Breaking the News

One thing about divorce. Telling a spouse the marriage is over is no easier than deciding the marriage is over. Most people find this first step toward divorce – telling the spouse – extremely difficult and for good reason. A common and troubling question is, “How do I tell my spouse I want a divorce?”

In most cases the decision to divorce or separate is made by one spouse alone, and no-fault means that a spouse who wants to end a marriage can do it without the other person’s agreement.

At some point the other spouse has to be told that the marriage is at an end. Saying the words makes a divorce real. The cat, as they say, is out of the bag. Telling the other person is the first real step toward ending the marriage – the pivotal point when the divorce is no longer an abstraction. It is a life-changing event. Even when the divorce is inevitable, the task of telling a husband or wife – a person once loved and cherished – can be excruciating because the spouses still have feelings for one another.

Telling the other person is further complicated by the fact that in many, if not most cases, the other spouse is blindsided by the news. Ironically, the less conflict in the marriage, the more intimidating it is, and the decision is more likely to take a husband or wife by surprise.

Even the best-prepared person finds breaking the news difficult because there is the uncertainty about how the other spouse will react. The moment of truth is a complex brew of emotions that can become volatile depending on how the initiating spouse feels, how the respondent feels, and how each feels about the other.

No one should expect a spouse to be anything less than shocked on hearing the news. Even if he or she had their suspicions, hearing the actual words – “I want a divorce” – feels like being impaled with a spear. Possible reactions (fireworks, tears or numb disbelief) give this moment the appeal of walking through a minefield. The emotions of both spouses can be tricky. The leaver may feel a complicated and confusing mix of anger, resentment, regret and even unexpected pity and concern for a spouse he or she is leaving.

The spouse who wants out has no control over the emotions of the other person, but the initiator can control his or her emotions. This means sympathizing with the spouse’s emotions but not reacting to them. No anger, defensiveness or apologies. At the moment, the other spouse’s reactions are spontaneous, not thoughtful and reflective. Tomorrow, he or she fees something different. The day after that, something different still as the reality of divorce sets in.  Immediate understanding and acceptance are not probable.

Very few people divorce on an impulse. Reaching the decision to divorce normally is a long and difficult process.

In explaining the decision to divorce, the simplest explanation is the best explanation. Simple, straightforward and to the point, and without too much detail. Too much detail – particular incidents, arguments, and so on – increases the likelihood of the same arguments all over again. A good rule of thumb for a “good explanation” is that it is one the other spouse feels comfortable repeating to friends and family. In fact, being able to explain the decision to others without embarrassment helps them accept the decision.

It must be made clear that the decision is final, not an offer to negotiate, and that the decision to divorce is not sudden. Agreement is not an issue, but understanding that the decision is final is important. It is cruel to say anything that suggests the possibility of reconciliation.

Announcing the end of a marriage is rarely easy, but the way he or she is told can shape the divorce itself. Breaking the news properly can mean the difference between a civil split and an all-out war. Divorces that begin with conflict tend to end that way, costing dearly emotionally as well as financially. For children, the damage caused by a difficult, hostile divorce can last a lifetime. If there are children, the spouses must talk about them, and the other spouse must be assured that his or her relationship with them will remain intact.

No one should make it painful. No one should learn he or she is being divorced upon receipt of the divorce papers, or coming home to an empty house. Unless there is physical danger, the spouse should be told face-to-face.

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