There are some conversations that are never going to be fun to have: Telling someone about a death in the family, firing someone, and telling your husband or partner that you want to get a divorce. But, avoiding difficult conversations never makes them any easier. And, by the time you’re ready to tell your husband that you want a divorce, maybe you’ve already had other difficult conversations. Perhaps you’ve talked to your partner about trying couple’s counseling, dealt with relationship challenges after having a baby, or handled infidelity. But the “we’re done” conversation might be one of the hardest conversations you’ll ever have, and figuring out how to tell your husband that you want a divorce is something that you’ll want to approach with care.
Movies and TV tend to portray a wife telling her husband that she wants a divorce as a big blowup, usually for an exciting reason: One member of the couple is a spy, or has a secret family. But while a dish-throwing, screaming, blow-up fight might be great television, it’s not a conducive start to an amicable breakup — and even if you don’t feel like it at the moment, you want your breakup to be amicable, especially if you’ll be co-parenting after the divorce. Except in some very rare, extreme situations, it’s very unlikely that you’re not going to see this person again. You’re going to continue to be co-parents throughout your kid’s childhoods, be at family events, and continue to be in each other’s lives, even once the divorce is finalized. So how can you navigate the first conversation to have the best chance of it going well?
What is the kindest way to ask for a divorce?
So, you know that you want to tell your spouse that you want to end your marriage. Going into the conversation, it’s important to recognize that you and your partner may not be on the same page. Even if you’ve been fighting, and even if one of you has floated the idea previously, you can’t be sure that your partner is in the same headspace and is feeling truly done with the marriage, even if it feels obvious that the marriage is over. “It’s really important that when people are thinking about how to have this conversation, that they do not try to control or divine what the other person’s reaction will be, or try to strategize to get the other person to say ‘oh, me too.’ You can’t control another person’s reaction,” explains Kristin Little, licensed mental health therapist and trained collaborative coach for families in divorce.
Once you’ve recognized that you don’t know how your partner is going to react, the only thing you really have control of (in any situation) is what you do. “If you can be kind, if you can be present, and tolerate the other person receiving the information — I think that’s emotionally beneficial for both parties,” says Susan Epstein, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with individuals and couples for 25 years. But, there’s no magical formula that will make the conversation go perfectly, and no one “ideal” way to have the conversation. There is, however, something you definitely want to avoid. “Never say ‘you should have known,’” Little says. “Your job is to say what it is and how you feel. Let them have their own reaction, and don’t expect them to agree with you.”
The best ways to tell your husband that you want a divorce
To some degree, the best way to tell your husband you want a divorce will depend on the circumstances of your separation. If you’re worried about hurt feelings — and only feelings — you may want to prioritize having the conversation in person and just be braced for some big emotions. However, if safety is a serious concern, Little suggests that you may need to not have the conversation in person, even though that would typically be ideal. “Your job is not to be there and be a punching bag — literally or figuratively. Have your boundaries. Be able to have a way of disengaging that you feel good about, and as kind as possible,” she says.
If you want to tell your husband you want to separate in person but safety — physical or emotional — is a concern at all, you might need to call in a friend or trusted family member as back up. “If you're worried about your partner having a violent reaction, it's best to have a third party present,” Epstein suggests. But, “if the bad reaction you're anticipating is mainly a strong emotional one, I would encourage you to find the courage to show up in person for that; sitting with your partner and sharing in that discomfort shows your partner respect and speaks to the value you place on the relationship ending with mutual consideration.”
The bottom line
The first conversation can set the tone for the way that the rest of your divorce will play out. That includes your motivation for ending things. Before you tell your husband you want a divorce, you may want to spend a little time in reflection. What is your reason for wanting a divorce? How do you hope this will work out? “If your motive is to hurt your partner because you’re so angry, that’s going to shape the divorce. If your motive is to protect your children, that’s going to play out in the divorce,” explains Epstein.
There’s no one-size-fits-all “I want a divorce” script that’s going to work for everyone when approaching this tough conversation. In some cases, your partner might be glad you brought it up. In others, they feel blindsided or devastated. But whatever their initial reaction, couples can and do have productive and successful divorces that allow both spouses to move forward. The first conversation can help set a respectful, collaborative tone that will hopefully carry you through the difficult process and out the other side into building a new life.
Kristin Little, a licensed mental health therapist and trained collaborative coach for families in divorce and authors of No More Us: Navigating a Divorce or Separation You Didn't Want.
Susan Epstein, a licensed clinical social worker