage or your life. It's not okay to let the Sheriff serve your spouse with a summons before you ever mention the word divorce. “Man up” and tell your spouse you want a divorce.
2. Be Safe.
If there is any chance that your spouse will become physically violent, make sure your conversation takes place in a public place. Or, make sure you have someone else with you when you break the news.
Carry a cell phone that is pre-programmed to call “911” at the push of a button. If you are alone with your spouse, make sure someone else knows where you are, and what you are doing.
Arrange for you and your kids to stay with someone else for at least a few days. Going home with your spouse when s/he is angry and could turn violent is dangerous.
3. Be Sensitive.
Think about how you would feel if someone had to deliver bad news to you. Try not to blurt out that you want a divorce while you are in the middle of an argument about something else.
Plan where and how you will tell your spouse you want a divorce. Choose a place where you can have some privacy.
Definitely tell your spouse in person. Don’t take the coward’s way out and just send an email or a text or, worse yet, just disappear without ever telling your spouse anything.
4. Be Kind.
Be direct. Beating around the bush about wanting a divorce will not make the conversation any easier, nor it will it make the news you are about to deliver any less painful.
Avoid blaming your spouse for everything that went wrong in your marriage. Take responsibility for your decision, and frame your discussion in terms of your need to move on, and your feelings.
Resist the temptation to lash out at your spouse, or to use this conversation to point out all of the ways that s/he has disappointed you in the past. You also don’t need to flaunt the details of any new relationship in your spouse’s face.
5. Be Honest.
Don’t lead your spouse on. Don’t give him or her false hope. If there is no chance that you will reconcile, say so.
When you know without a doubt that you want a divorce, then don’t agree to a “trial separation,” just because it seems easier.
If you are having an affair and your spouse asks you about it, don’t lie. (Yes, I know that this is a tough one, especially if you live in a state in which your affair can affect whether you get support, or how your property is divided. But: a) chances are, your spouse will discover the truth eventually anyway; and b) remember that, at the end of the day, you will always have to live with yourself.)
6. Make Time.
Do not plan on telling your spouse you want a divorce ten minutes before you (or your husband or wife) has to leave to go to work. Difficult conversations require time.
You may have been thinking about divorce for months (or years!). But this is probably the first time that your spouse has realized that getting divorced is a real possibility. S/he is probably going to want to talk about it!
If your conversation ends up being short because your spouse storms off in an angry huff, that’s fine. What matters is that you are prepared to give this kind of important conversation the time it deserves.
7. Don’t Fight.
Just because the conversation about divorce is going to be difficult, that doesn’t mean that it has to end in a fight.
Resist the urge to purposely say hurtful things to your spouse, or to push his/her buttons and start an argument. Arguing, blaming or shaming your spouse will only make an already difficult conversation 100 times worse.
If your spouse tries to pick a fight, or responds to you angrily, do not allow yourself to join the fight or react in anger. Instead, be prepared to call a time out. Put your conversation on hold until you and your spouse can both come back to it calmly.
8. Don’t Involve the Kids.
Your kids should not be around when you and your spouse are discussing divorce. Ever. Period.
Even if one of the reasons you are getting a divorce involves your children, that does not mean they need to be a part of any conversation about your divorce.
The same thing is true if your children are adults. Just because they might not be kids, that doesn’t mean they are no longer your children. They are, and they will always be, your children. You need to remember that, and to be a parent. That means keeping your children out of your divorce.
9. Be Prepared for a Bad Reaction.
No matter how well you think you know your spouse, you can never know how s/he will react to news of your divorce until you tell him or her that you want a divorce.
Your spouse may become angry or upset. He or she may argue with you or start to verbally attack you. Or, s/he may start to beg or plead with you not to leave. Or, your spouse may withdraw, and say nothing at all.
While you can’t control your spouse’s reaction, if you have at least mentally prepared yourself in advance for the various ways your spouse might respond, you will be better able to handle your spouse’s response when it occurs.
10. Practice Your Conversation in Advance.
“Perfect” breakup conversations only happen in the movies. That’s because some screenwriter had weeks to come up with the perfect words to say. Then some actor rehearsed those words many times before saying them.
While your life is not the same as Hollywood movie (although it may seem to be a daytime drama at times!) practicing your how you will tell your spouse that you want a divorce in advance will help you organize your thoughts and deliver your message in a (hopefully) more confident and sensitive way.
11. Don’t Dive Into Unnecessary Details.
In divorce, as in life, there is such a thing as “too much information.”
You may have been thinking about getting a divorce for a very long time. You may have worked out every detail of what you want your new life to look like. But, when you first tell your spouse you want a divorce, you do NOT need to talk about when you want him or her to move out, how you are going to divide your property, and who is going to get the kids.
(And, for heaven's sake, DON'T give your spouse a spreadsheet that details how you would like to divide everything from the retirement accounts to the Tupperware!)
If your spouse wants to get into those kinds of details so soon, great! Then you can have those conversations. But most people are going to need time to process the fact that they are getting divorced before they will be able to talk about what will happen once the divorce is over.
12. Include Your Spouse in Your Decision, if You Can.
Deciding to divorce is intensely personal. Whether you talk to your spouse about your decision before it is set in stone, is up to you. But, blindsiding your spouse with the news that you want a divorce is rarely a good idea. Your spouse is much more likely to react badly if s/he had no idea that your marriage was in serious trouble.
While you may think that only a complete fool could miss the fact that your marriage is a mess, don’t assume that your spouse sees the same problems that you do. What’s more, “hinting” at the problem doesn’t help. If you are seriously contemplating divorce, tell your spouse that.
Of course, your spouse may not believe you. Or, s/he may choose to ignore you. You can’t control that. But at least you will have tried to not to blindside our clueless spouse.
Saying “I Want a Divorce” is Never Easy
No matter what you do, having “the divorce conversation” is never easy. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and can possibly be full of conflict.
Yet, the way you start your divorce matters. The way you tell your spouse that you want a divorce matters. (The way you tell your kids about divorce matters too! ... but that's a whole different blog post.)
If the first time your spouse finds out that you want a divorce is when she reads about it in a press release (yes, it really happens), you can’t be surprised if your divorce instantly turns into a war. Inflicting pain on your spouse causes you pain, too.
On the other hand, if you approach your spouse with kindness, compassion, and sensitivity, you will have a much better chance of making your divorce as peaceful as possible.
This post was originally published on September 19, 2016. It was revised and updated on February 27, 2020.