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How to Tell Your Spouse That You Want a Divorce

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TAKE THIS QUIZ and Find Out. 

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.

Shocked young business man reads a document he is holding.

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.

Close up of cute dachsund. His look says "be kind."

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.) 

Pocket watch with chess pieces on board check mate

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.  

Small girl with a pink balloon, standing between two divorced parents.

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. 

Angry African American woman screaming. Angry wife.

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. 

Woman holding a clamp over her lips" don't give too much information.

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.

Yellow "Storm Coming" warning sign in front of dark clouds. How to tell your spouse you want a divorce.

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.

Karen Covy

Karen Covy is a Divorce Coach, Lawyer, Mediator, Author, and Speaker. She coaches people to make hard decisions with confidence, and navigate divorce with dignity.  She speaks and writes about the art and science of making difficult decisions in emotionally-charged circumstances. To connect with Karen and discover how she can help you, CLICK HERE.


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dealing with divorce, divorce blog, divorce communication, divorce tips


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  • Involving your children would be a bad idea. You don’t want your children feeling upset and saddened even more by what is going on. Let them know everything will be fine, and make sure to spend time with them and communicate with them. But involving them in all of the details and bad parts of the divorce is not going to be helpful!

  • I had recently asked for a separation and it went bad. She didn’t want to have anything to do with it at all. I felt that separating would help us work on our marriage. She did not respond well and did not want to support in that decision. I caved in and went back home after 2 days. Since I went home instant gratification was there and I felt like we can try and move in the right direction but I still had my issues of wanting to be happy and wanting to be married. After a week of being home there were a few little arguments. I decided to go to individual counseling because I still wanted to work on myself and why I feel the way I do. After doing counseling it became very a parent that my truth is I want out of my marriage. I have been in denial of how I feel because of what others would think and how it would dissapoint the her and the kids. I am at the point of telling her that I want out even though I went back home. I am tired of going back and forth and going through the roller coaster and dragging her in with me. I am just ready to be honest with her about how I truly feel. I really do not want to reconcile because I feel the damage of our marriage for me has been done. I have to be honest and up front. Something I have never been because I have always pushed my feelings to the side. I was always concerned for how she felt or would react. I am very sure about what I want to do. Anxiety is there and I want to make sure I say the right thing.

    • I applaud you for your courage. Being honest is hard, especially if you are used to pushing aside your own feelings and not telling the truth so that you don’t disappoint anyone.

      I can understand that you want to make sure you say the right thing. Just know, though, that no matter what you say, it’s going to hurt. You could say everything perfectly, and still get a bad reaction from your wife. When you are telling someone what they don’t want to hear, they tend to react emotionally, no matter what words you use.

      That having been said though, words do matter. You want to be as sensitive as you can, while at the same time, not caving in again just to avoid hurting or disappointing your wife. Do your best to convey your message with compassion, but also with resolve. It’s like pulling off a band-aid. The pain is more intense if you rip it off, but tugging at it little by little extends the pain for way longer. (I know. Breaking the news about a divorce is more like having someone rip your heart out of your chest with an ice pick than it is like pulling off a band-aid. This was just the best analogy I could think of at the moment.)

      If you want some tips, I invite you to check out this article: How to Tell Your Spouse that You Want a Divorce. It might help.

      I wish you the best.

      Karen

  • I was blindsided. My mother was dying & I had been w/ her every day for quite a while. On the day she was really starting to fail I come home to “I am leaving.” What??? On the day I needed him the most he’s out of here. Counseling was out of the question & he very angrily brought up problems that were at least 2 yrs old (some were 10+ yrs). I had no idea what was going on. My mom died 4 weeks later. I had to laugh at all the info hospice was passing on like this is no time to make any kind of life changes. I have to say this has been the worst 4 months of my life. Who knows what the future will bring, but I’m hurting so bad now. I am looking forward to the time I will be happy again. Thanks for listening, it helps.

    • I am so, so sorry to hear about all you’ve been going through.

      There is nothing I can say or do that will make this horrible time any better. But, let me just share one of my favorite quotes from J.K. Rowling, when she was describing her life as a young, divorced, unemployed and impoverished single mom, whose book had been turned down by multiple publishing houses:

      “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I re-built my life.”

      Hang in there. Life will get better.

      All the best.

