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How to Bring up Divorce When Your Spouse Doesn't Want One

06/11/2013 12:20 pm ET | Updated Aug 11, 2013

In a previous post, I discussed the issue of "unrequited divorce," when one person desperately wants to stay married even after his spouse has decided it's over. There's an obvious flip side: what to do when you're certain the marriage is over but you fear your spouse isn't? I've seen clients successfully start the conversation about divorce with the following careful steps:

1. Educate Yourself -- about the law and how it will apply to your situation. Meet with a lawyer, do thorough Internet research about the laws of your state (there's some excellent information out there, but as is customary online, not all of it is accurate). If you don't pay the monthly bills, learn about the bills. If you have no clue what the bank statements say, find out. (N.B., these are good ideas regardless of whether the divorce is mutual.) Think about your family's financial situation, living situations and how you'll manage sharing time with kids or pets -- in other words, what the divorce would realistically look like day-to-day, month-to-month. Learn the effects of time on your legal position so you can separate out your emotional anxiety about the speed of progression from legal anxiety. Staying realistic is key here -- if you're conjuring thoughts only of your individual dream scenario, you're setting up for a bumpy ride.

2. Spend some time with your inner dread. A lot of clients get tripped up at the thought of opening up their mouth and saying the actual words: I want a divorce. They're ambivalent about needing to announce the marriage is over while simultaneously fearing having it out there. Over time I've heard consistent reports -- it's helpful to do a little soul-searching first and figure out the reason behind the dread. (If the dread is fear that your spouse will harm you, please talk to a lawyer first -- you need greater protection than contemplated by these steps.) Are you worried your spouse might not take you seriously? Are you reluctant to hurt him/her? Do you have not an iota of dread and are in fact chomping at the bit, itching to get it all out there in one rush of blurting and not letting the door hit you on your way out? Once you know, you can square how you're feeling with how best to...

3. Bring it up with your spouse as directly and as kindly as possible. The moment will mostly likely be shocking and horrible for both of you, but especially your surprised spouse. I've never had a client tell me this was a fun conversation to have, but your approach still can be gentle/respectful/mature/realistic, if perhaps not all four all of the time.

4. Assess the progress some time after you've brought it up. Are things moving ahead? Does it seem -- as sometimes happens -- like the conversation was an especially vivid dream that your spouse is now choosing to forget ever happened? There are various options here: I've had couples bring up the issue successfully in marriage counseling; something about the third party presence can help make it real. If that won't work, consider retaining a lawyer. He or she can either write a gentle letter urging your spouse to hire an attorney or start an action, depending on the specifics of your situation.

5. A Little Respect. It's more likely than not that the two of you aren't on the same page emotionally -- you're getting a divorce after all; hurt and resentment and rearview mirror blaming are par for the course. Simple appreciation of the basic concept (or at time even the shred of the hint of the concept) that you each have different, equally important perspectives can set a tone. Respect is a basic but crucial part of being able to talk to each other about everything from wanting the divorce to the attendant decision-making. And if you can do that somewhat reasonably, the entire divorce process tends to unfold in a smoother way. Which in turn helps both of you move on.

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