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Video: Asking your spouse for a divorce

TODAY contributor
updated 5/21/2008 4:59:45 PM ET 2008-05-21T20:59:45

There are some conversations that are hard by their very nature. Telling your spouse you want a divorce is certainly at the top of the list.

Since marriage is one of life's central relationships, seeking a divorce feels like a tremendous failure. And it is tough to initiate something you know will have great emotional, practical and financial fallout for yourself (and your children, if you have them).

It’s like stepping into the abyss. What’s ahead? You know how bad your marriage has been, but you don’t know what your life will be like post-divorce.

The assumption is that it will be better. Still, you don’t know. There is no crystal ball and no guarantee. Might your life be worse? Yes. It will certainly be different.

Though you can control how you proceed with a divorce, you cannot control your spouse’s reaction. You might be unable to predict how hurt or angry your spouse will be, how much resistance they will put up, how easily they will go along.

I suggest you acknowledge your role in the marriage’s failure. Don’t accuse your spouse of doing this and doing that.

Sometimes the news that you want a divorce comes as a surprise, and sometimes not. People are often so scared and inhibited about their unhappiness in their marriage that they have not made it clear they are at the end of their rope. On the other hand, you may have sent clear signals that you were miserable, but your spouse was in such denial that they couldn’t hear or understand.

Hence, divorce is often broached in an oblique fashion. You might even finish the conversation with your spouse unsure of whether you made yourself understood.

So listen to your spouse. Most people have great difficulty doing this. It’s hard to be empathic if you can’t stand each other any more. But don’t argue in a way that puts your spouse on the defensive. It’s OK to acknowledge their (and your own) feelings of sadness or shame, but remain firm in your intent to go forward.

It’s important to minimize negative fallout for yourself (and also for any children). Having a healthy divorce is as important as having a healthy marriage.

Think of this as a business deal and a business relationship. You needn’t love each other anymore, or even like each other, but don’t go for the jugular. Treating each other with decency and respect will suck a lot less energy out of you, and will occupy less negative emotional space in your head.

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I strongly suggest you consult with a lawyer before initiating such a conversation. Many people have no idea what they are getting into. A lawyer will explain how this will all play out. You will have increased housing costs, possible custody disputes or restrictions on moving out of state. Read up on the topic, too.

If there has been any sort of past aggression or violence, including verbal aggression, have this talk in a public place. When people are very distraught, they do things they wouldn’t normally do. You don’t know how your spouse will react. Only if you are certain your spouse will not become aggressive or abusive is it OK to have privacy.

Remember, it might be a relief to your spouse to hear you are seeking a divorce. Even an initial bad reaction might turn into grudging or willing acceptance.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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