No matter how unhappy your marriage has been or how determined you are to seek a divorce, tell your spouse that you want a divorce is a difficult conversation. It will be emotional and painful, regardless of whether divorce has been discussed in the past or if it’s the first time they will be hearing it from you. Here are some tips to help guide this conversation in a constructive way:

  • Start with a conversation, not by serving papers.  As much as you may want to avoid conflict, do not let serving divorce papers be the way that your spouse finds out that you want a divorce. Having a conversation is respectful of your spouse and your history together, while being served papers sets up the divorce process for anger and acting out.
  • Be clear about what you want. Do not use divorce as a threat. If you are unhappy in the marriage, but not sure if you want a divorce, say that and commit to working on the marriage or yourself to figure out the next step.
  • Be direct. If you want a divorce, say, “I want a divorce.” Then give an explanation. The explanation is your first opportunity to put your divorce on the best path. The explanation should be clear and honest and include you taking responsibility for your role in the breakdown of the marriage.  “I have been unhappy in this marriage for a long time. We fight frequently and don’t resolve issues. We’ve been living separate lives for a while. I know I contributed to the ending of this marriage because I didn’t tell you early on when things were bothering me.”
  • Have this conversation when you are calm. This is not a conversation to have in the midst of a fight. Neither of you will be able to process the information when tempers are running high. Wait until you are calm so you can have this conversation respectfully.
  • Safety first. If you fear this conversation will put you in harms way, do not have this conversation alone. Have the conversation with a 3rd party present, such as a therapist and have a safety plan in place.
  • Reassure your spouse about the kids.  If you have kids together, reassure your spouse that you will not undermine his/her relationship with the kids. This is not the conversation to figure out all the details, but it is important to be clear that you are not trying to take the kids away. Unless there are issues of safety, kids do best when they have a relationship with both parents after a divorce.
  • Be compassionate to, but not intimidated by your spouse’s response. You can follow all these tips and state your position respectfully but you cannot predict your spouse’s response. Perhaps your spouse will say something hoping to change your mind or scare you into staying, “If you leave me, I will hurt myself/take the kids/never pay you a penny…” You cannot be hostage to these threats. If you fear for your spouse’s safety, contact their therapist or call a crisis line.
  • Remember, you are at different places in this process. You may have been thinking about this for a very long time and you may have already mourned the loss of this marriage. Your spouse is not likely to be in the same place, He/she needs time to digest the information and catch up to you.

Nobody takes this decision lightly. If you want a divorce, this conversation should be clear and direct so your spouse fully understands. At the end, you can suggest that you both sit down and talk about the next step (choosing a process) when he or she has had some time to absorb this information.