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How to Discuss Separation or Divorce With Your Spouse

Broaching the topic of divorce is difficult and scary. But it's possible.

Sometimes the possibility of considering divorce is a sentiment that builds slowly over time, while for others, it’s an emotional thunderbolt that seemingly erupts out of a clear blue sky. Everyone’s experience is different. But regardless of what your path to divorce or separation looks like, at some point, you have to sit down and discuss it with your spouse or partner.

Discussing your desire to separate from your partner—whether on a trial basis, or a full-blown divorce—is likely one of the most intimidating and awkward scenarios imaginable. While it’s easy to allow your emotions to derail your self-control, with careful planning, it is possible to have such a discussion in a productive and calm manner.

Here are a few tips on how to have this conversation with your partner.

Be very careful who you talk to for advice beforehand. Keep it private.

Posting on Facebook—even in your private group of trustworthy friends—that you’re thinking about separating from your partner is a good way to blow things up. You’ll likely be bombarded with a great deal of contradictory advice, but more importantly, people talk. The more people you tell, the likelier they are to talk amongst themselves and tell other people, which can lead to your spouse hearing about it on the grapevine, rather than from you. Obviously, that is NOT how you want such a discussion with your partner to start out. That’s a good way to up the odds of a contentious divorce, even if you were only considering a trial separation.

If you need to get advice, choose only one or two very trusted friends or family members, and talk to them in person. Make it clear that your discussion needs to stay private, out of respect for you and the autonomy of your relationship.

Please note: If you or a child are being abused by your spouse, then safety is your first priority. There are many resources available all throughout the country—such as this one for Sacramento County—that can help you determine what to do.

Make time for your conversation.

Don’t sit down with your partner 30 minutes before you’re both supposed to be heading out to a friend’s, or when one of you has to leave on business in a couple hours. You should block out several hours for the discussion, and choose a day when there will be plenty of time afterwards for both of you to recover from the conversation as needed.

Be prepared for compromise.

You may have an image in your head of exactly how you want things to play out, maybe even a timeline. But relationships involve two people, and the same is true of separation and divorce. You have the benefit of having planned everything out for weeks, months, or even years in advance. For your spouse, the thought of divorce may not have even crossed their mind.

As a consequence, they’re going to be playing catch-up for a while. If you want this to be a peaceful and constructive process, then you need to be able to cater to their needs, as well as your own. After all, this is a conversation, and conversations require two-way communication. Be prepared to listen, not just talk.

If you’re intending on doing a trial separation, don’t use it as a dating opportunity.

You and your partner need to understand that the purpose of a trial separation is to bring home the seriousness of the current relationship situation: “This isn’t a joke. Our relationship is in danger.” If you or your spouse sees this as being an occasion to test the dating waters, then your trial separation will probably turn into a trial in court very quickly.

Make sure that you and your partner are on the same page as to what you want out of your separation. This should be an opportunity for both of you to really reflect on your relationship and how it needs to evolve in order for you to stick around.

If you have no genuine interest in trying to make the relationship work, then you should probably skip the trial separation step and be honest with your partner about what you really want.

Discussing divorce is an inherently emotional experience.

Oftentimes, such conversations can devolve into yelling, crying, cursing, or anger. While this isn’t optimal, it’s to be expected, especially if a partner feels like they have been blindsided. If you believe that your partner may become a danger, then try to arrange to have the conversation in the home of a friend or loved one, or somewhere that is semi-public, where you can get to safety quickly.

But be prepared for anything. Anger or sadness is to be expected. But occasionally, a spouse responds with relief: “Honestly, I’ve been thinking about the same thing.”

Try not to have your ducks in too much of a row.

As mentioned above, your spouse may feel blindsided by this conversation. If it turns out that you have an apartment rented, your bags packed, and a lawyer on retainer with a divorce settlement already written out, you’ll probably have effectively destroyed any chance of having an amenable divorce, meaning that all of your preparation has been for nothing.

There’s nothing wrong with having some ideas with how you want your divorce to play out. But discussing divorce is a means of beginning the process of divorce. It shouldn’t happen when you feel like you’re already at the end of it, save for your spouse’s signature on a dotted line.

While intimidating, it is possible to discuss divorce in a productive manner.

It’s completely understandable to be scared by the prospect of broaching the topic of divorce with your spouse. For many people there is definitely the sense of never being able to take it back once the word “divorce” has been uttered. But regardless of whether you’re trying to save your marriage or ready to move on, having that first difficult discussion is an important step in moving forward with your life. And regardless of what your partner does, as long as you approach it in a prepared and mature fashion, you’ll come out of it okay.