How you approach this conversation is critically important
First and foremost before you think about having this conversation you need to know in your heart of hearts this is what you truly want to do. It is a life changing event for you, your spouse and your children. So, be sure to think through this long and hard as your life will be different after the fact. Once the words are spoken they cannot be unsaid. Although you may be able to retract the words, you would have already had the discussion which will be a memory that lasts a lifetime. If you say them and do not stand by those words any future comments you make about the topic may not be taken seriously. So, please use these words carefully. If you are unsure whether you want to move down this path you should think through this decision diligently and consider obtaining professional advice to determine what you truly want for your life. Time is an irreplaceable resource in all of our lives. Yet, if you honestly know this is the right path to pursue and there is no hope of reconciling it is wise to be best prepared to enter your discussion. This document should help you as you prepare for this life changing interaction.
Let’s dive into how to tell your spouse you want a divorce
Telling your spouse you want a divorce is a very sensitive process. If you do not approach the subject properly you could not only have a horrible divorce process but it could also impact the rest of your life. A little preparation and practice will go a long way to help you:
- manage your discussion with your spouse
- set the stage for the rest of your divorce process
- ideally, establish a path to maintain a future functional family if you so desire
You will want to evaluate your approach from many different angles as you will be the only person who knows your spouse best. No matter how you approach the situation, you can expect it will be shared with many other people who are in your spouse’s life. If you do not handle this discussion with delicate hands you will not only feel the pressure from your spouse throughout the rest of your life, you will also witness it at family gatherings from your former relatives. Taking the time to figure out the best way to approach this topic is really important. So, word to the wise, think deep and hard how to best approach this discussion. You know your spouse best. You have to stay away from the hot buttons and remember what you want as the lasting impression from this discussion. Do you want your spouse to build anger? If so what purpose will that serve? Do you want your spouse to understand? If you can achieve the latter then you will position yourself for success in the future. People remember where they got married and how their spouse proposed. When people get divorced, they remember how it was handled too.
It’s paramount to apply gentleness, compassion, empathy and kindness, all with clarity
It is important for your spouse to recognize how much of your thinking went into this decision. Your spouse will reflect on it later in life. You want to make sure you handle this discussion with as much sensitivity as possible. No matter how you feel about your spouse, your spouse’s feelings will be in the palm of your hands. If you handle your spouse’s feelings with gentleness you and your spouse will have a better opportunity to live happier lives as a functional family than not. If you do not your kids will feel your anger come through you and your spouse for the remainder of your lives. Your spouse may accidentally share how you delivered this news and you will regret certain decisions that may create lasting impressions on your children. It is best to find a way to rise above the challenges for this single discussion and handle it properly.
Practice, practice, practice — sounds obvious but it is not
You will find the need to practice your approach over and over again. Why? You can easily experience many objections and you will need to know how to handle them in the moment. If you don’t handle them successfully you could find yourself in a heated argument that doesn’t turn out well. You might also find yourself giving in to an approach that doesn’t align with your wishes. Practice, practice, practice is the way to minimize putting yourself in this position. I know you don’t want to practice. You just want to say what is on your mind. Yet, it is very important to rehearse your delivery.
Find a close friend, a trusted relative or even a professional such as a therapist or another professional advisor who will challenge you in different ways to work out the kinks in your approach. We do this all of the time with our clients and help them arrive at a better place before they have their important discussion.
You will need to take diligent notes about the feedback you will receive from your various trusted advisors. You may be surprised to discover how your approach shifts with a little feedback. You need to be prepared for a variety of responses from your spouse. Remember you do not have these types of conversations every day. Yet, this is an important one that you want to get right.
Key questions to think about for your discussion
You will need to figure out what you want to get out of the discussion. Here are some questions to think about:
- How do you want your spouse to respond to the news you will bring forth? Most likely you don’t want your spouse to be angry. Yet, your approach is key to manage the anger.
- How long do you want the discussion to last? Shorter is sometimes good. Longer is ok too. It all depends on your situation.
- Where would you want to have this discussion and why? Venue matters. This depends on how your spouse will react to the venue. Do you need a public location for your personal protection? Is your home a better location to have a private discussion?
- What will you tell your children? When will you share the news with them? Where should you share it with them? A comfortable setting is key for them too. You will need to have a separate rehearsal about this as well.
- What happens if your spouse tells your kids before you do? Do you want to inform them together? If so, what will that conversation look like? How will they react? Make sure you gain agreement as soon as possible but after your spouse has had the chance to digest the news.
