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How to ask for a divorce: Divorce conversation starters for you and your spouse

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So you’ve made the decision to end your marriage — but how do you start the conversation with your spouse? 

Avigail Lev, PsyD, founder of Bay Area CBT Center in San Francisco, specializes in working with couples as they navigate conflict and interpersonal problems, recommends setting the precedent of open communication, transparency, and collaboration from the time you ask for divorce.

“Collaborating together to find the best way to move forward can help ease the transition and minimize conflicts,” says Lev, who is also a certified mediator.

This means: 

  1. Being honest with your spouse about why you want to end the marriage (and avoiding pointing fingers)
  2. Working together to set the terms of your divorce — asset/debt division, custody, support payments, etc.

That said, even if you’ve been openly having doubts, your spouse may be blindsided or have an extremely negative emotional response to you asking for a divorce — which is likely to amp up the conflict during and after the divorce and is especially toxic if you will co-parent going forward.

If you are concerned that your partner may retaliate in an abusive way, Lev says you should connect with professionals — like an attorney or licensed therapist — before talking to your spouse. 

Considering high-conflict and collaborative situations alike, we talked to Lev and New York City divorce attorney Jaqueline Newman to get their advice on how to ask for a divorce. 

Here’s what they had to say: 

1. Be sure divorce is what you want

Before you ask your spouse for a divorce, make sure you’re 100% ready to walk away. If you have any doubts, consider alternatives such as couples therapy or a trial separation.

These are some common signs you are ready for divorce:

  • You stop arguing
  • You stop having sex
  • You prefer to spend time with your friends or family over your husband or wife
  • You stop making future plans
  • You regret getting married
  • You have reason to be secretive about your phone
  • You start worrying about money in the event you find yourself single

2. Prepare to have the conversation

If it helps you get your thoughts together, write down what you want to say ahead of time. You can even practice having the conversation first with a trusted friend, or with a therapist. 

Another part of preparing for the conversation is getting into the right mindset that will allow you to remain as level-headed as possible.

“Try to stay away from accusations and attacks,” says Newman, who is also the author of The New Rules of Divorce. If unresolved feelings of anger and blame are coming up as you prepare to talk to your spouse, consider consulting with a therapist on how you can process these feelings and have a civil conversation.

3. Understand where your spouse is emotionally

While there may be a lot of conflict when you ask for a divorce, it’s also possible that your partner will agree that dissolving the marriage is in both of your best interests.

If the latter is true, you and your partner may be able to save thousands of dollars and lots of time by filing for divorce online and not involving attorneys — except to review the divorce agreement you agree to on your own.

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However, having a collaborative divorce doesn’t mean that there won’t still be difficult emotions to process. As you prepare to have the conversation, think about how your spouse is likely to react. 

How do they usually approach conflict? How do they manage painful or challenging emotions? Let this inform how you approach them. 

Lev warns, “Individuals with personality disorders may be resistant to change, lack empathy, or exhibit manipulative behavior that can hinder a fair and reasonable divorce negotiation.”  

In this case, you may want to make a plan ahead of time with a lawyer and/or therapist that protects your safety and assets. Newman says she evaluates the whole of someone’s specific situation to determine potential legal risks.

“I thought I was being the nice guy by telling him before I filed,” says Jessica, a divorcee. “A week later, his mother filed a lawsuit against me in probate court to take our family home. If I had served him first, the suit would have been pushed over to family law. I spent two years defending that lawsuit.” 

As for serving divorce papers, Newman says that would be done by a process server, an unbiased third party who delivers legal documents, or an attorney. 

Be aware of these sneaky divorce tactics

4. Know what questions they might ask

While you may not jump into the logistical next steps right away, Lev recommends getting familiar with the conversation topics that often come next. These include:

  • Planning asset division
  • Negotiating child custody
  • Reorganizing financial arrangements 
  • Addressing shared debt 
  • Managing passwords and shared accounts
  • Updating beneficiaries 
  • Evaluating divorce fees and costs 

Keep in mind that, as the person asking for divorce, you have already had time to process this change, while your spouse has not. 

Read over the list of talking points you’ve made and consider them through your spouse’s eyes. What questions would he or she ask? On which subject might your spouse press you for more information, or even disagree? 

Thinking ahead can help you address any potential conflicts in a rational way. Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide how much you want to disclose and discuss. 

5. Choose the right time and place

One of the most important factors in peacefully asking for a divorce is choosing an appropriate time and location to do it. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure that the conversation isn’t hasty. Choose a time when you know neither of you has anything going on afterward. You’ll both need time to process the conversation. 
  • If you have children, choose a time when they are out of the house. Think about arranging an activity for them in the care of friends and/or relatives. 
  • Make sure that you don’t launch the conversation in the heat of an argument or while tensions are particularly high. Pick a calm moment when you can try to remain as neutral as possible. 

