How to Tell Your Spouse You Want a Divorce

The separation process begins with one conversation: telling your spouse that you want a divorce. It’s important that this conversation is sincere, calm, and direct. This will set the stage for future negotiations, co-parenting, and life post-separation.

Couple holding hands

When to tell your spouse that you want a divorce

Before telling your spouse that you want a divorce, it’s important that you take time to reflect on your decision, and understand the impact of this conversation. There is no hard and fast rule for knowing that it's time for a divorce. The urgency of obtaining a divorce can't be measured in days of unhappiness or nights spent apart, but in your intuition and acknowledgement of impossible reconciliation. For some, this realization will come after more than a year of unhappiness in their marriage. For others, one unexpected incident can merit divorce. Either way, you should be confident in your decision to separate. While you should wait until you are certain about wanting to get divorced, you should have this conversation with your spouse as soon as you are certain you have made the decision to separate. This is only fair to your significant other, who will also need time to process the news before starting the divorce process.

If you are currently unhappy but still wish to pursue your marriage, proposing divorce is a step in the wrong direction. Instead, we recommend you speak openly with your spouse about what is troubling you. If your spouse agrees, marriage counselling is always an option. After time and effort, it will become clear whether or not a divorce is the right answer for you.

“Divorce” is a long process and a permanent decision, so this word should never be used as a hollow threat. Using this word mindfully will preserve the impact of your request, and show your spouse how serious you are about separating. Most often, they will have a sense that the marriage was headed towards the possibility of a divorce. We suggest not blindsiding your spouse; conversations about your unhappiness, couples counselling, or mutual acknowledgement of challenges within the marriage may prepare your spouse for the news of your divorce.

Where to tell your spouse that you want a divorce

 Once you have considered divorce and ruled out possible reconciliation, it’s time to prepare for the first conversation.  Consider your spouse’s possible reaction before deciding upon the appropriate time, place, and surroundings.

This conversation should be held in private. You and your spouse have committed your lives to one another, and this is the first in a series of difficult conversations. You and your spouse may become emotional, and will likely need time to express your feelings. Find a quiet place in your home, or one of your residences if you have already moved into separate living places. If you have children, wait until they are out of the house, or have them stay with a family member while you have this conversation.  For some, safety may be a concern. If you have seen, or anticipate any aggression from yourself or your spouse, ask a neutral third party, such as a friend or counsellor, to be present. Try to find a time that will not be rushed by either party; this conversation is emotional and requires time and attention from both spouses. Tell your spouse that you wish to discuss your relationship and confirm the time and place of this conversation. Requesting the attention and mental presence of your spouse will set the stage for the seriousness of the conversation you are about to have.

How to tell your spouse that you want a divorce

Deciding that you want a divorce may not be an individual revelation. The input of friends, family, or a therapist may prompt the realization that you need to end your marriage. You should, however, practice discretion when discussing the possibility of divorce with others before talking to your significant other. As this news profoundly affects the two of you, it would be devastating to accidentally hear about your own divorce from a third party. Ask those who you do confide in to keep the news of your divorce a secret, at the least until you have had the chance to speak with your significant other.

It is beneficial to practise what you will say to your spouse, within reason. This conversation should not come off rehearsed and scripted, but you should have an idea of the main things you’re going to say. Considering how to tell your spouse that you want a divorce will help put you at ease for the conversation. The phrase “I would like a divorce” is powerful, so practicing will prepare you to bear the weight of your separation.

As the spouse bringing forward the intent to divorce, try to frame this conversation in a way that lends itself to amicable negotiations in the future. Approach the conversation as you hope your spouse will reciprocate; be patient, speak calmly, and don’t get angry. Be direct and compassionate, explain clearly the decision you have made, and offer a short explanation. Show confidence in this decision, and speak with sincerity to express your seriousness. Be respectful of your spouse in both what you say and how you listen to their opinion.

Sometimes a written letter is the best option for telling your spouse.

How will my spouse react to a notice of divorce?

Once you have told your spouse that you want to divorce, they may respond with any number of reactions. Some spouses will express anger or shock, while others may become emotional. In some cases, your spouse will be anticipating this conclusion. In order to respect their emotions, try to use neutral language and “I” statements. These terms do not project assumptions onto your spouse, rather they justify your personal feelings.

Although some spouses will reciprocate your compassion and respect, not all will take the news reasonably. Be prepared to face retaliation from your spouse, and be prepared to walk away. Never respond to anger with accusations or a raised voice, as this will only elevate your spouse’s anger. Neutrally assert that this is your decision, and you are serious. It also may be beneficial to remind your spouse that they are a significant part of your life, and that it will take a collaborative effort to settle the terms of your separation. 

Next steps

 The first conversation about divorce is incredibly difficult, and simply getting this statement across is an accomplishment. This should be your only goal in the conversation. Afterwards, you and your spouse should both take time to process the reality of your separation. Therefore, the first conversation is not the place to discuss child custody, asset division or life insurance arrangements. These should be left for future planned negotiations, once both spouses have accepted the news of a divorce.

The only arrangement that must be decided is where you and your spouse will be living until formal negotiations start. If your spouse is angry or has a tendency to become violent, it may be best to remove them or yourself from the home for a few days. Staying with a friend or family member until the tension settles is a good idea. For others, it may be possible to continue to live in the matrimonial home.

The next step in your divorce is agreeing on the terms, which will inform your separation agreement. If you start the divorce conversation with respect, kindness and compassion, it’s possible to accomplish this next step fairly quickly and painlessly.