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How do I tell my husband/wife/partner that I want to separate?

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This is a very common question that I get asked on a regular basis by my clients. It is very pertinent especially at this time too with families together locked in isolation for weeks on end. The stress and anxiety is relentless and is heightened if your relationship was on the rocks before lockdown.

Maybe you’ve been unhappy in your marriage/partnership for years. Or maybe for the last two or three years, you’ve been thinking about leaving. Perhaps the only thing holding your relationship together is guilt over splitting up your family. But after a lot of thought (and perhaps counselling or coaching) you’ve decided it’s time to tell your partner you want a divorce. Though it will be a difficult conversation to have, it’s possible to have a discussion with him/her that is effective and clear.

1. Consider your reasons for the divorce. Divorce/separation is often threatened during heated arguments, usually out of anger or frustration, to gain power and control over the other person, and to finally be taken seriously that you want real change.

  • Remind yourself that divorcing your partner is a huge decision, mentally, emotionally, and financially. You will also need to be willing to let go of a strong emotional attachment to your partner, so you should try to make the decision to get a divorce from a clear, unemotional standpoint.
  • Ask yourself: What is my intent in getting a separation/divorce? Any other agenda, other than ending the marriage/partnership, is an indication you may not be ready to get a divorce. Divorce has no power to right wrongs or change people’s hearts. Divorce can only end your marriage and your relationship with your partner.
  • Keep in mind that spouses who consistently threaten divorce can lose credibility with themselves and their partner. So, if you are serious about getting a divorce, you will need to express this to your partner in a clear, but appropriate way.

2. Try not to blindside your partner/spouse. In most cases, both spouses are usually aware there is something wrong with the marriage/de facto relationship. You may have tried marital therapy together, done individual counselling, or had discussions about the troubles in the relationship. If possible, try to pursue coaching, counselling or therapy together first before jumping into a conversation about divorce.

  • If the feelings are mutual, you and your partner will have more options. If your other half has no idea, it can be a devastating conversation. Surprising your spouse with this difficult news may also result in a more difficult transition for you both during the separation.

3. Practice what you are going to say. This is going to likely be a very hard conversation to have with your partner. So get out a piece of paper and write down a few possible things you may include when you tell them about the separation.

  • Keep in mind you are about to break some bad news that will probably evoke strong emotions. Compose a few sentences that do not contain strong language or an angry tone.
  • Focus on using neutral language. Make “I” statements, such as: “Michael/Michelle, I have some difficult news to tell you. I have reached a conclusion that you and I need to divorce.”
  • Avoid giving any false hope to your partner if you are serious about the divorce. Saying something like: “I haven’t been happy for a long time. But I want to see if we can work on some of the things that are troubling me” will give your partner the impression you want to fix the marriage/relationship. So if this is not your intent, avoid statements like this.divorce, couple divorce, couple separate, how to leave a marriage, divorce coach

4. Find a private, quiet space. Choose a time when you are both alone and no one is going to barge in during the conversation. Look for a space in your home, like the living room or the dining room, that is quiet and comfortable.

  • Turn off your mobile and ask your partner to do the same. If you have children, ask a family member to watch them while you talk to your spouse, uninterrupted.

5. Have a third party in the room if you are worried about your safety. Perhaps you are divorcing for troubling reasons, like your husband or wife’s angry or abusive behaviour. If this is the care, have a third party present like a coach, therapist or a counsellor, or choose a more public place to talk to him.

  • You cannot control how well or how not well your partner takes the news. But if there is a history of violence or abuse in your marriage, make sure you have another person in the room with you.
  • You can also tell your partner over the phone if you are concerned about your safety and do not want to be in his/her presence when you tell him/her the news.

Telling your husband or wife your decision to divorce

1. Be calm, kind, and direct. Treat the conversation with all the gentleness you would use if you were telling her/him a loved one had died. Be direct, but also compassionate.

  • Being respectful during the conversation will also make it easier to talk about other logistical things like shared custody of the children, if there are any, and the division of your financial assets.

2. Focus on neutral language and “I” statements. Do not try to assume how your partner is feeling about your marriage/de facto relationship. Instead, report on the state of your own feelings and avoid placing any blame or shame on your spouse.

  • For example: “I know this may be hard to hear, but I believe our marriage is over and I would like a divorce.” Or, “We have both tried but it’s not working between us and I do not believe that any more counselling or therapy will help. I think the marriage is over and that we have to divorce.”

3. Be prepared for an angry response. Even if your other half may be aware there are issues in your marriage, he/she will likely be upset when you tell her/him you want a divorce. But it’s important that you do not retaliate, try to defend yourself, or try to justify your decision.