      Karen

  • I appreciate it when you mentioned preparing in advance the things that the person will say to the spouse will help organize the thoughts and make the discussion easier. My sister needs to hear this because she is planning to file a divorce against her husband. Of course, I do not think it will be fair for the man if she just surprised him with the divorce papers, so I will ask her to tell him so that he will be ready, and your tips will surely help. Thank you.

  • I have been with my husband for about 16 years. Our marriage has never been perfect. Through this time my husband become an alcoholic and about 2 years ago he physically abused me to the point that I couldn’t open my eye for a week. Since that night he has been 100% sober and I agreed to give our marriage a 2nd try after his sobriety. Thankfully he has remained sober, but his negative comments/bullying continues. Although there has been no additional physical abuse I am still verbally abused almost daily. I am unhappy and want out of my marriage. For my safety I am thinking seriously of leaving him a note and moving out of the house but feel that is the coward way out.

    Unfortunately we have no family close to be there when this occurs nor do we have any friends that feel comfortable being there due to his abuse tendencies. What do think is the best way of doing this considering the circumstances?

    • I think you have to be careful. Hopefully, your husband won’t be abusive, but since he has been physically abusive in the past, you can’t be sure whether or not he will resort to violence again.

      The most volatile times in most divorces are right at the beginning and again at the end. So, when your husband finds out you are divorcing him, he could react badly. You definitely need to take precautions to make sure that you are safe, no matter what. Does that make you a coward? I don’t think so. Even if it does, though, it’s better to be a living coward instead of a dead “hero.” (Sorry. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it happens.)

      I suggest you do a little research on local domestic violence agencies and shelters. Talk to them. Get information from them. They would be best able to help you deal with divorcing someone who is abusive.

      You also will want to have options for dealing with your husband’s reaction when he finds out you are divorcing him. If he gets really violent (and I hope he doesn’t) you may need to stay in a domestic violence shelter for awhile. If his reaction isn’t that bad, you may be able to just stay in an apartment somewhere. But, it would be best if that apartment had security.

      Other simple precautions: Always carry your charged cell phone. Have 911 on speed dial. If you do leave the house, take everything that you truly care about with you, especially things that can’t be replaced. Only meet with your husband in public places. You may also not want to meet with him alone for awhile.

      There are a lot of other precautions you can and should take. Domestic violence agencies will be able to tell you about all of these precautions in much more detail than I can do here. Also, talk to an attorney about your concerns. You want to make sure that your attorney also takes any necessary precautions to insure your safety.

      I hope this helps.

      Karen

  • Thanks for the advice on how to bring up divorce to your spouse. I especially liked your suggestion to be safe if you think there may be any chance that your spouse could get violent. The tip on having a conversation in public or having someone else there is a good idea if you’re not sure how the conversation will go.

  • My wife, after some tough questions about her conduct, admitted that she’s falling for my best friend (and best man at our wedding). I noticed an obvious lack of intimacy and her behavior around him. I laid out what I had seen to her and she admitted she is attracted to him. At the same time, she says she doesn’t want our relationship to end. We have 2 children, 3.5 and 8. I am still head-over-heels in love with all three of them, even though I know I’m being used. How could I not be? She’s said she’s falling out of love with me and she’s attracted to the other man, yet she wants to stay married. This sounds so cliche I can hardly believe it’s happening to me in real life. How can I possibly go through the process of divorce if I still love her and our kids this much? How can I muster the resolve necessary? How can I protect myself financially (has to be a primary reason she doesn’t want the marriage to end) if I’m so clearly a fool for her? Have you helped people that are so clearly being used but, at the same time, so in love? I need to know how others have managed it because I know prolonging things will only lead to worse heartache for my sons and I.

    • Oh my! Where to start?

      First of all, you’re not the only one in this position! Plenty of people get divorced even though they love their spouse. Because here’s the real truth that most people don’t want to admit: you need more than love to hold a marriage together! You need respect and common values and shared dreams and lots of other stuff that is way less romantic than being in love.

      All that having been said, your love may be the glue that can bring your marriage back from the brink of disaster.

      First of all, it doesn’t sound like your wife has had an affair (yet). Even if she had, believe it or not, LOTS of marriages recover after an affair. Divorce is not your only option!

