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!
Hi Lisa, well, I’m so filled with grief right now, I don’t even know where to start. 🙁 My husband of 21 years is leaving me for another girl he met on the internet! I found out about the affair through one of my friends who saw them together. I didn’t believe it at first because Tom has always been a king, loving, husband until I confirmed that he was indeed seeing this other girl who’s not even good for him! We have three kids together, and I don’t want them to grow up without a father. I’ve tried everything now to looking nice and getting a makeover but he’s headstrong about his decision to leave me. What will I do and do you think there’s still a chance to get him back? How? I can’t believe he just threw away 20 years of being together for someone he doesn’t even know! I’m sorry if this is too long, I’m just really really frustrated at this point. Any advice will do, thank you.
Hello Samantha, I am so sorry you’re going through all this now. Have you tried any of the above mentioned of talking your problems out or considering couples therapy? Most often I’ve seen relationships break down due to a lack of communication followed by lack of attraction. These two are related together, emotional and physical attraction. Moving forward, since it’s him that seems to be in need of getting his priorities straight, give him time to work on that while at the same time, work on getting your emotions healed. Your best move right now is to cut off contact and after a period of no communication, try to pick the right time to sort out your problems together using the tips I mentioned here. If you want me to guide you further, you can always sign up for my program. Take care!
Hope you can give some advice, Lisa. My wife had been diagnosed with Post-Partum depression since 2012. Everything seems to be ok and we were happy until she suddenly asked for a divorce out of the blue. This was two weeks ago and she’s still not talking to me. I don’t know what to do anymore. Any help is appreciated. Thank you. – David Berkley
Hi David, is your wife still on medication? Try to convince her to take another visit to the doctor regarding its progress. I’m not a medical advisor or anything, but it’s always best to be sure. Erratic behaviors, mood swings, sudden ups and downs can indicate depression indeed. She might just be taking some time off to clear her head, so give her time as well and be patient with her and show her that you understand. Oh and don’t forget to follow the tips on this article to help you out! Good luck!
Hi again Lisa, I mean, everything had been ok despite the depression and we took a vacation just last month to make sure that she’s happy. She loves going on trips. Is her wanting to divorce me got anything to do with her depression or is it possibly caused something else? – David
It might be related to depression or it may not be, but I’m no position to judge, really whether it is or it isn’t. Just make sure you do the right things and don’t avoid the blame game when you talk to her. Take care, David!