  • For example, he/she may respond to you with: “This is just another example of you trying to run away from responsibility. You are so selfish and only think about yourself. I have given you everything I have. I’ve tried so hard to make this family and this home. I don’t deserve this and the kids don’t deserve this.”
  • Avoid a response like: “Don’t lecture me. I’m leaving because I’m sick and tired of your childish crap. I’m sick of living in this house and I’m sick of living without sex or affection. I’ve tried to make this marriage work and you block me out whenever I ask you to change.” This response may feel good for about two minutes but will ultimately lead to a bitter fight.
  • Instead, respond with: “I know this is very painful and I am so sorry I am doing this. But I just can’t see an alternative. I don’t have the feelings that we would need to make it work. There is too much distance between us to overcome.”
  • This response is better because it is not defensive or angry. You are showing your partner that you feel your decision is correct and it is not coming from a place of self-defence. You are also showing your partner that you are aware that any anger or defensiveness from you will only create more anger and hurt between the both of you.

4. Address the possibility of a trial separation. Once his/her initial anger simmers down, your partner may try to negotiate with you on the terms of the separation. He/she may ask for a trial separation, where you both are separated but legally still married. Or he/she may ask you if you can both try coaching, therapy or counselling again. You should be prepared for these types of questions, especially if your partner will be devastated by your wish for a divorce.

  • If you are serious about the divorce, be firm about your decision. Tell your partner: “I don’t think a trial separation is the answer. We have tried to fix our marriage and I don’t think, at this point, it is going to work.”

5. Avoid discussing the details of the divorce right away. The initial talk with your spouse will likely be emotionally charged. So don’t rush into hashing out the details of the divorce when your first tell your partner of your desire to separate.

  • Reassure him/her that you are willing to work with him /her to achieve a fair and civil separation and to work with lawyers to find the best arrangement for the both of you.

6. Give your partner time to process the information. Although you are both now anxious about the future and the details of the divorce, assure your spouse that he/she can take some time to think about what you have discussed.

  • Acknowledge that the divorce will create some big changes for the both of you. Then, let him/her know you are going to be staying with a family member or friend for a few days. Or that he/she needs to stay somewhere else so he/she can process the information.
  • For example: “Thank you for listening to my thoughts, I really appreciate it. I know this is a lot to process. So take your time and think about what I have said.”


Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

Both you and your husband/wife need to focus on yourselves during this time. Divorce is usually an emotionally intense and difficult process. Aside from the necessary legal preparations, you should also both focus on your mental health by seeing a licensed therapist, regularly spending time with your support network, and upkeeping self-care activities that address both your emotional and physical well-being.


7 Decide on your living arrangements. It’s a good idea to determine if you are going to be staying in the home or if you are going to move out. Coming to an agreement about the living arrangements will help you both to adjust to this big change. Remind your husband/wife/partner that the living arrangements are temporary until the divorce is finalised.

8 Discuss breaking the news to the children, if any. If you and your husband/wife/partner have children, you will both need to agree on the best time and place to break the news. You should both sit your children down together, after dinner in a common area like the living room or the dining room, and explain the details of the separation.

  • Tell the truth. Your kids are entitled to know why you are getting a divorce, but very detailed reasons may only confuse them. Pick something simple and honest, like “We can’t get along anymore.” You may need to remind your children that while sometimes parents and kids don’t always get along, parents and kids don’t stop loving each other or get divorced from each other. In general, younger children need less detail, while older children may need more details about the separation.
  • Say “I love you.” However simple it may sound, letting your children know that your love for them hasn’t changed is a powerful message. Tell them you’ll still be caring for them in every way, from fixing their breakfast to helping with homework, and that you will both always be there for them.
  • Address changes. Pre-empt your kids’ questions about changes in their lives by acknowledging that some things will be different now, and other things won’t. Let them know that together you can deal with each detail as you go.
  • Avoid blame. Try not to be critical of your husband/wife/partner or his/her actions. Agree in advance to show a unified front and tell your children the same reasons for the divorce. Explain the temporary living situation with your children and when the divorce will be finalised.

9 Keep your distance. Though it may be tempting to console your husband/wife/partner by showing physical affection toward him, it’s important to maintain your distance and not fall back into the habits of your marriage. You want to avoid sending him/her mixed signals or hurting him/her further by staying emotionally or physically involved with him/her. Demonstrate how serious you are about the divorce by keeping your distance.

10 Take your children with you if you are dealing with an abusive husband/wife/partner. Don’t be afraid to do this if your partner threatens he/she will take the children from you. In fact, a judge will likely be more sympathetic towards you if you remove your children from a potentially dangerous situation with your partner.

  • You want to also give your controlling spouse as little power as possible, and this means taking the children away from his/her control.
  • You may need to ask for help from a friend to leave the family home and get away from your husband/wife/partner.

11 Get a restraining order if you are concerned about your safety. If you are trying to divorce an abusive partner, it’s important to have a plan in place to protect yourself and your children, if you have any. A restraining order can give you a legal way to create distance between you and your spouse. You may want to get the restraining order before you tell your partner you want a divorce or once you and your children are in a safe place, away from your spouse.

  • The most dangerous time for an abused woman or man is the first 24 hours after a restraining order has been issued. If you feel unsafe and decide to get a restraining order, ask the police if they can drive by your house. You can also contact your local shelter to see if you can stay in a safe house until things are settled.

Following through on the divorce

1 Get a lawyer. It is much easier to have a collaborative approach to the divorce. It’s also less expensive if you and your partner are able to settle your issues without legal involvement. 

