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Emily V. Gordon Headshot

You've Decided To Leave Your Spouse -- Now What?

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You've hemmed and hawed. Maybe you've been in counseling for months; maybe you've just been quietly observing -- unable to believe it -- as your marriage disintegrated into ignored conversations and diverging lives. No matter the situation, you've decided that you want a separation. (I'm assuming, by the way, that you've thought this through a great deal and aren't just impulsively making major life decisions.) I've compiled a few steps based on my personal experience, my professional experience, and conversations with other people, that may give you some guidance in this extremely traumatic time. Bear in mind, this applies more to logistics than it does emotional preparation.

First stage: Information Gathering
  • Tell someone you trust about your plans. This is important both for safety concerns as well as emotional support.
  • Are you planning on moving out, or asking your spouse to leave? If you plan on moving out, where will you go? A friend's house? How long would you be able to stay there? Will you find a Craigslist roommate? After you inform your spouse that you are leaving the relationship, you should stop living together as soon as possible. Staying in the same place creates a volatile situation, so have your plans ready before you have the conversation.
  • What are your expectations for the separation? Do you see it as temporary, or the first step in the process of divorce? Will you still see each other at all?
  • How are your finances set up? If they are all kept in one pot, you technically have the right to half of that pot. Do some serious thought about how you want to handle finances once you are no longer living in the same place, and please, don't let your emotions rule your spending. As any daytime judge show can tell you, spending someone's money or taking their stuff because they hurt your feelings is not justified.
  • Start thinking about the items you and your spouse own. What items do you need, and what items would you be okay parting with? Make a list.
  • Go through the services you use (Internet, phone plans) and find out what plans are linked, and what plans are not.
  • Do you know where all your paperwork is -- marriage certificate, car deeds? Do you know how to access your financial information online?
Second stage: Basics and planning
  • Write out a basic script of what you want to say to your spouse. Don't speak out of anger or out of wanting to hurt the other person. Keep the discussion about your experience of the marriage and why you are leaving, not why your spouse failed you. Be as explicit as possible about your expectations for the separation, and be sure, in your script, to ask your spouse what he/she thinks of those expectations.
  • If both you and your spouse are employed, consider separating your money that way. Create a very basic budget of the money you'll anticipate spending in your new living situation, and compare that to the money that you make independently. If there's no way that'll be enough, go back and add to your script a discussion about how you would like to divide your income.
  • Open a bank account for yourself. You'll be needing one.
  • Have all of your bank information handy, as you will most likely be spending time there separating your accounts, redirecting your pay checks, etc.
Third stage: Dropping the bomb.
  • Make a deliberate plan to tell your spouse, rather than having it tumble out while you're at a social function, or as he/she is about to leave for work, or when you're angry. If you are at all concerned about your physical safety, you may choose to have the talk in a public place, like a park. Do not do this in a restaurant. Choose a time that is calm, when you're not arguing, and when you have time to talk.
  • Have a friend or therapist on call for you after you have the talk.
  • Do not have the talk until you have a plan of how to leave. (Now here's where I editorialize a bit: it's my personal opinion that if you're choosing to separate from your spouse, it is your responsibility to leave the house you share. Some people disagree.)
  • Go through your script with your spouse, keeping your voice calm, and pause regularly to check in with your spouse. This is a huge thing you are dropping on him/her, and it will take time to be absorbed. In fact, the talk could be broken into several sections, done at different points in time, depending on how each section goes. You could divide it into: "I think we should separate and here's why"; "Here are my expectations for the separation"; "Here is my plan for how this will look."
  • Immediately after having the conversation, it's time to separate yourselves for processing, with the option that you can call each other if need be. Set up a place to go.

These aren't foolproof steps, and they won't apply to every couple, but often when we go through emotional situations, we forget logistics or decide they don't matter, and that isn't the case. Emotions are even harder to process if you're couch-surfing or have no access to your money. Think things through before you act, and your spouse will thank you for it.