- Should you bring up how you will handle your divorce process? The answer is No, not during this discussion. Do not talk about settlement matters or anything like that. If you or your spouse are not skilled at these matters, as you do not do this every day, look for a financial divorce expert who knows how to negotiate and manage your financial outcomes (something we do every day).
- Should you serve your spouse papers during this discussion? In short the answer is No. Please read more below for further insight.
- What is the plan for that evening? Are you going to sleep in the same bed that night? Where will you stay? Where will your spouse stay? Should you move out while your spouse is gone? Moving out while the spouse is away is usually not a well received tactic.
- How do you handle who will pick up the groceries the next time? What about the kids’ schedules? Do you have any immediate plans together?
- What do you tell your friends? How much do you want your friends to know? Do you agree to keep things generic just to avoid the judgment or different explanations? This might be something you agree on with your spouse after the dust settles a bit about your news.
- What happens if you continue to live in the same home and when your spouse comes home she or he expects you to do something as this is the way it has always been? If things are amicable then you can share that you want to keep things as stable as possible so you can work out the other details. This is all dependent on the strength of your relationship. If it has deteriorated significantly then you may need to find another place to keep peace for the time being and let things settle down.
- How do you close the conversation? What can you say to someone who may not want the same as you? What if they do want the same as you but you were the one who articulated your desire first? Often it is best to focus on the family, your individual lives, the kids and what you want out of your lives given the time you have available. Most people will respect that you met one day and now you have grown apart. Sharing the concept about “growing apart” is an innocent way to communicate your desire to get a divorce. This keeps your spouse’s self esteem intact and does not create anger. Your spouse and you may already feel this way, yet this is a more comfortable (yet still uncomfortable) way to express your feelings.
- Do you provide your notification in writing to your spouse? The answer is No. People do not want a piece of paper in their hands that says here is what I want to do. If you do this remember your spouse may just keep that piece of paper forever. If your spouse does, she or he will re-read it and experience the pain over and over again. That pain will be directed towards you at some point in the future. Word to the wise, do not write your intentions in a card or on paper. Consider communicating your thoughts verbally, not in writing. Verbal messages can fade over time with only the lasting impression being remembered.
- Is it better to prepare a card and write something inside the card that will be a memorable experience your spouse can have as a more pleasant memory for the rest of life? This is a nice touch to a challenging discussion. Inside the card you may choose to write about being friends together. Many people share they don’t necessarily want to be their spouse’s friend. Yet, if you were being rejected the next rung down from a marriage is a friend, an acquaintance and an enemy. Which one do you want your spouse to feel like inside? You may still have to find a way to operate as functional parents. So, if your spouse knows how to classify your relationship after your divorce it makes it somewhat easier to absorb in the mind, although still very painful.
During this discussion you will need to remain calm without being overly calm as that will irritate your spouse. You may want to show some emotion to show that you care but also show confidence that this is the right direction for you. You will need to find a way to keep your spouse calm during your discussion too. So, don’t say or do things that will create an emotional response . You know the hot buttons, just don’t push them now. It is not uncommon for a spouse to rant and rave or blow up at the wrong moments in time. Don’t forget you have done the planning for this discussion. Your spouse was not able to plan, virtually at all. So, you have to expect there will be words that are said which in hindsight your spouse, and possibly you, would have wished could be taken back. Also remember although you are the person initiating the discussion your spouse may be feeling the same. Applying empathy in this way is also saying something like “I know you want the same as I do. So, it doesn’t matter that I am bringing this up as we are both making this decision to move down this path together. This is as much my decision as it is yours too.”
Your safety is of utmost importance
If your spouse moves towards expressing feelings of denial, anger or retaliation then you will need to reset the stage. Below are some tips that will help you manage this process. Please know, if you feel any sense of concern for your physical safety be sure to have the conversation in a location that is safe for you where you will not be physically compromised.
What you will read from here on out is not a solution for everyone as each person’s situation is unique. After reading this if you would like to discuss your situation further to create the best strategy for you, feel free to contact me. My contact information is on the bottom of this article.
Some questions you want to ask yourself so you can be better prepared for your discussion:
- What date should you share your news? If there is an important event such as a birthday, your wedding anniversary, a planned vacation, your spouse got laid off, your spouse is feeling very depressed, etc. that is nearby your targeted date for the discussion then choose another date. This date will implant a memory for life that you do not want to have connected with another event.
- Will your spouse be surprised to hear the information you will be sharing?
- Do you know how your spouse will react to the situation?
- How will you defuse your spouse’s reaction if your spouse blows up? What is your backup plan?
