One of the questions I am asked most frequently is how to talk to your spouse if you want to separate or divorce. It feels frightening and overwhelming, and you want to do it in a way that won’t lead to a blow-up. I still remember when I had this talk with my ex, 27 years ago, and how I ran out of the room to throw up as soon as the words were out of my mouth! I hope this article will help prevent that for you.
10 tips to help you organize and prepare yourself for a difficult conversation.
How do you prepare to tell your spouse that you want a separation or divorce? It will likely be one of the most difficult and painful conversations you will ever have—even if you’re both aware that your marriage has been vulnerable for some time.
You (and your spouse) will probably remember this conversation for the rest of your life. If you do divorce, how you have this conversation will set the tone for the legal process that will follow. read more…
How can marital therapy help? What’s the therapist’s job? What’s yours?
John Gottman has researched marital stability and divorce prediction for more than 40 years. His research says that by the time clients get to marital counseling it is, on average, after six years of unhappiness in the marriage. So, don’t wait until there is a threat of divorce, and do commit to at least 10-20 sessions.
When clients come to my office to pursue divorce coaching, it may still be possible to repair the marriage. I like to know that clients have pursued every possible way to repair their marriage before deciding to divorce.
I don’t want you to regret your decision after the divorce process has started or concluded.
Here is how marital counseling works: There are at least three people in the room. The therapist is responsible for skillfully doing his or her part, and you are responsible for yours. If the therapist is doing more than 50% of the work in the room, therapy will likely fail.
The therapist’s role:
The therapist has no agenda or vested interest. This means that the therapist cannot be invested in the outcome of your counseling. You, the clients, determine the outcome after fully exploring your concerns and options.
The therapist should be a neutral facilitator, not an arbiter or judge. He may give impartial advice based on research or his experience. The therapist is responsible for creating a safe environment for honesty/unburdening/emotional expression/healing a betrayal. A skillful therapist helps you strengthen your communication skills and build trust. He or she may focus on your family values to strengthen your commitment to your marriage or to co-parent during and after a divorce. Here are some of the therapist’s responsibilities:
- Support you in expressing yourselves appropriately and honestly
- Facilitate your abilities to listen actively and build understanding or empathy
- Mediate in problem-solving to build solutions to differences or conflicts, without taking sides
- Assist you with making decisions about your future relationship
- Should you decide to divorce, the therapist can support your transition to a respectful divorce process and a healthy co-parenting relationship
John Gottman describes the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” of relationships as communication styles that, according to his research, may predict the failure of a relationship. Counseling can help you learn new healthy, constructive ways to communicate.
Your and your partner’s role:
First, show up with an open mind. Ultimately, the future of your relationship will be your decision, but in the meantime, show up to listen and explore your relationship’s strengths and areas of conflict. If your spouse asks you to go to counseling with her, do it. You have nothing to lose and you may find that many issues can be resolved or improved with a commitment to fully participate in the counseling. If you have already decided that the marriage is over, the counseling can help you set a healthy course for the future of your family. Here are some of your responsibilities:
- Grit. This means hard work, not giving up easily. Therapy will help you fully explore the reasons you have come to counseling, and that can be painful or difficult. Stay with it and you will feel more certain about your decision to go or stay in the marriage. Leave no stone unturned.
- Respect. Treat your partner (and your therapist) with respect. Constructive conversations and helpful discussions are only possible with respect. Self-regulation means that you are mature enough to manage your emotions and express them in a way that your partner can hear and understand. Emotions should not be used to further hurt the person you married. Using threats or coercion to try to get what you want will undermine both the relationship and counseling. Threats such as “If you don’t do X, I will divorce you” or “I will see you in court” spell doom for any constructive benefits of the therapy.
- Willingness to change, listen, share, and be curious. Counseling can help you grow as a person even if you don’t stay married. Being able to listen, share, be open and interested, and able to consider changing your behaviors or perspectives—these are all qualities that will help you in all aspects of your life, including future relationships.
