The prospect of asking for a divorce from your spouse can be nerve-racking.
But, remember that you’re not alone.
According to the CDC, every year over 745,000 divorces are filed in the United States.
Whether you’re done staying together just for the kids or your spouse has changed (for the worse) during your marriage, getting a divorce can be a positive life change for couples in turmoil.
When it comes to the difficult topic of how to ask for a divorce, there are some crucial steps to take before, during, and after “the Talk” with your spouse.
You need to take some time to reflect and determine if and why you’re ready for a divorce.
You are going to want to write your feelings down to prepare for “the Talk”, take careful consideration into choosing a time and location for “the Talk,” and be prepared to handle your spouse’s emotional response.
What happens during and after “the Talk” is different for every couple so having a plan will help.
However, be prepared for the conversation to not always go according to plan and having to make adjustments in the moment.
Below we will help you plan the best way for you to ask your spouse for a divorce and be ready for “the Talk”.
Are You 100% Ready For Divorce?
First, you need to make sure you’re ready for a divorce.
If you’re on the fence, you’ll need to do some soul-searching before you approach the topic with your spouse.
Asking for a divorce is not a decision you should make impulsively.
Getting divorced is a lot like getting married, if you feel like you’re ready, you probably are, and there’s little hope of talking you out of it.
Dr. Ann Gold Buscho, author of the Psychology Today column “A Better Divorce,” recommends that potential divorcees seek professional counseling to help with the decision.
A therapist can provide support during the decision-making process and help you determine if you’ve explored every possible option to salvage the relationship.
If you think that you can save the marriage, ask your partner to consider participating in marriage counseling or a marital education program.
Marital education programs teach couples to improve their communication and conflict resolution skills.
One program, the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), has proven to decrease relationship aggression, negative relationship interactions, and the rate of divorce in participating couples.
But, even if you’re confident that the marriage is unsalvageable, Dr. Buscho recommends imagining life without your spouse and reflecting on how those thoughts make you feel.
Any emotions—anger, stress, sadness, or even joy—are valid during the reflection process.
Most importantly, make sure that you haven’t left any stones unturned in your reflection process.
The decision to divorce shouldn’t be made lightly, and if you feel that there’s even a chance of reconciliation, make an effort to save the marriage before ending it.
How To Prepare For “the Talk”
If you’re ready to bring the topic of divorce to the table with your spouse, there are a 2 crucial steps you need to take beforehand:
- Find and Maintain Support – Find a supportive friend, relative, or counselor to confide in throughout the process
- Writing Down Your Feelings – Organize your thoughts and feelings into a written document for both preparation and to guide your divorce conversation
Finding and Maintaining Support
Having support during the divorce process is crucial to your mental health.
Whether you seek support from a friend, a family member, or a professional counselor, you’re going to need them more than you think.
Once you find your person, set healthy communication boundaries with them including the following.
Determine how you want support
- Over text? Over the phone? Exclusively in person?
- Setting boundaries, like “I won’t make you read novels about my divorce over text,” or “I won't call you with everything that pops into my head” will help prevent your supporter from burnout.
Determine when you want support
- During a weekly standing appointment? A daily phone call? A weekly Zoom session?
- Having a set time also prevents supporter burnout but gives you a chance to order your thoughts and emotionally reflect on your own before asking for support.
Determine your support needs
- Do you want your supporter to hold you accountable for saying unkind things about your spouse?
- Do you want your supporter to remind you of your goals during the divorce?
- Do you want your supporter to initiate social activities to relieve your mind during the divorce?
Finding a supportive person and setting boundaries with them (for your mutual benefit) is integral to staying mentally well while preparing to ask for a divorce and during the divorce process.
Writing Down Your Feelings
Before “the Talk,” you need to get all of your thoughts and feelings out on paper.
Brain dumping or journaling about the divorce before “the Talk” will help you process your emotions and will serve as a bank of information about your feelings.
Read over what you’ve written. Which things do you need your spouse to know when you ask them for a divorce?
Order your thoughts into an outline to use during “the Talk.” You can either memorize your outline or better yet bring it with you to reference during the conversation.
Avoid accusatory statements like, “You don’t care about me anymore.”
Instead, focus on your own feelings, and create your outline by saying “I want a divorce because…” before each bullet point.
Once you have your support system and your written document ready, you’ll be prepared to ask for a divorce.
How to Tell Your Spouse You Want a Divorce
When you feel you’re 100% ready to have “the Talk,” make an action plan for where the physical conversation will take place, when you’ll have the conversation, what to say, how you’ll maintain respect, and how to initiate the conversation (arguably the most challenging part).
Use the tips below to begin making a plan on how to ask for a divorce.
