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How to ask for a divorce


You aren’t happy, and you haven’t been for a long time...

But the only thing that makes you less happy than your marriage is the thought of initiating the divorce conversation.

If you know in your heart of hearts that you need to move on from your marriage to reach your potential, then you can let fear stand in your way. So let’s talk strategies for how to rip off the band-aid with as little pain as possible.

Is asking for a divorce over phone, text, or letter okay?

Conventional wisdom (and one very classic episode of Sex and the City) suggests that the only respectful way to broach the dreaded divorce conversation is in person. However, that is not necessarily the case in every situation.

When you’re making a decision whether remote communication is the right option for you, there are two important factors to keep in mind: first, your safety; and second, your spouse’s communication style.


If you do not 100% believe that you will be physically safe communicating your desire for a divorce while you and your spouse are in the same room, then a phone call, text, or letter aren’t merely available options -- they are your only options.

It is never worth it to put yourself in danger in the name of being considerate. If you are in such a dire situation, this conversation might require a little more practical preparation in addition to the emotional.

The law has a means of protecting you from your abusive spouse. Namely, you may be eligible for a temporary restraining order, or TRO, before you ever file for divorce.

Emotional safety might also be a concern when it comes to initiating a divorce conversation with your spouse, and if you anticipate that your spouse will become enraged but not resort to violence, that might also be grounds for maintaining some physical distance while bringing this difficult topic up.

Now, it is important to acknowledge a distinction between a normal expression of negative feelings and emotional or verbal abuse.

It is very likely that your partner will get upset, and this might be an upsetting experience for you as well, even though you have the benefit of being prepared. The end of a relationship is sad, even when both parties remain civil and agree that separation and divorce are the right course of action.

However, if you expect that your spouse will hurl insults, refuse to accept your decision, or insist upon arguing with you for an extended period of time, then the two of you should not be under the same roof for this conversation, either.

Communication Style

This might be unimaginable to some, but sometimes people might actually prefer to be broken up with via phone, text, or email.

The best way to tell if this applies to your partner is to think back on how they tended to initiate serious conversations with you over the course of your marriage.

An in-person discussion can leave both parties more vulnerable, and if you know that your spouse is uncomfortable displaying their emotions, then giving them physical solitude might be the most generous thing you could possibly do.

If you and your partner have different communication styles, this is a time to put their feelings ahead of your own and go with whatever mode of communication you think would make them the most comfortable (once again, as long as this does not compromise your safety).

What do you want to communicate to your spouse?

When you’re working out what you actually want to say to your husband or wife, the key is to emphasize your future over your past. At least in this initial conversation, it isn’t going to be productive to hash out what led you to the decision to end your marriage.

If that is something that you think would ultimately be good for your family (especially if the two of you have children), then perhaps you can explore that in marriage counseling, even if you do not have the goal of reconciliation in mind.

Right now, you want to be firm but kind.

You want to be conscious of your spouse’s feelings without backing down. You might even want to write out and rehearse a few bullet points to ready yourself for this admittedly difficult moment.

They don’t have to sound exactly like this, but here are some examples to get you started.

1. You have thought deeply about this, and you are sure of your decision

Or, if you aren’t sure that you’re ready for divorce, you have thought deeply about this, and you are sure that you would like enough space from your husband or wife to reach an informed decision, perhaps in the form of something a bit less final, like legal separation.

No matter your exact position, you want your spouse to know that this isn’t something they can talk you out of. You also want them to understand that you take this (and them) seriously, and this isn’t just a flippant reaction to a recent fight.

Rather, it is based on a holistic analysis of your marriage, and that marriage just isn’t working out. This might sound harsh, but it’s actually one of the most respectful things you can say to your partner in this situation.

They will need time to process this information, but making your intentions clear is the first step toward your husband or wife being able to move on.

2. You want the divorce process to be as easy and peaceful as possible

You may not have had the perfect marriage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t aspire to the perfect divorce.

Even if your spouse is more of the combative type, you can still have an impact when you try to set a positive tone. The ultimate goal is to avoid the stress and expense of an all-out court battle.

Practically speaking, you want to (eventually) get to the place of uncontested divorce. Put simply, this means that you and your spouse make a deal together rather than a judge having the final say with regard to issues like custody, child support, alimony, and the division of your marital property.

This can come in many forms, including divorce mediation and collaborative divorce, but by far the quickest and least expensive option is to do it yourself online.

Wouldn’t you rather keep more money for your family and your children, rather than handing it all over to a divorce lawyer?

