This is one of the worst situations in life – your spouse says they want a divorce.
What should you do?
You will probably feel a whole lot of crazy, uncontrollable emotions – fear, anger, guilt, shame, sadness, rage. Don’t try to stop from feeling them. If your spouse asked for a divorce and you reacted like an emotionless robot, well then I’d be truly worried about you!
Often it is tempting to try and immediately regain control over the situation. Feeling out of control is scary, whether you feel like you’re going to lose your job or lose your marriage. People often try to bargain with or browbeat their spouse into changing their mind. They promise to do whatever it takes to save the marriage, from stopping their drinking to taking out the trash without complaining.
This is all normal, but I advise you to not immediately try and fix the problem right then and there. You aren’t ready, you’ve just been blindsided. Give yourself the gift of a little time to hear your spouse out, and then to hear yourself out.
First, let me remind you that you aren’t 100 percent responsible for the problems of your marriage. Sometimes it’s tempting to feel like a total failure and blame yourself for everything. But just as you can’t take all the credit for a fantastic marriage, neither can you take all the blame for a marriage that’s in trouble. Sure, you need to own up to your part in the problems, but don’t bury yourself in shame, because that doesn’t help.
Also, don’t blame your spouse for everything, either. The two of you conspired together to get married, and you both share the praise for the good and the blame for the bad that has come of it. Blaming each other may make you feel temporarily better, but it won’t help sort out your problems, and it sure won’t help you save your marriage, if that’s your goal.
You don’t have control over your spouse, and there’s no way you can force them to stay married to you if they are determined to go. Accept that – it’s no fun accepting it, but you must, because it’s true. Thinking otherwise is like thinking you can make the sun come up in the west instead of the east.
There’s actually only one thing you have control over, and that is yourself, particularly your attitude. And though that may not seem like much, it really is pretty important. How do you want to handle this situation – in an ugly, bitter way, or with some dignity and grace? That is completely up to you. Yes, you may be very angry, and you may deserve to feel angry. You may have been wronged. But find a healthy way to express that anger – through exercise, therapy, journal writing, or by locking yourself in a room and screaming. But try not to express it at your spouse, or in front of your kids, if you’ve got them. It may make you feel a bit better, but it doesn’t help in the long run.
Safe, two-way communication is the key to surviving this crisis. One good way to proceed is to take a little time, a day or two to think things over, and then to talk privately with your spouse in a safe place. The rules I advise are that one of you gets to talk for five minutes or three minutes, or however long you want, while the other partner must just listen and say nothing. At the end of the period, the other spouse gets to talk for five minutes or three minutes. No interrupting each other, only listening. [RELATED: Too Many Arguments? How to Stop Toxic Conflicts from Happening ]
Try to keep the focus of your conversation on yourself. This is incredibly hard, but if you can get the hang of it, this is a very helpful thing. Talk to your spouse about yourself, about how you feel. Don’t try to control how they feel. That’s none of your business for now. If they do something that hurts you or makes you angry, let them know how you feel and don’t just focus on their behavior. It helps to set a time limit for these sessions – say an hour or half an hour where you talk and listen to each other in turn. Use a timer to keep things clear.
Also be sure to allow time for reflection. One or two days of thinking about what your spouse said will really help. Reflection in writing is very helpful – write down in your notebook what you remember that your spouse said. It’s important for you to try and understand their point of view. And also write down what you think and feel, what is important to you. Don’t be afraid to dream – write down what would be the perfect happy marriage for you. Unless you have a dream in the first place, it can’t come true. Share your ideas with your spouse the next time you talk together. Don’t hesitate to express your fear, too – let them know that you’re afraid of divorce and all the chaos it entails.
Keep having these open conversations and you will be surprised at how much can change.
If this type of arrangement doesn’t work – if you two can’t have a safe dialogue like this – then you should consider a professional counselor. Look under marriage and family therapy or counseling and find a professional referee who will help to keep your conversations safe and on topic. The goal is still the same – having an honest, safe, clear conversation with each other. You just sometimes need a disinterested third party there to keep your from murdering each other.
As in any relationship, if you bring your best self to the relationship, you have the best chance of success. Keep the focus on yourself rather than on your spouse. Remember St. Francis said to focus loving more than on being loved. If you have a rich life with interests and hobbies and sports outside your marriage, you will be a better, more rounded spouse. So make sure to take care of yourself and do some fun things.
If you’re feeling good about yourself, then you will be less likely to fall victim to distorted thinking in conversations with your spouse. And you’ll be a more attractive and interesting partner to them.
Wishing you all the best!