- What will you do if your spouse tries to talk you out of your decision?
- How will you remain confident about your feelings?
Finding the right location and the right moments to talk about it
One of the most important things to do is choose the right setting. If you are in an area where your spouse does not react well (say there is a lack of sunshine or your spouse had a bad night’s sleep) then you may want to choose a different day to talk or a different setting too. Where you choose to share this news and when you choose to share it will be a memory that will last a lifetime for you and your spouse. So, choose it wisely and be ever so sensitive even during your time of wanting to feel free. You will want to be sure your spouse will be emotionally open to receiving your news; that’s why your setting is a key variable to figure out so you can have as many variables moving in your direction as possible. Just to be clear, you don’t want this to be obvious by saying let’s go take a walk on the beach if you don’t do that too often with your spouse or if it would be viewed as disingenuous. Plan properly based on how you know your spouse will react to the setting you chose.
If I were you I would not plan to have your conversation in a crowded restaurant or when the kids are in the house. If you have a therapist you have been going to then the therapist’s office may be a good option. The therapist can help create healthy boundaries and facilitate the conversation for the two of you. Yet, you do not want to suggest this option if your spouse has not been willing to go to the therapist’s office. You may want to ask your therapist ahead of time to determine if your therapist can suggest a location or find’s her or his office would be suitable. It may be a safe location or not. You will need to decide what is best for your situation and your relationship.
Some thoughts how to open the conversation…
When you decide to share your feelings with your spouse you will need to find a time where you will have uninterrupted time together. You may want to approach the topic in such a way where you focus on “life” and not the challenges you have experienced in your relationship. This approach seems to work very well as it is about what you each want in life and need for your lives going forward. When you communicate in this manner your spouse starts to feel it is somewhat less personal. She or he starts to accept more of the reality they will experience going forward. If your spouse has lots of unknowns this will cause problems for you and your divorce process. They need to find a way to accept what is forthcoming with a solid understanding of why you want to move down this path. Your spouse will need to digest this news over a bit of time. So, be sure to leave your spouse time to digest before you serve any papers. In this discussion you will need to make sure your spouse is “ok” with the decision. Even though you want to move down a divorce process you need to make sure your spouse’s feelings are still intact . Your spouse may feel like a failure for not making the marriage work. If this is the case, you will want to make sure your spouse’s dignity remains intact.
Using words such as “I” (not “You”) avoids placing blame on your spouse and starting a fight that you nor your spouse want during this time. Remain aware that even if your spouse agrees with your feelings your spouse may not want to end your marriage. So, you may be coming to this life altering discussion from two different vantage points.
Through this discussion, your feelings are paramount too. Your spouse has likely not prepared for this conversation. So, you will be far more prepared than your spouse. As a result, you may experience some raw emotions coming through or ill prepared statements that your spouse in hindsight will wish was never said. During these moments you will need a mental filter to sort through the challenging words and see the essence of what is really being communicated to you.
If your spouse reacts with accusatory remarks you will have a natural tendency to strike back with harsh words. This will create a bad snowstorm for you that could last a while beyond your discussion. Do your best to refrain from pointing out issues around your spouse’s behaviors, insensitivities, deficits as a person or character flaws. You would likely not want to hear these things during these precious moments when life will suddenly change. So, the best thing to do is not share those with your spouse during these times. You must listen quietly and not interrupt. Hear them out. They are in acute pain. If you have ever learned anything about active listening now is the time to use it. Not only do you not try to shut them up, you encourage them to talk more. It will be useful if you summarize your understanding of their feelings so they feel understood.
Your spouse may air some feelings. During this time you will want to just listen. The magic words people need to hear is “I understand how you are feeling”. At the same time if you are confident this is what you want and need for you life, then you need to remain firm in your perspective.
Stress what you mutually want together going forward
It will be important to focus on what you can do together going forward. Such as maintaining a functional family, working through this process together in a diligent manner, avoiding all of the war stories others have experienced in their lives that neither one of you want to experience, etc. You will need to find a way, if possible, for the two of you to accept the situation and move forward in life as adults. This is not an easy path to find in your discussion yet essential for your futures. You will want to focus on building a future for your family together where you all come through the process in such a way where you can rebuild and thrive together as people.
You may want to share with your spouse that this has been a very difficult decision for you to make. Everything you have built together has been important to you. Yet, you have arrived at a point in your life where you believe you need to pursue a different path than you are currently on. You will need to follow up on this immediately thereafter to explain your perspective. Here is where you will want to focus on where you see your life needs to go. These conversations are best to be left short without going through a discussion that lasts multiple hours. Yet, sometimes people can have long discussions about these things. If that is the way your discussion plays out then be sure to be there for your spouse during this sensitive moment. In hindsight your spouse will appreciate that you spent the time to care for her or his needs.
