Few things are more frustrating than trying to divorce someone who doesn’t want to be divorced. While you may be baffled by why your spouse is digging in his/her heels when your marriage is making both of you miserable, it happens all the time. Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t help when you want to get divorced, but your spouse won't sign divorce papers.
8 Reasons Why Your Spouse Won't Sign Divorce Papers
Step number one in getting a divorce from a reluctant spouse is to try to understand why your spouse won't sign divorce papers. There could be many reasons:
1. Your spouse is in denial.
Denial is a natural stage in the grieving process. Everyone starts their divorce journey by struggling to believe their marriage is really over.
Most people, however, pass through that stage.
They progress through the various stages of grief until they finally learn to accept their divorce.
Some people, however, get stuck along the way. For them, denial is not just a stage. It is a way of life.
2. Your spouse believes that if s/he refuses to sign divorce papers, you can’t get divorced.
Many people mistakenly believe that both spouses have to agree in order for a couple to get divorced.
While it takes two people to make a marriage, it only takes one to get divorced.
If your spouse won't sign divorce papers, s/he will make your divorce take longer, and cost more. But your spouse's refusal to sign divorce papers ultimately will not stop you from getting divorced IF you are determined to do so.
3. Your spouse is holding out so that you will change your mind.
If your spouse does not believe that you truly and completely want a divorce, s/he may try to do everything possible to slow the divorce process down. By doing that your spouse is hoping that given more time, you will see the error of your ways and come back to your marriage.
(NOTE that it makes zero difference whether your spouse's hopes are realistic.)
While your spouse tries to delay your divorce s/he may continue to try to get you to go to marriage counseling, couples’ retreats, and any other program that might possibly repair your marriage.
If you are truly serious about divorce, engaging in behavior designed to save your marriage is pointless. It's also cruel. If you truly want a divorce, allowing your spouse to believe there's hope for your marriage when there's clearly no way to save it is mean.
4. Your spouse is afraid of change.
Most people hate change. They hate changes that they don't want even more.
Unfortunately, divorce changes almost every area of your life. It turns your entire world upside down. It fills you with uncertainty and angst.
It’s not surprising then, that if your spouse doesn't do well with change (or just likes to be in control!) s/he may be reluctant to dive headfirst into the whirlwind of divorce. That reluctance usually translates into an enormous amount of foot-dragging and stonewalling.
(It also explains why people get all the way to the end of their divorce, and then freak out and refuse to sign divorce papers at the last minute.)
5. Your spouse is getting a financial advantage by staying married.
Yes, it's cynical to think that anyone would ever stay married for money. Yet it happens all the time.
Money is an enormous motivator. People have gotten married - and stayed married - for money for as long as marriage and money have existed.
If your spouse is financially dependent on you, s/he may not be willing to voluntarily jump off the gravy train and into the great unknown. That's especially true if you have been supporting your spouse for years (or decades!)
The truth is that getting a job when you've been out of the workforce for a long time is scary. Taking responsibility for your own financial security can be terrifying. If that's the reality your spouse is facing, it's not all that surprising that your spouse won't sign divorce papers.
6. Your spouse doesn’t believe in divorce.
If your spouse belongs to a religion that doesn't believe in (or allow!) divorce, s/he may feel obligated to oppose your divorce for religious reasons.
Even if your spouse wasn't particularly religious during your marriage, if s/he was raised with a strong religious background, that can affect his/her views about divorce.
The same may be true if your spouse’s family is religious.
Getting a divorce is difficult enough in and of itself. When getting a divorce also forces you to break ranks with your family or religious community, it's twice as hard.
7. Your spouse is trying to leverage you into giving him or her more in the divorce.
If you want a divorce more than your spouse does, that gives your spouse negotiating leverage. If you want a divorce and your spouse doesn't, that gives your spouse a LOT of negotiating leverage.
Armed with that leverage, your spouse is free to stall your divorce for a long time if s/he isn't satisfied with the settlement offer you made. (Sorry!)
Alternatively, your spouse may "accept" your settlement offer, but then hold out for more at the last minute. When that happens, your only choices are to give in and give your spouse more money just to be done, or delay your divorce.
(NOTE: This strategy also works whenever you care more about something than your spouse. For example, if you don’t want to fight and your spouse doesn't care if you fight, your spouse has negotiating leverage.)
8. Your spouse just wants to make you suffer.
Some people are just miserable humans. Other people are vindictive. If they feel like you're hurting them, they'll do whatever they can to hurt you back.
