Monday, December 31, 2007

How to Break the News to Your Spouse

Divorces usually begin one of three ways. Either your spouse tells you that he or she wants to get a divorce, or you tell your spouse you want to get a divorce, or the decision to divorce is mutual after both of you have discussed it over a period of time. Many people have difficulty when they are the one to break the news to their spouse. Most of the time, both spouses realize that the marriage is not working out, but in a significant number of cases, one spouse has been quietly suffering until a breaking point is reached. In those cases, the other spouse is often unaware of the problems and is surprised when the spouse announces a decision to divorce.

Once the decision to divorce has been made by one of the spouses, the other spouse needs to find out about it. This is usually accomplished by using one of several means.
  • You can meet with your spouse and tell him or her directly in person. Some people appreciate this and some feel insulted if they aren't told in this way. Some want to be told this way to avoid a public embarrassment. Some want to take the opportunity to plead their case to continue the marriage.
  • You can call your spouse and explain the situation over the phone. It avoids the public spectacle and makes it easier to end the discussion quickly.
  • Notice can be sent by a letter from you or your attorney. The attorney letter will probably not be taken as a warm or conciliatory gesture, although it may not be bad if your spouse is expecting something to start.
  • A mutual friend or relative might be talked into being the messenger. That insulates you from direct contact with your spouse for the time being.
  • You could have your spouse served with notice by a process server. Where you choose to have your spouse served (at home, work or elsewhere) can make a huge difference as far as the perception of your attitude toward your spouse and it could affect your spouse's anger level as the divorce gets started. You should discuss with your attorney whether it is necessary and advisable to serve your spouse and whether you should notify your spouse some other way first.
You should discuss with your attorney whether it is necessary or advisable to have papers served by a process server. Here are some other factors for you to consider in deciding how to notify your spouse about an up-coming divorce.

1. Choose an approach that is consistent with your goals and needs. It really helps to decide what your long-term and immediate goals and needs are: having primary custody; setting aside adequate retirement funds; keeping a friendly relationship with your soon-to-be ex-spouse so you can have a flexible possession schedule with the kids; having your debt paid off or minimized; limiting the amount spent on attorney's fees, having enough money to keep or obtain a house; getting an agreement for more or less child support; etc. On the other hand, you may need to act aggressively and quickly to preserve assets or protect the children, and that might indicate the need to serve papers right away. In some cases, telling your spouse before the papers are served may help your spouse avoid service or take other actions that could be detrimental to you.

2. Clarify what your objective is for telling your spouse about the divorce. Is it to be courteous; to start the divorce in a mature, civilized manner; to punish or threaten your spouse; to set up a hearing right away; to speed up the process; or some other reason?

3. Figure out your spouse's most likely response. Look at the situation from your spouse's point of view, whether you think it is valid or not. Do a little mental role-playing to visualize your spouse's reaction. How does your spouse view the relationship now? Is he or she: unaware of your plan to divorce; accepting of the divorce; eager for the divorce to move forward; opposed to the divorce; in denial and not reacting; or experiencing some other feelings? How do you think your spouse would act with each form of notice? What are your concerns? Would he or she be angry; violent; depressed; crying; happy; or experience some other response?

4. If you are discussing the divorce in person, practice what you will be saying. Think it through and then rehearse it. Choose your words very carefully -- they can make a huge difference in the outcome. You can practice with a friend or family member. Be prepared for any possible objections or other responses that you receive.
How, when and where you notify your spouse about your plans for divorce can have a significant effect on how difficult your divorce turns out. Careful consideration of these issues can make your divorce less stressful and less contentious, and you may have a better chance of achieving your goals and meeting your needs. Many people want to maintain their dignity during a divorce. A thoughtful approach at the start may pave the way to more cooperation later on. These are tough decisions, though, and you should think through the consequences of your choice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your sound advice about broaching divorce with your spouse. Much more difficult is breaking the news to your children. My own experience more than a decade ago led to my writing a guidebook for parents on how to create a storybook with family photos and history as a successful way to have this tough conversation. It's called How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook(TM) Guide to Preparing Your Children -- With Love! Therapists, attorneys, mediators, educators and other professionals from around the U.S.and beyond endorse the book, attesting to the value of my fill-in-the-blanks age-appropriate templates. Six therapists contribute their expertise to the book, as well. I hope divorcing couples will stop, talk and create a plan before having that crucial "divorce" talk with their children and hope, for the sake of their kids, they will decide to move ahead in creating a child-centered divorce. For free articles and more information, visit
Best wishes,
Rosalind Sedacca, CCT