How To Ask For a Divorce, When You’re Nervous (But Ready)

by Lauren Cook-McKay | Last Updated: September 3, 2021

Are You Ready? | Before the Talk | Telling Your Spouse | After the Talk | FAQs

 

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”.

picture of a married couple talking about getting a divorce

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.
 

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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:

  1. Find and Maintain SupportFind a supportive friend, relative, or counselor to confide in throughout the process
  2. 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

Determine when you want support

Determine your support needs

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.

picture of a woman journaling on the beach

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.

Don’t tell your spouse during a family event or when any people could overhear.

Don’t tell your spouse before, during, or immediately after an important 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.

picture of a couple having serious conversation

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.
 

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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.

picture of a frustrating divorce conversation between a couple

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.

picture of a woman and man after a divorce talk

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:

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.

 

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FAQs

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.

  • Is Asking For a Divorce Over Phone or Text Okay?

    Asking for a divorce over text is unilaterally discouraged, just like asking for any other life-altering change over text.

    Texting is impersonal and gives your spouse the ability to misinterpret your meaning or simply ignore the request.

    Phone calls require a more nuanced consideration. Ask yourself the following questions before having “the Talk” over the phone:

    • 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?

    If the answers to any of these questions are “Yes,” you need to have the conversation in person.

    If your spouse moved out of the state during your separation, works out of the state on long-term contracts, or if your spouse refuses to see you in person, a phone call would be acceptable.

    If your spouse is abusive or unsafe to be around, a phone call may be a safe option. But, make sure you’ve taken steps to protect yourself after the phone call.

    In most cases, an in-person conversation is ideal for asking for a divorce.

  • Do I Need To Document Asking For a Divorce?

    If you feel your spouse will deny your request for a divorce during an in-person conversation or refuse to acknowledge that you would like a divorce, you need to document the conversation.

    If you feel you need to, create a signature line at the bottom of your conversation outline.

    Ask your spouse to sign it after you finish having “the Talk.”

    It may sound insensitive or even silly, but you want to be overprotected if you predict that your spouse will try to create a messy divorce.

    Whether or not your spouse agrees to sign, send a copy of your outline in the body of an email (not as an attachment) and turn on delivery receipts.

    You can even send a letter documenting the divorce conversation by certified mail with a required signature.

    While these tactics may sound manipulative, only you know if they’re necessary.

    Suppose you have any suspicion that your spouse may ignore your request for a divorce or that they’ll make the divorce difficult in any way, document everything, without exception.

    This is especially true when divorcing a narcissistic spouse.

  • Should I Voice or Video Record Asking For a Divorce?

    This answer is similar to the answer above. If you think your spouse will deny having “the Talk” after the fact, consider recording the encounter. In all likelihood, if you feel like you need to record the conversation, you’ll have to do it clandestinely.

    Turn on the voice recorder or video camera feature on your smartphone and keep it out while you have the conversation.

    If you have the conversation over the phone, purchase a handheld recorder (or use another smart device, like a tablet or a spare cell phone), place the call on speaker, and record it.

    If you feel you need to record the conversation, try to find a way to ask your spouse to verbally identify themself while you’re recording.

    Asking where they want their mail sent during the divorce proceedings could provide an address that can be used in court for identification if needed.

    While these measures will hopefully be unnecessary during your divorce, do what you need to do to protect yourself during the legal proceedings.

    Keep in mind, in a lot of states you will need to let your spouse know that you are recording the conversation, so this can get tricky.

  • What If I Fear For My Safety When Asking For a Divorce?

    If you fear that your safety may be in jeopardy when asking for a divorce from an abusive or narcissistic spouse, seek legal help right away.

    A lawyer versed in domestic violence law will be able to help you make an action plan for safely divorcing your spouse.

    Seek legal help before contacting law enforcement so that you have an advocate when communicating with your local law enforcement agency.

    If possible, ask your attorney to communicate with law enforcement on your behalf to convey the magnitude of your endangerment.

    If you’re currently in an abusive marriage, make your supportive person aware of the situation so that they can act accordingly.

    Involve them and your attorney in your safety plan if needed.

    If they don’t need to be physically involved, make them aware of the plan in writing.

    If you’re unsafe and you feel your partner will violently retaliate upon being asked for a divorce, solve one problem at a time.

    Seek legal advice and get yourself to a safe location (and stay there) before considering asking for a divorce. Your safety is priority number one.

  • Can I Just File For Divorce Without Asking?

    In most cases, divorce proceedings require participation from both spouses.

    Most states require your spouse to be served with official divorce paperwork in order to move forward.

    If your spouse is unreachable, you must make and document extensive efforts to reach them.

    Perform and record calls to their family and friends, send mail to their last known address, and ask law enforcement local to your spouse’s last known address if they’ve encountered your spouse.

    Document all correspondence and attempts to locate your spouse.

    If you can’t find your spouse after an extensive and good-faith effort, you may be able to file for divorce using service by publication.

    This tactic requires you to advertise in a newspaper near your spouse’s last known address (or online) that you intend to divorce them.

    While the court system is reticent to allow service by publication, documentation of your extensive efforts can sway the court in your favor.

    Service by publication should be considered only as a last resort.

    More importantly each state has different divorce laws that you will want to familiarize yourself with.

  • Final Thoughts

    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 Director of Marketing & Content 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 strongly 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.