      If you haven’t gone to marriage counseling before, now is the time to try it. You also may want to try something called “discernment counseling.” It’s a specific type of counseling designed to help both spouses figure out if they want to stay married or get a divorce. CLICK HERE to find out more about it.

      If you and your wife are up for trying to rekindle the spark in your relationship and create more intimacy, you might want to check out this online course by famed psychologist Esther Perel. CLICK HERE to check it out.

      It’s not my place to tell you what to do. But I can tell you that you have a decision to make. You need to decide whether you want to try to save your marriage or not. If you do decide to try, you’ve got to go “all in.” Don’t beg your wife to stay. Don’t demand that she never see your best friend again. Just woo her. Think back to how you won your wife’s heart “back in the day.” Whatever you did then, do it now!

      Will going “all in” work? Obviously, I can’t say. You may end up getting a divorce in the end anyway. Your wife may not respond, or she may decide that she wants to end the marriage. You can’t control that. But at least, if you try your best, you’ll be able to walk away knowing there was nothing else you could do.

      I hope this helps.

      Karen

  • I have come to the decision. In fact, I came to the decision six months ago, but wanted to get my ducks in a row before broaching the subject with my husband of 38 years. My biggest issue is that there has been emotional, psychological, and physical abuse during those 38 years. I am proficient at walking on eggshells to keep the peace, but even the best eggshell walker can’t keep their spouse from snapping. I appreciate your advice to others to contact a women’s shelter, and that is on my list today.

    Here is my biggest problem. I am afraid to tell him alone. I know you stated not to involve children, even adult children, but I need a man nearby in case the situation becomes really ugly when I have the talk. The only man I can think of is my son. My brother lives three hours away, and for personal reasons I would rather not involve him at the moment.

    Also, I run two part time businesses from my home, one of which is pet boarding. As this is the summer months, it is obviously my busy season. I need all the money I can earn to get me through until the divorce is final. But, I am worried about staying in the house with him. I don’t want to be a hero. I’m just trying to be cognizant of my money situation, as well as keeping my client base. And yet, I’m concerned about putting my clients’ dogs at risk if my husband goes off the deep end.

    I’m also on a time constraint. My husband will retire at the end of this month and because of financial reasons I need to file before he retires.

    No matter how I try to come up with a plan, and plan for eventualities, it all seems impossible.

    • You’re right. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. All you can do is try to plan for the biggest, most important ones. You plan for as much as you can in the time you’ve got.

      You definitely need to talk to a lawyer asap. This doesn’t sound like it’s going to be even remotely amicable. You need a good divorce lawyer in your corner. You also need a good divorce strategy.

      Ask your lawyer if you can file for divorce but not have your husband served until fall. That’s not a perfect situation, but it might work. (On the other hand, if it backfires and your husband does find out you filed and didn’t tell him, that could make everything worse.)

      When you do tell your husband about your divorce, don’t involve your son! I can understand why you want a man around. But putting your son in the middle of your divorce, even if he is an adult, is not a great choice. Perhaps you can meet your husband in a public place – a restaurant or a coffee shop. (But, if your husband sees your car in the parking lot, that can also be a problem. So be careful!)

      Talking with the people at a domestic violence shelter can also be very helpful. They may be able to give you more ideas about when and how to tell your husband you want a divorce in a way that keeps you safe. (They may also have some ideas on how you can relocate your business if you need to do so.)

      I wish you the best.

      Karen

    • Cee Jay, have you considered telling him at a counseling session? Or perhaps he won’t go. This is my plan. I’m hoping it works. Have you done it yet?

