What do you do when your wife or husband tells you they want a divorce?
Given that divorce rates in the US are still between 40-50 % for first marriages, and higher still for second and third ones, if we get married at any point in our lives, there’s pretty much a 50-50 chance we’ll hear those words from our spouse.
Perhaps you’ve seen it coming. Perhaps you’ve seen and experienced the telltale signs of a marriage breaking down for years, such as arguing, criticism, contempt, silent treatment, lack of intimacy, declining frequency of sex, or the feeling of being room mates who go about your day-to-day business efficiently but without the depth and romance of lovers.
On the other hand, you might not have seen it coming at all, and when your wife or husband told you they want a divorce, it hit you like a knife in the heart and you could scarcely believe your own ears.
Either way, it’s a painful place to be and what you and your partner choose to do with this situation will have long-lasting consequences that will impact both of you and any children you have.
In this post, we’re not trying to cover every aspect of impending divorce. It’s a process that requires careful attention and competent guidance. We do want to share some useful insight and tips that will hopefully help you as you move forward.
When your spouse says the D-word, you can’t yet know where the process is going to end. It’s natural that you’ll be very eager, even desperate, to answer all the associated questions such as, are we going to divorce or make it; how are we going to tell the kids; where are the kids going to live and go to school; who gets the house; how am I going to deal with finances; what about the retirement accounts, and many more.
If you were surprised by your wife or husband declaring they want a divorce, remember that they have had a long time to think and process before saying something to you. It’s as if they have a month or year-long head start over you in the process. So it’s natural and totally understandable if you too are going to need some time to process the news.
Don’t decide too quickly
Our first tip to you is to not try and make any decisions while in the grips of fear and anxiety around potential divorce. Let yourself hang out in the uncertainty for a while. Tell yourself that this is going to be a process, and it’s ok if it takes a while to figure it out. If you’re in a highly antagonistic situation, this might not be possible, but if you’re still talking, there’s time.
Remind yourself – as we know from yearlong experience guiding couples through marriage struggles – that when one spouse starts talking about divorce, it very often is the start of a new chapter for an improved marriage. Often, the prospect of divorce is what it takes to make serious changes and improvements in a relationship. We’ve even coached couples who had already separated, living in separate houses, splitting time with kids, who started working on their marriage and completely turned it around.
It is also a possibility that you will go ahead with the divorce, but even that can sometimes result in an improved relationship between you and your spouse, perhaps creating new relationships that are fulfilling and deeply intimate.
Point being, don’t jump to catastrophizing as soon as your wife or husband say’s the D-word. It’s too early to call yet.
Something needs to change
Whereas the outcome of this process is uncertain, one thing is 100% certain. When one or both spouses start thinking and talking about divorce, something needs to change in your relationship. No one initiates a conversation or threat of divorce without feeling at their wits end and in serious distress about the marriage.
Especially if you were caught by surprise when you heard your partner talking about divorce, it’s highly likely that a lot of signs were missed along the way. The famous last words of a person whose spouse divorced him: “I knew we had some trouble; I just figured we’d get to them some day”. This exact sentence was spoken by a man in our community after his wife divorced him for another man.
When our spouse is calling for us to get relationship help, or tells us that he or she is unhappy, if we brush it off with comments like, “We’ll figure it out some day” or “it’s not that big of a deal”, we do so at our own peril.
If that’s you, now is definitely the time to own up to it and take radically different steps.
If there’s any opening for conversation from your spouse, listen! You, or both of you, might have missed a lot of communications along the way, so now is the time to listen. You might say something like this to your spouse: “I’m realizing that I might not have been listening to you … for whatever it’s worth, I’m listening now. What’s one thing you’d really like me to hear?”
That’s a starting point, not the end of the process. To repair a marriage that’s gotten this close to divorce will require deep listening, vulnerable sharing, and honest appraisals of your own part in the breakdowns you experience. Which brings us to the next important tip.
When you’re faced with, “I want a divorce”, it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed and having no idea what to do. One thing you can do, right alongside listening, is offering apologies. Now that you look back at your relationship, what can you offer apologies for? That includes any time you’ve said or done something you felt bad about and simply said, “I’m sorry” for. Saying “I’m sorry” never constitutes a full apology and is hardly ever sufficient to repair the hurt or disconnect that happened.
Hence, you can be almost 100% sure there are specific incidents or general behavior patterns of yours that your partner have felt hurt or angered by. Same is true the other way around. So a good starting point for something to do, is think about what you could offer an apology for and then do it.
We have a virtual mini-workshop for couples where we guide you through how to make a complete 6-step apology. Learning this process will serve you in your efforts to salvage your marriage as well as creating new relationships in the future.
Use it and make it count
Our final piece of relationship advice to you is this: Even though it can be shocking and painful to hear your husband or wife say, “I want a divorce”, make a promise to yourself that you will use this challenge to grow yourself as a person, to enhance your relationships skills, and to be a great role model for your kids for how their parents deal with difficult situations.
No matter what happens, the process can be used to your benefit. Whether you restore your love and marriage or you separate, commit to yourself that you will use it to become a better spouse, lover, parent, and friend. The effort you put in to learning and improving will benefit your relationship with your wife or husband, even if that person becomes your ex. Especially if you have kids, you’ll be in relationship forever. Even in the unlikely situation that you never see your ex again, you still want to become a better partner for your next partner.
One of the core tenets of the LoveWorks Solution is to use everything that shows up in our relationships to empower ourselves and our partner, even when it’s something as distressing as the challenge of hearing “I want a divorce”.