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How to Tell Your Spouse You Need to Separate Without Blowing Up Your Life

The word “divorce,” puts our bodies in “fight or flight mode.”  To our nervous systems, facing divorce is literally the same as facing death. When it comes to telling your spouse that you want a divorce, it's essential to approach the conversation with sensitivity. Focus on mutual well-being to minimize the “fight or flight” response and avoid having your spouse lash out in battle mode. If you incorporate these communication tips into your initial conversation, you will have a better chance of creating a smooth family transition.

Most importantly, it is critical that you don’t use the word “divorce,” in this conversation. Tell your spouse that it is time to focus on “next steps” and to “create a healthier/happier future for both of you.”  When you approach the conversation this way, you head off the three most common fears before they have a chance to take hold and send your spouse into battle mode.  

What are those fears? You won’t be surprised when I tell you that the three most common fears individuals experience are: the fear of being (or being perceived as) a failure; the fear of losing your family; and the fear of financial trauma. This blog will break down how to overcome these fears and move towards your new future as smoothly as possible. 

Overcoming the Fear of Perceived Failure

Acknowledge Personal Growth: Tell your spouse (even if you don’t feel it yet) that you are so grateful for everything you have built and you love the family that you have created, but that your kids deserve the best version that each of you can be. Relationships evolve, and individuals change over time. Tell them that you want to move forward in a healthy way that preserves your family ties for the children.  Tell them that this is not a failure, but a literal next step as you both continue to try to improve and change.  It is best if you make this conversation about the future and about you. Focusing on your growth or evolution relieves your spouse of the subconscious discomfort of blame and failure that society has built into our idea of divorce.

Emphasize Shared Efforts: When communicating your decision to “figure our next steps,” highlight how much you value your spouse's contribution as a provider or co-parent (even if you don’t quite believe it). Boosting them, and even acknowledging shared contributions by saying “we have both given everything we were able to,” feels like you are being supportive. This removes the inclination to feel like they are being blamed or accused of being a poor spouse.  

Be a Role Model: A big part of the fear of being a failure is how you will look to the outside world. It is really important that your spouse understands that no one even needs to know that you are having this conversation until much later in the game, when some decisions about the separation have been made. Focus on the fact that you need to “figure out next steps” to model for your children what it looks like to be kind under stressful, or sad circumstances. To the extent that your friends and neighbors will find out, you want to tell them that you intend to be a family despite your living arrangements, and you want them to support both of you as you figure out what that looks like. Again, this alleviates any blame your spouse is going to be inclined to feel, and it gives you both something to be proud of. Instead of being tabloid, your family is now a role model of how divorce should be.

Overcoming the Fear of Losing Your Family

Prioritize Co-parenting and Family Dynamics: Assure your spouse that, despite the changes in your marital relationship, your commitment to the well-being of them, and your family, remains steadfast. Express that you are committed to being a team for your children, and that you envision you and them as grandparents together. You do not want all of your future happy events tarnished by tension, and supporting each other as parents, while finding your individual happiness, will make you feel more camaraderie. Discuss plans for co-parenting and maintaining a supportive environment for the children, emphasizing that the family unit will endure, albeit in a different form.

Highlight Emotional Well-being: Help your spouse understand that a healthy and happy individual is better equipped to contribute positively to the family, and living as roommates, or in an environment of tension or fighting, is actually really unhealthy for the kids and for their future relationships.  Stress the importance of focusing on emotional well-being for both of you and the children, even if it means embracing a different family structure.

Overcoming the Fear of Financial Trauma

Open Communication About Finances: The most important thing you can do to reduce the fear of financial disaster, is to reassure your spouse that you are not, by having this conversation, implying that anything is changing right this second. You simply are telling them that you are going to start figuring out the next steps. Emphasize that you are not filing divorce paperwork, and you are not hiring a lawyer, but you do intend to start planning what transitioning to two houses looks like, and how best to slowly and smoothly do that. (This is where Family Transitions™ comes in).

Emphasize Staying Away From Lawyers/Courts: This last part is critical. Tell your spouse that you are committed to figuring this out as much as you can together, without lawyers, by utilizing all of the resources available to you. This will allow your spouse to relax and reduce the fear of hemorrhaging money to legal fees, and losing time from work due to court dates. It is also important to reduce any fear that they might have of losing control. For many, this is a big part of why divorce is so traumatic. You give control of your future to judges or lawyers who know nothing about you or your kids, and certainly aren’t interested in crafting settlement arrangements that are responsive to your actual circumstances. A commitment to figuring it out together, immediately calms the situation down.  

Telling your spouse that you want a divorce is obviously one of the most important conversations you will ever have. With careful preparation and addressing the most common fears, you can shift the conversation from confrontational to calm. Creating that sense of calm or stability is key to the foundation of a healthy family transition. If you want support through this process (or even a session to plan this conversation), don’t hesitate to contact us. In the meantime, remember that, when facing big change, fostering an environment of respect and compassion can contribute to a healthier transition for both parties involved.

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