  • If it is not possible to keep a lawyer out of it, make sure you hire a lawyer that is willing to litigate your case before a judge. The lawyer should know the value of settling the divorce quickly, but he/she should also be willing to fight for you in court should the need arise.
  • Interview at least three lawyers before you decide on one. Look for a divorce lawyer who has at least 5-10 years experience practising family and divorce law.

Click here for questions to ask yourself before interviewing a lawyer and questions you should ask a lawyer before engaging them. 

8 Questions to ask yourself before interviewing a lawyer

These questions will help you to determine what style of lawyering you want to engage with during the divorce process.  It will also help you to define the kind of service that you expect from your lawyer.

  1. How will my spouse deal with the prospect of divorce after the initial emotional impact has diminished?  Will they be a bully, a “my way or the highway” negotiator or will they try to be fair and listen to all sides before making a decision?
  2. How do you want to look back and remember how you were during the divorce process?  Do you want to be seen as angry and emotional or as someone who is credible and a good communicator? 
  3. Do you want to be a credible client who partners with the lawyer or do you want to give the power of decision making over to your lawyer and let him or her loose to get a “win” for your side.
  4. How do you want to model effective behaviour to others, your children, your family, or your community?
  5. How do you envision redefining the relationship with your spouse after the divorce is over – will you be co-parents, former spouses now still loyal to both of your families or will you cut all ties with his family and the communities you shared together?
  6. What are you most afraid of during the divorce process?  How would you expect the lawyer to engage with you in this?
  7. What kind of relationship do you want to have with your lawyer? 
  8. What is important to you in any business relationship?  Do you want top notch premium service or do you want options as to how you can use their services more cost effectively? Do you want to be a partner with that person or just have them lead the process?

Questions to ask a Family Lawyer before engaging:

Lawyer Style and Reputation:

  • Do you have a philosophy about divorce that underscorpes your practice?
  • What process for divorce do you most often engage in (Collaborative, Mediation, Litigation?)
  • How would another lawyer describe your style and approach to getting to a settlement?
  • How would your clients describe your style and approach to getting to settlement?
  • Who is your ideal client besides the one who pays their bills?
  • How does your ideal client conduct themselves during the divorce process?
  • Do you pay close attention to my financial and time constraints, my temperament, and my attitudes toward conflict?  How do you determine what those are?
  • What would others say about what you are like to work with?

What Kinds of Service Can I Expect

  • How will we work together?
  • How available will you be for me?
  • Will I have your mobile number?
  • Will you personally respond to my emails? 
  • Will I actually be working with you, or with an associate?
  • How would I as a client get a question answered without an appointment with you?
  • Are there others in the firm who would be familiar with my case and could answer questions when you are not available?
  • What is your preferred method of communicating questions?
  • How can I best prepare for meetings that will be most cost effective for me?
  • Are you okay with your clients utilizing a divorce coach?
  • What is your role in effectuating the settlement?
  • Before charting a particular course, do you perform a corresponding evaluation of “the other side”?

Fees for Your Services

  • Will you do either/or unbundled legal services versus retainer only?
  • How much is your retainer?
  • What is your hourly rate?
  • What are all of the transactions for which I will be billed?
  • Will I be billed for emails?  By the question?
  • How do you prefer payment? Credit cards etc?

To end the interview

  • What else should I be asking you so that I am confident we are a good match for representing me?
  • What else do you need to know so that you can assess whether I am a good fit for your firm?

Gather your financial information. 

You need a clear picture of where you and your spouse stand financially. One of the main goals of a divorce is to have an equitable distribution of marital assets and debts. To get your fair share, you need to know what is owned by you and your partner and what is owed by you and your partner. To do this: 

  • Make a list of all possible assets that you own or partly own. Some shared marital assets are obvious. The marital home and any financial accounts and vehicles are assets that should be split equitably. Other assets might include artwork, superannuation, inheritances, or belongings brought into the marriage.
  • Gather all documentation for each asset, including present value, when and where the asset was purchased, and whether it was purchased with joint or separate funds. Turn over all documentation to your lawyer and keep a copy for yourself.
  • Determine the debt in your marriage. When determining what you owe, it doesn’t matter whose name any debts are in. Marital debt will be split based on who is more financially able to pay the debt, not by whose name the debt is in. The easiest way to determine marital debt is to get a copy of your credit report. Turn this information over to your lawyer as well.
  • Determine your income. If you and your spouse are salaried employees, give your lawyer a copy of your most recent pay stubs and your most recent Income Tax Return.

Prepare a post-divorce budget. It’s important that you figure out how you are going to live once you are divorced. 

  • Think about your living costs, and how much income you will have after the divorce. Some women and men experience a major drop income post-divorce. So avoid getting stung with bills you can’t pay by creating a budget for yourself.
  • Figuring out your expenses post-divorce will also influence how you negotiate your divorce settlement. Your lawyer can use this information to determine your settlement options or what you may ask for if your case goes to court.

If you need help gathering together your financial information or preparing a budget Brigette Arnold, Divorce Financial Planner at Cambridge Partners and Equal Exes Expert Advisor is available to assist you. Click here to contact her.

Article adapted and sourced from:

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