When to Tell Your Spouse
Just like any other bad news, there’s never going to be a good time to tell your spouse that you want a divorce. But, there are definitely situations where you should avoid bringing up divorce.
Don’t tell your spouse during a major life transition.
- Is one of your children about to leave for college? Consider waiting until your child is settled in and the home environment adjusts to the change before bringing up another huge transition.
- Did your spouse just start a new job? Wait for them to adjust to their new work environment and workload before starting the divorce conversation.
Don’t tell your spouse during a family event or when any people could overhear.
- While you and your spouse will both need a support system during the process, bringing up a divorce in front of others could embarrass your spouse or lead to the involvement of unnecessary parties.
- You will not want to be around strangers in a public place. This is a conversation that is best handled in when it's just the two of you together.
Don’t tell your spouse before, during, or immediately after an important event.
- Did a friend or family member recently pass away, or did someone close to you recently get divorced? Perhaps another event took place that was significant in nature. If so, give it some more time to not confuse the event with your true desire for divorce.
- Stay clear of announcing your intentions to divorce with attending a wedding. Your spouse could associate the divorce with the recently-married couple, resulting in unnecessary resentment or spoiling positive memories of the event.
If you have children in the house, wait until they go to bed or leave for school before initiating the conversation about divorce.
Any other present parties will likely be unable to resist interjection or uncomfortable feelings, and this should be a conversation solely between you and your spouse.
Where To Tell Your Spouse
“The Talk” will likely proceed smoothly during a time when you and your spouse are in your home alone or another comfortable private space.
Telling your spouse anywhere in public is likely a bad idea.
If you and your spouse aren’t on speaking terms, treat the discussion like an appointment.
Ask your spouse, “Can we please talk after the kids go to bed?” or “Can you and I talk tonight after we get home from work?”
Commit to a time, and stick with it.
If your spouse attempts to postpone the conversation (“I have plans with friends tonight,” “Can we watch a movie and talk after?” “But the game is on,” et cetera), stand your ground. Say, “This is an important talk we need to have.”
Tell your spouse in a space where they feel they feel comfortable and can be vulnerable.
If you generally have good conversations in the kitchen or the living room, have “the Talk” there.
Ultimately, only you can decide the best place in your home to have the conversation.
But, if you and your spouse are no longer living together, you’ll likely feel most empowered to have the conversation in your primary residence, not the place where your spouse is living.
Most importantly, don’t ambush your spouse.
Set expectations for the time and place where you’ll have “the Talk,” and make sure your spouse understands the magnitude of the conversation.
What To Say To Your Spouse
Writing down your feelings and turning them into an outline for the discussion is a great tactic.
But, what will you actually say?
In all likelihood, your spouse will have a lot to say, so you want your outline to include as much information as you need to get through everything you need to effectively communicate why you are asking for a divorce.
You should come up with some important “whys” and include them in your outline.
Ask yourself, “Why do I want a divorce?” and answer honestly.
Include these reasons in your outline.
You’re going to have to be as honest as possible during this conversation.
If you’ve decided that having children is a non-negotiable for you and your spouse doesn’t want them, say that.
Is your marriage toxic and you can't take it anymore, they probably feel the same way.
If you can’t look past your spouse’s affair, tell them.
If you just aren’t in love with your spouse anymore, be honest about it.
Your spouse deserves justification for your decision to divorce.
Decide when you want a divorce. Do you want to wait until after the holidays? Do you want to wait until your children have finished the school year? Do you want to wait until after you finish your kitchen remodel?
Decide what you want the timeline to look like so that you and your spouse can prepare for it together.
Decide what you want to do in the meantime.
Do you want to stay in the house together for ease of communication during the process?
Do you want to move out or for your spouse to move out?
Set expectations, and tell your spouse how you’d like them met.
You can say all of these things to your spouse at once and let them respond afterward, or you can discuss each point in the outline one at a time.
The important thing is to put everything out there that is important to you, especially when you want to ask for a divorce from a narcissist.
But, make sure that the content is honest and covers all of the questions you expect your spouse will ask.
How To Say It Respectfully
Speaking respectfully to your spouse may be difficult during the divorce conversation.
After all, you probably have a lot of emotions running through your body.
If your partner had an affair, didn’t meet your expectations in a significant way, or isn’t treating you well, it’ll be easy to let anger guide your conversation.
But resist the urge to shout or accuse.
Instead, follow your outline that you prepared.
Despite how much you may want to scream or even throw something during the conversation it will be best for you to maintain your composure.
Remember to describe your feelings about the relationship rather than accusing your spouse.
This is your chance to be honest with your spouse about the state of your relationship.
If you want them to respect your thoughts and feelings, they deserve the same respect that you do, even if they have deeply hurt you.