What to do if your discussion goes down the wrong path
If your spouse starts to get angry or accuse you of different things, one approach is to say I think we should have this discussion at a later point in time. You will want to accent the point that your relationship with your spouse is important to you. You want to make sure your spouse understands you do not want to engage in a discussion where either one of you places fault on the other. Yet, you do want to talk about how to go through an organized divorce process. If your spouse continues to be less than cordial you may need to walk out of the room. If you do this be careful about making comments that will not be well received.
What you don’t want to do
What you don’t want to do is use this discussion as a means to “serve your spouse papers”. This is not the time to provide your spouse legal documentation of being served. You need to first address the situation and make sure your spouse is as whole as possible. As noted below in your next steps you can share that you will have your advisor (don’t use the word attorney) develop the appropriate paperwork so you both can move forward. The reason you may not want to use the word attorney as this may put your spouse on the defensive. Your spouse may feel she or he has to build a defense with an attorney as the near term is unknown. There has been much evolution over time regarding how the divorce process needs to be executed to manage the outcomes. We refer to this as divorce 2.0, using divorce engineering frameworks; a process which is beyond the scope of this article.
If your spouse starts to bring up the concept of alimony, who will live where, parenting rights, etc. you will need to accent the point that you each need to process your discussion first. You are very open to having a cordial discussion about these issues. Yet, today is not the day to talk about these things. You can accent that you know there will be a number of unknowns for each of you going forward. You are confident you and your spouse will work through them together in a diligent manner to best preserve and protect each other’s interests.
Although you will never be able to pick the perfect time to have the discussion, if your spouse is stressed from certain activities that happened during the day then it may not be the best day to have the discussion. You will want to have this discussion when it will be least damaging to your spouse’s psychological state and your future relationship. You may say to yourself you need to get this over with during a certain time frame as it has gone on too long. This may be true, yet it is best to handle this at the most sensitive time possible. Like everything in life, timing is important.
How do you close the conversation?
Knowing what the next steps are after you’ve had your discussion is critically important.
You will want to share with your spouse that you do not want to precipitate legal action or be engaged in the court system. The reason is you do not want to be in a position where you have to outsource your decision to an outside party . You may need someone to lead you through the process, you are both adults and with the right frameworks and clear guidance you can both arrive at a solution that will work for both of you.
About the Author
Larry Smith CPA, MBA
Larry is a Founding Partner of Divorce Outcomes, a specialty professional services firm that analyzes, architects and negotiates all of the financial aspects of a divorce.
Since 2003, Larry has worked with divorcing parties as their fiduciary to design sophisticated divorcing strategies that enable clients to preserve and create wealth from their divorce. As a technical financial expert, he uncovers hidden tradable components through various analytical and architectural processes to arrive at desired outcomes. He is an alumni of KPMG and Andersen and has expertise in:
- technical accounting, taxation, business consulting, risk management, M&A
- forensic analysis, performance analytics
- M&A, business valuations, divorce management, family equity transfers, multi-party negotiations, communications management
- advanced process engineering, cognitive performance technologies
If You Have a Question
If you have a question, feel free to contact me at [email protected] or 617-680-5222. The call is free. I will spend 30–60 minutes with you. I will provide you an honest assessment as to where I think you are positioned in your divorce process or answer any questions you have. I may provide you some guidance, insight or advice that you can take with you as you wish. There is no obligation to move forward. The phone call is designed to ease your fears, provide you some options to pursue and a potential road to run on that can lead you down a path to achieve a successful outcome.
About Divorce Outcomes
Divorce Outcomes is a specialty services firm that helps people both domestically and internationally manage all of the financial decisions that arise in a divorce process. We are not attorneys. We are financial experts who partner with our clients as their personal financial advocates. We help our clients:
- manage their divorce process
- uncover hidden financial risks
- architect divorce solutions
- manage ever-changing negotiating positions
- communicate complex financial matters
- close the divorce process as soon as possible
Throughout the process we evaluate our clients’ current wealth-at-risk and architect desired outcomes to best preserve or create wealth.
This communication is for general informational purposes only which may or may not reflect the most current developments. It is not intended to constitute formal advice or a recommended course of action as every person’s situation is unique and different. The information here is not intended to be, and should not be, relied upon by the recipient to make a decision without professional guidance.