“I want a divorce,” are four words that are among the worst you will ever hear. Whether these words are spoken repeatedly by your spouse after a fight, or this is the first time you’ve heard them utter these words, your heart drops into your stomach. And you immediately feel panic, anger, and hurt all at once.
You respond with such questions as, “where is this coming from?” or “how could you say such things?” You even begin to beg them to stay. But the more you plead your case, the more your spouse retreats. And then you withdraw too because thinking about losing your spouse hurts so bad. It’s not what you want, but you don’t know what to do to save your marriage. Or if it can be saved at all.
Despite your panic, you are holding onto hope that your spouse will change his or her mind. It’s normal to want to hold onto something that you cherish, but sometimes the more you hold on, the more desperate you feel. At the same time, you don’t want to avoid your spouse if you really want to have a chance to reconcile. This may be one of the hardest times you will face, and it can be even harder to bring out your best self. But that’s what it will take, both for your own coping and for the chance to have a future with your spouse.
Contemplating Divorce and Understanding Divorce Ambivalence
Before we talk about bringing your best self to your marriage crisis, let’s first explore “divorce ambivalence”. We assume that a marriage is over once someone enters the legal process of divorce, but many people consult a divorce attorney when they are considering their options. And then other married couples cancel their divorce after they’ve filed. Deciding to divorce is such a hard decision that having mixed feelings, or ambivalence, about getting divorced is more common than you think. In fact, divorce research has found that only “50-66% of people are certain they want a divorce, leaving one-third to half of the people that consult a family law attorney uncertain” (Doherty Relationship Institute, 2018).
In addition, many people think about divorce for a long time before they say something to their spouse. On the other hand, some feel so hopeless when they encounter an unresolved conflict that they repeatedly say, “they are done” during a marriage conflict. And then there are others that fantasize about divorce when they are feeling lonely and frustrated in their marriage, but they don’t actually pursue a divorce.
There are so many forms of divorce ambivalence that it can be hard to know if your spouse is really done or more frustrated at that moment. So if your spouse says he or she wants a divorce in the middle of a fight, then first let each of you calm down. Follow up by asking whether your spouse is 100% certain they want a divorce or less than 100% certain. This will give you an idea of whether future reconciliation is an option or not.
What to Do (and Not Do) When Your Spouse Wants a Divorce And You Don’t
Let’s explore how to open up the possibility for reconciliation if your spouse says they aren’t 100% sure they want a divorce.
- Don’t over-focus on trying to read your spouse: After asking once whether or not your spouse is 100% certain of their decision, try not to over-focus on ‘reading’ your spouse. It’s common to try to read spouse’s behavior or mind so that you know where you stand. But this will literally drive you nuts because the only thing you know is what you think. Focus more on your part and your choices.
- Don’t pursue or withdraw: People deal with anxiety and stress differently. Some pursue, plead, beg, question, and try to pull out the response they are looking for so they can calm down. While others avoid what’s hard to try to calm down. While it’s natural to do either of these when you are worried about your marriage ending, find ways to manage your anxiety that don’t involve these postures.
- Make contact without pressure: Instead of pressing on your spouse to give your marriage another try, make contact without pressure. Resist the urge to talk about your relationship each time you talk to your spouse. And when you do talk about your relationship, let your spouse know what you are learning and what you want, while also allowing them time to get clear on what they want for the future of your marriage.
- Work on yourself more than your spouse: Find ways to soothe yourself that don’t depend on your spouse’s behavior. Some find comfort in spending time with friends and family while avoiding the temptation to get them on your side. Others find comfort in spiritual practices and/or working on personal goals. Think about what you’d like to do if you weren’t focusing all your energy on getting your spouse back, then take steps to start doing what you enjoy even if you don’t feel like it yet.
- Consider working with a counselor: Making sense of what happened to get your marriage to this point is the key to either your divorce recovery or your marriage reconciling. And identifying your part in the problem is what you will focus on in counseling more than trying to figure out your spouse.
You are trying to cope with a lot right now, and worrying about how you will get through this time. It’s ok to reach out and ask for help when the one person you’d usually lean on can’t be there for you right now. Let me know if you have any questions about finding a counselor near you.
Marci Payne, MA, LPC is a licensed counselor based out of Lee’s Summit Missouri (which is in the Kansas City area). She is currently providing online, individual counseling to Missouri residents via video and phone sessions. Whether you are navigating a difficult relationship or trying to recover from your marriage ending, you are likely to encounter many feelings along the way. Learn how to give yourself what you need, even when others don’t, in my free “Emotion Self-Care Guide.