Again, if you fear for your safety asking for a divorce, consider talking in a public location and/or seeking professional counsel about how to approach your spouse. 

If you are still feeling nervous, you can also find support in therapy. Chloe says, “Ask first for couples therapy. The therapy will help to clarify that a divorce is needed.”

6. Use “I” statements

If your goal is to have a peaceful conversation, resist the urge to list every grievance and/or place blame on your spouse. Speak in “I” statements that reflect your experience. Starting sentences off with “you” will likely put your spouse on the defensive. 

Still, finding the right words can be challenging. Newman offers these tips for starting the conversation:

  1. When the timing seems appropriate, ask your spouse, “Is now a good time to have a difficult conversation?”

    “You need to both be in the best mindset possible to start talking about divorce to keep the conversation as peaceful and productive as possible,” Newman says.
  2. Start off the conversation by acknowledging that you are unhappy and that you want happiness for you both. Let your spouse know that you want to make all efforts to end things in the most civilized and respectful way possible.

Lev provides a formula to follow:

  1. Express the observations that have led to you wanting a divorce (again, avoiding pointing fingers).
  2. Describe your needs and requests in relation to how you'd like to move forward.

“Recognize that you both deserve to be happy and (if you have children) that you want to role model a good and healthy marriage for your children to replicate, not an angry and toxic one,” Lev says.

She offers an example: 

“Even though we've been in couples therapy for years and have worked on our relationship, it seems that we're still both unhappy and dissatisfied in this relationship. 

“Given that we've both given it our best, I’d like to move forward with separation and moving gradually towards getting a divorce. I'm needing us to be collaborative, cooperative, empathic, and respectful throughout this process. Would you be willing to attend mediation for us to negotiate the decisions regarding our separation?”

Below are other conversation starters you can use that are rooted in Lev and Newman’s advice:

  • Is now a good time to have a difficult conversation about our marriage?
  • I’d like to talk about the future of our marriage in couples therapy. When can we set aside time for that?
  • I’ve noticed that we’ve both seemed unsatisfied for a while now, and I want us both to be happy. I’d like to explore what divorce would mean for us. 
  • I’ve been feeling unhappy in our marriage, and I imagine it’s been hard for you, too. I’d like to talk about getting a divorce. 
  • We’ve both tried hard to make this work, but I’d like to move forward with getting a divorce. 

Divorcees on Reddit also share the conversation starters they’ve successfully used:

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7. Let your spouse express their thoughts

Newman suggests letting the person have their reaction, walking away and continuing the conversation once emotions have settled.

In practice, this will mean stating your points, then refraining from interrupting and getting defensive when your spouse responds. Practice active listening. This will be one of many conversations to come — everything does not need to be said at once. 

No matter how gently you approach your spouse, keep in mind that he or she may still react negatively or make the process challenging. 

As you and your spouse have ongoing conversions, Lev says you shouldn’t be afraid of enlisting professionals to help you along the way.

“Marriage counseling or mediation can facilitate constructive discussions and ensure both parties' needs are considered,” she says. 

8. Establish and maintain boundaries

Whether your spouse is on the same page or needs time to accept you will be getting a divorce, Lev says you should both establish and maintain healthy boundaries. Respect each other’s need for space while maintaining open and transparent communication. 

These are some boundaries you may need to determine: 

  1. Where you’ll live
  2. How and how often you’ll communicate
  3. Where your children will live temporarily (if you have children)
  4. How you’ll handle ongoing expenses (groceries, utility bills, loans, etc.) 

9. Discuss next steps with your spouse

Asking for a divorce is one of many hard conversations to come. Now, you and your spouse will have to start deciding what each of you wants in the divorce. 

If you want a peaceful or amicable divorce with your spouse, you may opt for working with a mediator or therapist and decide not to file with an attorney. 

These are some things you’ll need to discuss: 

Lev suggests drawing on your family and friends for support. 

“Having a strong support network can help alleviate stress and provide guidance when needed,” she says.

Moving forward: How to start the divorce process, if you’re ready

We have lots of resources on the site to help you through divorce, including guides on how to prepare for divorce and what to ask for in a divorce agreement.

If you are in a difficult or unsafe situation, consider reaching out to an attorney, therapist, or other professional to guide you safely through the process. 

“Each divorce case is unique, and the process can vary depending on the specific circumstances,” Lev says. “It's crucial to prioritize your well-being throughout the journey.”

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