Initiating the Divorce
The important problem at the beginning of the divorce is whether the decision is mutual. Very few divorces begin when two married people simultaneously decide to divorce. Usually, one of the partners reaches the decision first. That person, whom we call the initiator, has typically spent a long time thinking about divorce and making the emotional adjustments. He or she has spent a good deal of time coping with the disappointment that the marriage cannot work and may even have gone through a period of mourning, unbeknownst to the spouse. The initiator has the advantage of having had all the time to prepare for the divorce. She may have already begun to build a new life by making new friends separate from her spouse. She may have returned to school to acquire a new degree or credential that will augment a job search. He may have lost twenty pounds, taken up exercise, acquired new hobbies and otherwise begun a new and separate life. By the time the initiator breaks the news to the spouse, he or she is usually well along or complete in the process of detachment and adjustment. By that time, the marriage is dead. He or she is finished and resolved to move on.
The critical question is where is the other spouse, or non-initiator, in this process? The spouse may be anywhere on a continuum, with totally thunderstruck on one extreme to resigned acceptance on the other extreme. “I don’t understand. I thought we had a great marriage. We never even had a fight.” Or, “Well, I guess you’re probably right. I thought it might be worth another crack at counseling but this has gone on so long it’s time to get it over.” These represent the two ends of the continuum with most non-initiators falling somewhere in between. After many years practicing mediation, I regard this as perhaps the most important emotional fact of the divorce. It is crucial because how the difference in the psychological state of initiator and non-initiator is managed will shape how the divorce turns out.
Tell your spouse with all the gentleness you would use if you were telling them a loved one had died. Choose a time when the two of you are alone and no one is likely to barge in. You are about to break some bad news that will in all probability evoke strong emotions. Determine in advance that you will not use strong language or an angry tone regardless of their reaction.
“Wendy, I have some difficult news to share with you. I have reached the conclusion that you and I need to divorce. We have both tried but it is not working between us and I do not believe that it will work. I think the marriage is over and that we have to separate.”
Note the neutral language. Note that you are making “I” statements. You are reporting the state of your own feelings and are not characterizing theirs. Now be prepared for a response and listen when they try to talk to you. Their response may be anything from agreement to urgent denial.
“How can you even think such a thing? There’s nothing wrong that some hard work can’t fix. We have children to think of; how could you even consider doing this to them?
Be prepared for an angry assault.
“This is just another example of you trying to run away from responsibility. You are too selfish and you are only thinking about yourself. I have given you everything I could. I’ve poured myself into making this family and this home. I don’t deserve this and the kids don’t deserve this. You better just grow up and stop acting like a damn adolescent!”
But do not retaliate. This is not the time to defend yourself or to justify your decision. So the following, though understandable is self-destructive.
“Don’t lecture me about growing up, I’m leaving because I’m sick and tired of your childish crap. I’m sick of living in this messy house and I’m sick of living without sex or affection and I’m sick of your never doing your share. Whenever I’ve tried to make the marriage work you undermined me every time. You screwed up our attempts at counseling and stonewalled me whenever I asked you to change. This is more your fault than mine so you grow up!”
Such a statement may feel good for about three minutes but will it produce nothing but a bitter fight. Now you have sought to justify by attacking them and have guaranteed a contentious and angry fight as you launch the divorce. Consider the alternative.
“I know this is very painful and I am very sorry to do this but I am at my wit’s end and just can’t see an alternative. I don’t have the feelings that we would need to make it work. There is too much distance between us to overcome. The marriage is over. I am worried about the children and I am concerned for you. The marriage has to end but I will do everything I can to do it decently and fairly.”
Notice that there is no defense here; only the reiteration that you regard the marriage as over and you will do your best to manage the divorce fairly. Two things are necessary here: one is the sense that your decision is correct. If you feel conviction in your decision to divorce, it will be easier for you to hold your ground and not engage in self-defense. The other is the awareness that anger, recrimination and defensiveness will spawn further anger on his/her part and will work against your desire for a reasonable and amicable process.
If you are operating from a stance of emotional conviction, and if you have overcome your anger and your desire to return comments with counterattacks, you will be able to maintain your calm and your kindness. You may have to repeat your determination to end it several times in the face of an intense emotional attack. Just because they use strong language or express angry feelings, that does not warrant any deviation from the script. If you get angry and engage in a struggle, you forfeit the opportunity to model the behavior you want them to imitate. Now is the time to demonstrate your commitment to a peaceful transition and a commitment to avoiding blame, recrimination and personal attacks. Their attacks on you will abate if you hold firm and don’t retaliate. It takes two to fight. Your refusal to engage will reap large dividends later.
After you tell your spouse that you want a divorce, you need to give them the time to assimilate the information. Although both of you are anxious about the future, this is not the time to engage in discussion about the details of the divorce. It is not the time to discuss whether to sell the house or whether they need to get a job. Acknowledge that divorce will require some important changes but reiterate that you will work together to achieve a fair and workable arrangement. Say that there is no rush to decide these things and assure them that you will be available to talk more when both of you are ready. Consider the following bad example:
“Don’t think that you can have it all your way. You better get used to the fact that we are going to have to sell this house. And unless you want to starve you better get out there and find a job like I’ve been asking you to do for years.”
I have seen too many people begin divorces this way and all it does is scare them into running to a lawyer for protection because you have just demonstrated your indifference to their welfare.
Summary of the rules for saying you want a divorce:
- Use “I” statements.
- Use neutral language.
- Do not blame them for your decision. Model peaceful behavior.
- Be clear that it is over.
- Do not discuss proposals about the details of the divorce.
- Do not retaliate if they attack or criticize you.
- Reassure that you want to work with them to achieve fairness and the best arrangement for all of you.
- Tell them there is no hurry to resolve everything and that you will wait until they are ready.
- Suggest or agree to divorce counseling.
Just as the non-initiator must learn to recognize and control strong emotions, the initiator must rise to the same challenge. It might help to realize that both of you ultimately want the same thing—a peaceful, fulfilled life for yourself and your children.