- Honesty. Honestly, there is no point in going to counseling if you are not honest! Of course, being honest is sometimes scary and painful, especially if there has been an affair. However, a repair can only happen if you can face the reality of the issues, and the effects on your relationship.
- Keeping agreements, building trust, and goodwill. Counseling will help you and your partner make agreements. First, don’t agree to something that you aren’t 100% committed to. It is okay to say when you need time to consider an agreement or to say, “That doesn’t work for me.” This is crucial because keeping your agreements will build trust and goodwill with your partner, whether or not you stay together.
- Forgiveness and openness to repair. You may have come to counseling because of a betrayal, whether it is an affair or another kind of betrayal. If you are open to forgiving and repairing the relationship, counseling can help. This is not to let your partner off the hook for something that hurt you. Forgiveness is for you and doesn’t mean that you have to stay together. However, if your partner has hurt you and has worked to repair the relationship, you may be open to exploring that possibility. But you also have to be open to forgiving.
- Apologies and amends. If you have done something to hurt your partner, including a betrayal, counseling can help you make a real apology. An apology means that you take responsibility for your actions and that you are accountable for your choices. It doesn’t mean that you have to stay in the relationship, it just means that you do what it takes to help heal the pain you have caused.
So don’t wait! Marriage counseling is most successful before you have swept many issues “under the rug.” When you tell yourself “We can deal with this later, when the kids are grown” for example, you are reducing the likelihood that the marriage can be saved. Counseling is not a punishment or a lifetime commitment, but a resource to turn to when your marriage is struggling.
Give yourself at least 10-20 sessions of counseling before you make any big decisions. Then, if you make a decision to divorce, you will feel secure knowing that it has been a well-thought-through decision that you won’t regret down the road.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2020
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Feel stuck in a bad marriage? Can’t decide to divorce? Here are the most common reasons.
Have you been thinking about divorce for a very long time? Are you caught in a painful loop of indecision. “Should I leave? I don’t know if I can (or should) do it.“
Why is it so hard to leave your marriage when you have been unhappy for years? You have fantasies about breaking up. You imagine a happier life, and then you think about the things that worry you most. You feel more and more stuck.
There are several reasons that you, like many unhappily married people, may struggle with this decision. read more…
In an earlier post, I wrote about the psychological short- and long-term effects of quarantine. Now that we are in a longer-term quarantine, you are probably seeing how these reactions are affecting your relationships, especially your marital relationship.
You may have already decided to divorce, even started the process, but are not yet separated. Or this confinement may bring on the “final straw” that tells you, “I want a divorce.” Family law experts predict a spike in divorce filings after the quarantine ends, as occurred in China.
The sadness, anger, irritability, anxiety, and confusion feel intensified because you and your spouse are confined to your home most of the time. No one was prepared for this. People in difficult marriages tell me that they feel trapped, want an escape, struggle with the stress of uncertainty about the future, anxiously fear the disease, are climbing the walls with boredom, and feeling lonely.
Yet, in fact, some marriages may improve when partners use this unexpected “quality time” as an opportunity to repair their relationship.
How are you coping?
Introverts may feel comfortable with a quieter lifestyle and enjoy more time at home. One person told me she loves having the time to read, listen to music, take walks, and focus on her painting. Extroverts may suffer from a lack of activity and contact with others. Another reported that he immediately set up Zoom so that he could “socialize” with his friends and work with his team in a “virtual office.”
Ideas to help you cope:
Limit your exposure to the news. It is easy to compulsively check the stats every hour or to focus on the latest developments from Washington, but that is not so good for your mental well-being.
Make something. Baking, building, sewing, gardening, art, music—these activities give you a sense of control over something when we have so little control over the pandemic. If you bake cookies, for example, you could share them with neighbors, keeping social distance, of course. At the end of the day, it feels good to have something to show for your efforts.
Get organized. Clean out your closets and cupboards. Sort through and organize your photos, something I have put off since 1992. Tackle the chores you’ve procrastinated on, like cleaning out the garage or the basement.
Get outside. Take a walk, alone or together. Set up a virtual walking “date” with a friend and chat on the phone while you walk.
