10 tips to help you organize and prepare yourself for a difficult conversation: telling your spouse.

One of the first questions I get from people who consult with me is “How do I tell my spouse?”  Even if you believe your spouse sees it coming (or should have seen it coming) most people approach it with trepidation. Yes, it will likely be one of the most difficult and painful conversations you will ever have.

This conversation can make a “flashbulb memory,” because you will remember it forever. And how you approach it may set the tone for the legal process that will follow.

Here are some important tips to help you organize your thoughts and prepare yourself emotionally.

  1. Are you sure?  Take your time and carefully think through your decision. Once you tell your spouse that you want to separate or divorce, you cannot take those words back. You may want to consult with a family therapist who can help you get clarity about what you want to do.
  2. Don’t threaten divorce in an argument. This undermines your credibility and it is cruel. If you are serious about wanting a separation or divorce, keep your thoughts to yourself until you are calm, ready to talk, and have planned what to say.
  3. Once you are certain, you can begin to plan your conversation. Think about a good time to talk. This should not be done in a rush, during an argument, or on an important day for your spouse or your family. For example, telling your spouse on Christmas will ruin the holiday for your family for years to come. Telling him or her on their first day at a new job is not considerate or respectful. If you have kids, plan your conversation when they are not home, or go to a neutral public place, such as a coffee shop.
  4. Tell your spouse that you’d like to talk. You can talk at home if that feels comfortable and safe for you. If you are worried about the reaction, ask your spouse to join you in a meeting with a therapist where you can talk about your decision. Don’t just leave a note and move out unless safety is a primary concern. This is cowardly, traumatic, and unfair to your spouse.
  5. Plan what you will say to be kind, firm, direct, and calm. For example, “I have been unhappy for such a long time, and nothing seems to help us improve our relationship. I am sorry to say this, but I have decided that I want a divorce.” Or, “I need a break from this marriage because I am not happy. I would like a trial separation if you would be willing to commit to six months of marriage counseling to see if we can fix our relationship.” The reality is that 13 percent of separated couples reconcile. 
  6. Be prepared. How do you think your spouse will react? Will he/she be surprised by your decision? Usually, people know that their relationship is not well. Whatever the reaction, don’t get pulled into a fight, and don’t get defensive. Stay calm and on message: such as “Our marriage is over, we have tried our best, but I am unhappy, and I can’t do this anymore” or “I know this isn’t what you want to hear, and I am sorry.” Avoid all blaming statements and stick with “I-messages.”
  7. Consider ahead of time whether you will be leaving the home or whether you will ask your spouse to leave the home. This is temporary, until the property and other issues are negotiated during your divorce. “I’d like you to go stay with your brother for a week or two until we can figure out our next steps.” “I am going to stay with my parents for a while, and I’d like to take the children with me for the week. Let’s talk next week about where we go from here.” If you believe that you can continue to be in the home together until the divorce process has started (or finished) you could suggest this.
  8. Acknowledge your spouse’s emotions. It may be tempting to offer comfort but be aware that you may inadvertently give your spouse false hope or a mixed message. Be clear about what you have decided but be kind. “I know this is painful, and I want to try to do this in as respectful a way as possible.” “We both need some time to digest this, so can we agree not to talk to our kids or families until we have a chance to plan together what we will say?”
  9. Give your spouse time to process your decision before telling others including your kids or discussing the logistics of the separation or divorce. When discussing the divorce process, don’t start negotiating about money and property or custody. “I would like to work with you in a mediation or collaborative process to develop an equitable resolution for both of us. Is that something we can agree on?”
  10. If you are leaving an abusive or violent spouse, make a safety plan for yourself and your children before speaking with your spouse. The first days after you tell your spouse are the most dangerous, as the abuser has nothing left to lose. Speak with an attorney about how to protect yourself during this period. You may need to get a restraining order and/or move to a safe house.

Once you have shared your decision with your spouse, you will need to talk about how to tell your family and children (if you have children). Before you do so and if your spouse agrees to wait, take some time for yourself to metabolize what just happened.

One of my clients told her husband that she wanted a separation. She told him this in my office because she was afraid of his reaction. After telling him, she ran out of the office and vomited in the restroom. It is extremely upsetting to give this news, almost as upsetting as receiving it. So take a few days or longer to get support from friends or family, see your therapist, and do some self-care so that you can face the next difficult and painful steps.

An earlier version of this was published in Psychology Today in 2019.

© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2021

Ann Buscho is a divorce coach practicing in Marin, San Francisco, and Sonoma Counties.  More information in her bio on the “Find A Professional” page.