  • I have been in this relationship since 2009. We married in 2014 back in our home country but the whole time in this relationship we have lived in foreign country as in de facto relationship.
    She has an issue with her anger management. Everyone in her family also knows that, including herself. But they think it is within the normal range and she refuses to make it better. The thing is, I have had enough of her being angry at me and my little one. She becomes very sensitive when she is tired but she can be tired by watching drama late until 3 am or after work or for any reason. There is no way for me and my little one to prevent her being tired. This is why I try to do most of the housework but only complaints with no appreciation on my effort. The worst part is that she yells at my child “why can’t you do such an easy thing when all other children can do?” or “what are you? you learned nothing until now?” (my little one is only 4) or “I have never seen a child like that.”. There were a few times that she hurt my child which I told her not to. Who knows what happens when I am not around. I do not think I can record any of the scene or my child will speak about such thing. Because my little one gets afraid of her mother disliking herself. I cry in my heart when I see my child runs away from angry mother and comes back to kiss her with anxiety. Feels like “Please do not hate me, mother”
    She never appreciates my effort but tells me what I did wrong, and makes decisions based on her judgment. Because of that, I am not seeing all my friends, my parents. There is only my child left. My in-laws visited and I spent all our money and drove a van every day and cook them meals for a month and a half, to give her a chance to share good memories in her life with her family. No appriciation but she told me things that she was upset about during the period.
    Once I loved her more than anything. I paid all the bills and did almost all the housework for her until my little one was born in 4 years ago. Of course my income is the most for our budget and I still cook, do laundries, pick up and care the little one until she comes back from her job. But now I do not want weekends to come because I will be with my wife longer times. I wish that my wife dies somewhere so my little one and I can live in peace.

    Does everyone live with these pains or should I seek advice on a divorcing process. I do not need anything from her but my child to live with me. The whole time I remain calm because my little one wants her mother. But if I just continue like this, I think I will commit a suicide one day. At the moment there is the corona virus, first thing I thought after hearing that. I can die from having it and it is the end.

    • Okay, first of all, if you’re thinking about suicide, stop! I don’t know what country you’re in, but if you’re in the US please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline now at 1-800-273-8255.

      Also, before you do anything think about your daughter. If you’re gone, who will help her cope with her angry mother?

      I also STRONGLY suggest that you get support for yourself immediately. Having a good therapist you can talk with about your feelings and your options can change everything. I am not a therapist myself, so I’ve affiliated with an organization called Better Help. They connect people who are looking for help with therapists who will meet their needs. Again, I strongly suggest that you contact them (or someone else) and find a good therapist for yourself asap.

      As for other steps you can take, I don’t think it would hurt to educate yourself about the divorce process. That way at least you’ll know what you’re facing if you do decide to get a divorce. If you’re in the U.S. you can check out my online Divorce Road Map Program. That’s a good way to get up to speed about what you’ll need to do if you get a divorce at a price that’s way less than what any lawyer would charge you. (This program is only for U.S. Residents though.)

      Finally, know that you’re not alone. There are more people out there like you than you could imagine. Some stay in these situations for a while. Others don’t. What matters for you, though, is what YOU want and what you decide to do with your life. Start by getting support and information. Then you’ll be ready to go from there.

      I wish you the best.

      Karen

  • Thank you for reminding me that having a conversation about divorce is never easy. My husband doesn’t probably have a clue that I want out of this relationship, but I’ve also never felt cherished for the past years of our marriage and he never did anything about it. I guess it’s time for me to consult an expert in divorce law and learn how to have it processed as soon as possible.

  • Been debating telling my wife of 19 years I want a divorce. There has been absolutely no intimacy in the last 4 years. We live like roommates that happen to have 5 kids together. I told her I wasn’t happy and it seemed to be a shock to her. I told her how I felt and she seemed to only get mad. We don’t really communicate like I see most couples doing. We do are own thing and hardly talk unless it is about the kids. I told her I can’t live “alone together” anymore. Nothing has really changed since this conversation. Any advice on how to tell her I truly want to leave. My main fear is how it will affect my kids.

    • I couldn’t tell from your comment whether you’ve tried marriage counseling yet. If not, you might want to consider doing that first. You have 5 kids together and getting a divorce will dramatically change all of your lives. So if there is any way to save your marriage, that’s probably the route you want to try first. A good marriage counselor can help improve the communication and intimacy between you and your wife. (You also may want to check out IMAGO relationship therapy or pick up the book Getting the Love You Want They are both developed by psychologists Harville & Helen Hendrix and they’ve helped a lot of couples – even those who thought their relationship was totally over.)

      If divorce IS the way that you want to go, I suggest following the tips in this article. Be gentle but still firm in your conversation. If you’ve made your decision and there is no going back, don’t give your wife false hope. Break the news, then give it time to sink in. Remember, you’ve clearly been thinking about this decision for a long time. She hasn’t. She will need time to wrap her head around it.

      Above all, put your kids first. Check out this article on how to tell your kids about divorce. They’re going to need time to adjust as well.

      Hope this helps.

      Karen

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