Stay connected to your social circle and family. Use Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom to have a “virtual lunch or dinner” with loved ones. We had eight families in eight different locations on a Zoom call to sing “Happy Birthday” on my grandson’s first birthday. Make a special effort to reach out to your friends or neighbors who live alone.
How is your relationship going?
Is too much togetherness driving you crazy? Or are you loving it? Here are some ways to manage it:
Structure is important. Before the quarantine, your life was structured by many activities;now you need to set up a new structure.
Create a schedule. Include specific work hours (and non-work hours). Schedule time for exercise, and if necessary, for tutoring your children. If you are bickering (or worse) with your spouse (or future ex) create a schedule that minimizes your contact with each other. You can take turns dealing with the children or making meals. You may not have considered birdnesting before; read about it here.
If you can create a détente, perhaps you can work together on chores, cooking, laundry, cleaning the litter box, and childcare issues. If you argue a lot, divide these chores up and share the responsibilities.
Give each other space. Even if you are getting along well, create separate spaces for each of you, if possible. Everyone needs some alone time. If you are in conflict, having privacy and a separate space is even more important.
Let your spouse have their reactions and practice calming or self-regulating your own. You and your spouse will manage your reactions to this situation in different ways. Fortify your capacity for patience and even reassurance (for yourself and your spouse). It can feel like an emotional roller coaster, and some cope by expressing emotions while others try to distract themselves from their negative feelings.
Cultivate compassion. Catch yourself in the act of bickering and just stop. Work to cultivate compassion for what you are both going through. It is tough for both of you, and you will get through it more easily if you can contain the bickering.
Use this time to build better communication skills. Whether you divorce or not, this will be a valuable investment in your future relationship.
Cultivate your listening skills. Communication is not just about talking. Usually listening is more important than speaking. Listening is also communication.
You are in this together, so share your experience. If you can set aside your differences, you can share your fears, allow your feelings to show—grief, confusion, lack of control, etc. There is no “right” way to deal with something we have never faced before. Check in to see how your spouse is doing—and make sure your attitude is open, curious, helpful, and empathetic. Listen without judgment and avoid minimizing your partner’s feelings with platitudes. Especially avoid complaining (about your spouse), blaming and criticism. But do deal with conflict by problem-solving, staying respectful, and saying what you want and need. At the same time, respect the other’s wants and needs without criticism, rejection or stonewalling.
Now that you have this “quality time” together, find ways to reconnect. Games, movies, and puzzles can bring in some fun energy. Include your kids, if you have children.
If you are trying to repair or strengthen your relationship, remember to be a good friend to each other. Focus on the positives: Tell them what you admire about them, look for the “silver lining” or the benefits of quarantine, such as the quality time you always wanted. Share your hopes and dreams, too. If you need more support or help, many therapists have adapted their practices to working on Zoom or other formats.
Maybe the best you can do is get through this without too much conflict. When life returns to whatever the new normal will be, you can pursue a separation or divorce if that is your choice. For some, this unprecedented situation is also an opportunity to come together and work through the tensions or heal some past wounds. History tells us that life-threatening events can cause more divorces, but it can also strengthen marriages.
This essay first appeared in Psychology Today
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020
Family Law specialists and therapists predict a surge in separation and divorce consultations as shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.
There are probably two common reasons for this:
First, many couples had no choice but to “tough it out” through the past few months, even if the decision to separate had already been made by one or both people. With the sudden arrival of COVID-19, couples were forced to “nest” despite their desire to separate.
Second, the stress and strain of the quarantine might be the final straw for couples whose relationship is already fragile. The financial strain of job loss or working from home, with the pressures of family togetherness, home-schooling their children, health crises due to exposure to the virus or illness (or fear of that), in a troubled marriage might cause one or both people to reach their limit and decide to separate.
Ask Yourself if Nesting Makes Sense for Your Family
1. Will you and your spouse remain in the area or city? Nesting works best when both of you are available for your “on duty” parenting time.
