You have tried a few or more times to discuss with your spouse the initial steps in your divorce process, yet they avoid, postpone, or pick a fight, (resulting in no forward movement), and you are now wondering “What do I do?” After acknowledging and soothing your own worries, impatience and need for hope and progress, let’s try to understand your spouse’s circumstances.
If you have previously mentioned or asked for a divorce, then have not followed through with it, you may have inadvertently trained them to ignore your bids for separation, assuming you are just complaining, hurt, confused, and lashing out with threats, and that the subject will fade away as it inevitably has in the past. In fact, the more cycles of this pattern you have gone through, the more you can expect them to detach from the divorce conversation.
If you may have made it crystal clear that you are commitment to beginning the separation or divorce process, there may be several factors affecting their readiness to respond.
Spouse in Denial About Divorce
After the shock of the reality of divorce, denial is usually next in the stages of grief. It is likely that you came to the decision at some level some time ago, and thus are further along in your grief process. If your spouse is just beginning their process, their denial is a normal human reaction to forestall the anger, heartbreak and devastation that is yet to come.
Even if your spouse has begun to accept the divorce, their nervous may be locked down with overwhelming fears about financial survival, parenting from two homes, being alone, etc. When we are faced with what feels like life-threatening circumstances, our nervous system can make only three options available: fight, flight, or freeze. Since “flight” may not be accessible due to children, work or finances, “fight” and “freeze” are more likely.
How to Talk with your Spouse
With this understanding, I’d like to suggest a formula for soliciting your spouse’s participation in the divorce and separation process:
Compassion2 + Firmness + Choice = Progress
Double-down on the compassion. You may also be hurting, angry, and feel like you have nothing to give, but this is not a pain competition, so dig a little deeper and find some more for compassion for this soul whom you once so easily gave your love to. With firmness and clarity, communicate then follow through with your choices and next steps that are independent on your spouse. And lastly, provide your spouse with choices, with awareness that their entire life and everything they thought it would be may be drastically and tragically changing in a manner that is not their choice or desire. Below is an example of this formula in action, and an overall approach for how to talk with your spouse about divorce.
You: “Do you have a couple of minutes to discuss the divorce?”
Spouse: “What is there to talk about? You’ve made up your mind.”
You: “I know this is really upsetting for you (compassion) and I don’t want to make it any harder on you, but we need to figure out how we want to do this.”
Spouse: “You figure it out, this is all on you.”
You: “I understand that’s how it feels for you (compassion) . . .”
Spouse: “No, that’s how it is! You are the one giving up.”
You: “Yes, you are correct, I am making a unilateral decision (firmness) about getting a divorce. But there are different ways to go about it, some more expensive and painful. Can we meet with a mediator to see if that option will work for us?” (choice)
Spouse: “I don’t care to meet with anybody or do anything.”
You: “I know you don’t want to deal with this (compassion) or feel like working out anything with me right now (compassion), but I am going get this process started. I’d rather not hire a lawyer to handle this if we can work some of the details out in a less-stressful way. (firmness)
Spouse: Are you threatening me with litigation?
You: No, I just don’t want you to be in denial about the divorce, I am informing you that I will be getting this process started (firmness) and would rather make these decisions together.
Are you open to talking with a mediator about it? (choice) Would you like to find the mediator? I can gather a couple names if you want to choose who we see. (choice) Do you just need some more time to process this stuff? If it is helpful, I can wait a month before we make an appointment? (compassion + firmness + choice) Can we have a conversation about separating homes? I’d like to do this by the end of this month. (compassion + firmness + choice)
What if it Doesn’t Work?
By following this formula for how to talk with your spouse about divorce, you greatly increase your odds of movement towards action. Ultimately, if your spouse is cemented in denial about the divorce and not willing to take any action, you are not permanently stuck. You can begin the separation process at any time by setting a firm date to separate homes and you can begin the legal process by filing for divorce yourself or with the assistance of an attorney. In either case, consider informing your spouse with as much advance notice as you can, as every unexpected and upsetting divorce event will add more conflict to your relationship.