You and your spouse may not know, but the attorney-client relationship isn’t all or nothing. You are absolutely free to pay for a couple hours of simple legal advice before moving forward on your own (we get it, divorce law is just as complicated as your marriage).

There are also a number of other professionals besides divorce lawyers who might be able to lend a hand without having the final say. You probably know what a divorce mediator does, but did you know that you can hire a divorce coach to help you navigate this process?

Maybe you and your spouse haven’t kept the best financial records, and you need the help of a certified divorce financial analyst or a forensic accountant.

Just because you opt not to have a family law attorney formally represent you does not mean that you have to go it alone.

Just a quick note, while all 50 states at least have a no-fault divorce option, many also allow you to indicate other grounds for divorce if one party has been wronged by the other in the eyes of the law.

If you do indicate fault when you file, then your divorce case will operate like a regular civil lawsuit, and you will have to hire a lawyer and go to court to prove that your spouse has done something wrong.

That does not, however, mean that you are ineligible for something like mediation (although it may be more difficult to get the necessary buy-in from your spouse), and it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to abandon your better instincts and feed into hostility.

3. When your spouse is ready, you would like to begin a practical, ongoing conversation about how you will disentangle your finances and your lives

You may have shared some basic information with your spouse about what your options are, but you want to make it clear to them that they do not have to make any of these practical decisions now.

Maybe your spouse will even want to reach out to an attorney to answer their own initial divorce questions, and that’s fine; they have as much right to know the law as you do.

There are about to be big changes to your family, and even if your spouse was equally aware of the declining state of your marriage, they will need time to process your decision to take this next step.

However, you want to once again emphasize your desire to look positively toward the future, and you want to lay down the groundwork for your spouse to do the same.

This isn’t the right time to dive into negotiations -- you might even want to save all of that for mediation if you’ve been having trouble hearing each other. However, you can gently suggest that they start thinking about things like spousal support and custody arrangements if there are children of the marriage.

These conversations are difficult, and you want to give your spouse time to thoughtfully prepare, time that you’ve already had.

Of course if the two of you have a prenuptial agreement, you’re in luck, because a lot of this hard work is already done.

How to get the divorce conversation started

Now that you’ve thought about what you want to say, it’s time to tackle what might be the scariest part of asking for a divorce: breaking the ice on the conversation itself.

Movies and TV have not set good examples for us here. We’re used to seeing the long-suffering spouse hire the angriest bulldog at the most humorless law firm, while their partner is none the wiser until they get served with divorce papers.

We’re hoping to avoid that kind of drama, right?

If you handle this difficult moment elegantly, you could set the tone for your entire divorce.

While it isn’t quite as bad as getting blindsided by a process server, the other tactic to stay away from is opening with “We need to talk.”

Why? Because it’s scary!

You don’t want to put your spouse in a bad mood before you even get started.

In this case, it’s not about the literal message, but rather the cultural implications of these four specific words. Here are some examples of alternatives that might be as sad, but won’t feel as loaded:

  • “There is something difficult that I need to address with you.”
  • “I need to have a conversation with you that will not be easy for either of us.”
  • “I would like to talk to you about our marriage.”

All of these are clear, firm, and drama-free.

The other key to success in this conversation is not to make your spouse wait once you have used one of these ice breakers.

There is never going to be a good time for them to hear what you are about to say, so you don’t need to schedule it ahead of time and let them stew in their apprehension.

Rather, you just want to make sure that you don’t pick a bad time. This means that you want to wait for a time when the kids are out of the house and you know that your partner does not have any responsibilities at least for the next couple of hours.

You want to make sure that they are somewhere where they can have some privacy and a little bit of time to get over the initial shock.

There’s no use in lying; this is not going to be a pleasant experience for either of you, so you just want to show them the basic respect and consideration that you hope they would have shown you.

Your romantic relationship might be over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t demonstrate a little caring.

How do you know that you’re ready for divorce?

Now that you’re prepared for how this is going to go, you want to make sure that you have your own mind made up before you take any steps. Your decisiveness is your strength, after all.

If you are not firm in your desires, then staying calm and collected is going to be nearly impossible, and you’re better off waiting to bring up the D-word.

There are a number of questions you can ask yourself that will help illuminate your true feelings on the matter.

However, when all is said and done, the decision comes down to intuition. The only way your problems are solvable is if you both are committed to solving them. Dig deep and examine your own feelings, and think back on your spouse’s behavior to see if you can glean any insight.

Are they inconsiderate, or are they just clueless? Do they immediately get defensive, or do they respond well to constructive criticism?

You know your situation better than anyone else can. There might be reasons to stay married. We just want to make sure that anxiety over having the divorce conversation isn’t one of them.