If your spouse is that kind of a person, s/he would have no problem refusing to sign divorce papers simply because that's what you want him or her to do.
Unfortunately, if that's the case, your divorce is probably going to be long and ugly. (Sorry!)
On the other hand, if that's truly what your spouse is like, getting divorced is probably a very good decision!
Why Motivation Matters
Understanding your spouse’s reasons for not wanting to sign your divorce papers will help you figure out the best response to your spouse’s behavior.
For example, if your spouse is opposing your divorce for religious reasons, then waiting for your spouse to change his/her mind is not likely to work. You can be waiting until the second coming and your spouse STILL won't sign your divorce papers.
The same thing is true if your spouse is refusing to sign your divorce papers just to make you miserable. If your spouse's motivation is misery or revenge, then moving your divorce forward is going to require you to take action. Actually, you're probably going to have to take more aggressive action than you might have preferred to take. (Sorry!)
On the other hand, if your spouse is in denial about your divorce because you just told him/her you wanted a divorce last week, taking aggressive action might be exactly the WRONG thing to do. Simply giving your spouse some time to move through the grieving process may be all that it takes to get your spouse to agree to move forward with your divorce.
The bottom line is that the kind of action you take depends on the reason your spouse won't sign your divorce papers. It also depends on timing.
Timing Matters Too.
In order to figure out how to get your spouse to sign your divorce papers when s/he is refusing to do so, you also need to consider where you're at in the divorce process.
If it's early on and your spouse is in denial, then giving him/her time to work through the grieving process may be all it takes to solve your problem. Hopefully, in time, your spouse will understand that s/he can't stop your divorce. Then s/he will sign the divorce papers voluntarily.
On the other hand, if you started your divorce months, or years, ago, and your spouse still won't sign anything, then giving him/her more time is not likely to accomplish anything. It will only delay your divorce even more.
If you're near the end of your divorce and your spouse won't sign the papers, then your spouse is probably holding out for more money or better settlement terms. In that case, you have to decide whether or not to cave in and settle, or hold out and go to trial.
Getting the Right Help in Your Divorce Can Make a Difference
If your spouse thinks that s/he can prevent a divorce simply by not signing the divorce papers, then s/he needs a bit of an education. Getting a letter from your lawyer explaining that you can divorce your spouse even if s/he doesn't sign anything may be enough to turn your spouse around.
Having a good divorce lawyer by your side will also be incredibly important if you're dealing with a vindictive spouse or a spouse who is out to get every last cent in your divorce. Also, having a good divorce lawyer will be critical if you have to go to trial. (Trying your own divorce case without a lawyer can cause you problems you can't even dream of right now! It is definitely NOT something you want to do!)
Sometimes, though, you need more than just a lawyer. You need a therapist. (Or, rather, your spouse needs a therapist!)
If your spouse is resisting divorce because s/he thinks that you will change your mind, a therapist or a discernment counselor may be able to help. A therapist can help your spouse understand the reality of what's happening. A therapist can also help your spouse deal with his/her fear of change if that's what is holding him/her back.
What to Do When Nothing Works: Getting a Judgment by Default
No matter what your spouse’s motivation for not signing your divorce papers may be, if s/he continues to refuse to sign anything no matter what you do, the only way you can get divorced is to go to trial.
If your spouse has refused to participate in your divorce at all, then your "trial" may just be a hearing for a default judgment.
Default judgments are not necessarily hard to get. But they often take time.
You'll have to serve your spouse with a summons. Then you'll have to wait until s/he fails to file an appearance in court in the time allotted for him/her to do so.
After that, you will need to go to court (probably several times!) in order to take the steps you need to finalize your divorce.
While doing all of that may not be terribly complicated, it is time-consuming. It also requires a level of technical expertise that a divorce lawyer will have ... but you won't.
Because of that, when you're dealing with a spouse who just WON'T participate in your divorce, it's best to hire a divorce lawyer to help you through the process.
On the other hand, if your spouse has participated in your divorce, but just won't sign the final paperwork, then your only option is to go to a full-blown trial. (Sorry!)
Dealing With a Reluctant Spouse
Getting a divorce when your spouse is determined to stop you can be frustrating! It can also be expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining.
But it's also very "do-able."
The key is to understand what's holding everything up. Then get the right help and take the right action.
If you persevere, one way or another, you will get divorced. You will be able to move on to a new life.
This post was originally published on November 9, 2016, and updated on March 5, 2020.