Remaining calm during the conversation may be tough, but it’s a surefire way to show your spouse respect and make your divorce easier in the long run.
But, being respectful doesn’t mean disregarding your personal goals for the divorce.
If you’ve made your intentions clear to your spouse—especially about what you’d like to do during the divorce process — and they contest or discount you, stand up for yourself.
Respecting your spouse during the process is just as important as respecting yourself.
How To Get the Divorce Conversation Started
One of the most critical elements of a successful divorce conversation is also the most important element of initiating it… honesty.
Don’t beat around the bush.
When you and your spouse sit down to have “the Talk,” you need to come right out and tell them, “I want a divorce.”
Avoid the temptation of prefaces and false starts.
Your spouse will likely see your preface of “I love you, but…” or “I’ll always care about you, but…” as in-genuine.
Writing “I want a divorce” down as the first on your outline will help you commit to saying it first.
Practicing saying “I want a divorce” and the rest of your outline will help you feel more prepared and confident, which, in turn, will empower you to jump right into the conversation.
Practice saying the most challenging part out loud, in the mirror, or to your supporter. “I want a divorce.”
While you’ll get the most utility out of in-person practice, even saying it over the phone or during a video call will help you own your words and gather the courage to say them.
You likely have some sort of socially ingrained stigma against divorce.
Unfortunately, this is especially true if you’re a woman.
Repeating the phrase will not only make it easier to say it during “the Talk,” it’ll help you internalize that your situation is common, normal, and acceptable.
Which it is.
While the best way to start the conversation is to come right out with it, practice will improve your confidence and empower you to say what you mean without waffling or stalling.
What To Do After You Had “the Talk”
While it’s arguably one of the hardest parts of the divorce process, you’ll feel some degree of relief once “the Talk” is over.
The first thing to do is reflect.
Return to your journal or do another brain dump to help you process your post-talk emotions.
Give your partner space to reflect as well, but make a plan to discuss the divorce again before you leave your talk space.
Set a date and time, and tell your spouse what you’d like to discuss next time.
Some necessary points to discuss at the beginning of the divorce process are:
- Will you be able going with an uncontested or contested divorce
- If contested, what attorney will you be using
- If uncontested, will you be using an online divorce website
- Each party’s desired custody arrangement, if you have children
- When and how you’re going to tell your children about the divorce
- Who is going to take care of the pets
- What each party would like done with your shared assets
- Your home
- Your cars
- Jointly owned real estate
- Tangible property
- Furniture, valuables, appliances, and kitchenware, for example
- Whether you’d each like to retain an attorney to help with the proceedings
- Whether you’d like to take your case to court or mediation
While you and your partner may not have answers right away or agree on these items, begin discussing them honestly and calmly.
Don’t talk about them until you and your spouse both have answers to all of these questions. This will help you avoid unnecessary conflict.
If one of you has chosen to move out of your shared home, ask your spouse for help packing if you want it, and offer help to your spouse.
They may say no, but you should respect their decision either way.
After you and your spouse have children, you need to make a joint plan to tell them about the divorce.
It’s essential to stay on the same page, show a united front, and support your children in any way they need during the transition.
Consider enrolling them in counseling during this turbulent time.
Most importantly, prepare yourself for a life without your spouse.
Consider taking up a new hobby to begin living a more individual lifestyle.
This could be the first time you’ll be living alone, so talk to your supporter or counselor about how to prepare.
Besides wondering how to ask for a divorce, you’re going to have to ask yourself numerous questions during the divorce process.
Asking your spouse for a divorce requires self-reflection, as does the rest of the divorce process.
Before you get the ball rolling, explore these frequently asked questions and reflect upon how they’ll impact your divorce conversation and your expectations for the proceedings.
- Does my spouse live in town or the same state?
- Is my spouse accessible and safe to see?
- Do my spouse and I live in the same house?
How to ask for a divorce is possibly the most tumultuous part of the divorce process, as it involves inner struggle, fear, and a range of emotions.
Make sure to adequately prepare yourself for “the Talk,” make a plan for having the conversation, and communicate openly with your spouse throughout the process.
While this may be the end of your marriage, it won’t be the end of your life.
You have so much to look forward to in the near future, including getting back out there and dating again.
Just make sure you don't start dating too soon!
Asking for a divorce is the first step towards healing from an unhealthy relationship and moving forward with a better version of YOU!
Lauren Cook-McKay is the Vice President of Marketing at DivorceAnswers.com. She holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) from the University of San Diego and applies her training in private practice to helping couples struggling in their marriage. She believes there is hope in all marriages and strives to provide therapy to couples that will lead them back towards a loving marriage, or an amicable divorce that brings peace and closure.