2. Ask yourself if you can set aside your own comfort and prioritize the comfort of your children. The benefit of nesting is that both of you remain actively involved with their children while minimizing your own conflict.
3. Can you afford to support alternate living locations? Increasing financial stress is certainly not helpful. You may need to reduce your standard of living, although of course, after the divorce, you will be supporting two homes that have space for the children.
4. Can you and your spouse share the “off-site” location, or will you each need your own space?
5. Can you and your spouse work together to find ways to communicate in a respectful manner about matters relating to the children, the home, and finances? Use communication tools, such as a shared online family calendar, to make the transitions easier. Communicate regularly about how the children are doing. Bring in a trained mental health professional if you need more support.
6. Can you develop a realistic, balanced timeshare schedule so that each family member always knows which parent is “on duty”? Can you agree that if the schedule doesn’t work well, you’ll review and revise it? Usually parents transition in and out of the house once or twice a week, but you and your partner parent need to create a realistic and workable schedule.
7. Can you and your spouse help your children understand what you are doing? You may explain that this doesn’t necessarily mean you will reconcile with their other parent. Let them know that the nesting may be temporary and that you will let them know as decisions are made regarding future living arrangements.
8. Can you develop written agreements? To ensure successful nesting, you will need agreements about communication, house rules, household responsibilities, who pays the bills, and how holidays and birthdays will be handled? Consider setting up a joint “family” bank account to support the home and the children. You may choose to consult with a financial specialist who will help you set up a realistic budget.
9. Get help from a family therapist if necessary. The family therapist can help you create a parenting plan that works for your family’s unique needs. In addition, my book, A Parents Guide to Birdnesting, will walk you in detail step-by-step through the process.
Adapted from my post on Psychology Today, March 20, 2019
What do I mean by “Nesting”?
Nesting families keep the children in the family home while the parents rotate in and out to care for them. The “on-duty” parent stays in the home with the children while the “off-duty” parent usually stays in another location.
There are many options for living arrangements when one parent is “off-duty.” Parents may live in separate areas within the home or, more commonly, in another location when they are “off-duty.” Some parents share the off-site residence, while others find separate living quarters, or stay with friends or family.
There are three main goals
• To provide a “time out” from marital conflict
• Maintain a stable home for the children
• Allow time for decision-making while the parents decide whether to
divorce or reconcile
Sharing the nest is usually temporary, until you have made decisions about the future of your marriage. You may nest for months or even several years. I spoke to someone recently who told me that she and her ex nested for almost seven years. Some parents agree to nest until a milestone is reached, such as the finalizing of the divorce settlement, or the children’s graduation from high school.
Successful nesting is built on agreements about communication, schedules, and finances.
My book, A Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting, will walk you step-by-step through the process.
Who can nest successfully?
1. Parents who are usually able to communicate respectfully with each other
2. Parents who commit to leaving the family home in reasonable condition when turning over the duties to the other parent
3. Nesting can be a good choice for parents who are able to set aside their emotions in order to prioritize the children’s welfare.
4. Parents who respect each other as parents and want to remain fully involved as co-parents
Advantages of Nesting:
1. Since their routines may not change much, nesting provides stability and minimal disruption for your children while you adjust to solo-parenting.
2. The children have quality time with each parent.
3. Making and keeping agreements with your spouse helps you rebuild trust and goodwill.
4. Some nesting parents call themselves “apartners” as they live apart while they partner as co-parents.
5. Nesting gives both of you time to make big decisions about your future. If you go on to divorce, you have time to decide about finances and future living arrangements.
6. If you nest during a trial separation you may work on repairing your marriage and eventually reconcile
Disadvantages of Nesting:
1. You may find it disruptive to move in and out of the family home, and the alternate location may be less than ideal. You will, however, learn what your children’s experience will be when they later move from Mom’s house to Dad’s house.
2. It may be costly to support the family home as well as one or two other living quarters.
3. Nesting is not advisable in high conflict relationships, or where there are coercive or control issues.
4. Nesting may become problematic when either of you develops a new serious, long term relationship.
My book, A Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting, will walk you step-by-step through the process.