Timing is Everything: Leaving When You Should Stay

woman with flowers just dumped

As hard as it is to know when the right time to leave is, there are clearly wrong times to leave.

You’re not happy. You want out of your pain. You think you want to leave your spouse, but you keep getting indications that it’s not the right time. Distinguishing between what your head is telling you versus what your heart says isn’t easy at this point. Sometimes, when people think they want out badly enough, they leave impulsively and have a “let the chips fall where they may” attitude. It is not so much the fact that they wanted separation from their spouse or even that they left, but the lack of consideration of the needs of their spouse and children that can cause tremendous fallout.

Let’s take a look at some cases where people left when the timing was clearly wrong. In each of these true stories, there are lessons that each couple learned as a result of their experience. I share these with you in the hopes that you can learn from these people.


On the eve of his son’s 10th birthday, Doug felt he was about to explode. The tension in the house was too much for him, and the family pressure was off the charts. He didn’t have the energy to care that it was an important event in his son’s life and that there were family obligations; he didn’t care that they had a trip planned with the kids the following week. He didn’t care that their anniversary was a month and a half away. He had let his emotional upset reach a point where he felt he was having a nervous breakdown and that things were going to come to a head.

As Doug saw it, he only had two choices: 1) have a major blowout with Miranda once and for all, or 2) leave. He chose the second option because he thought it would create the least amount of waves. Yes, his leaving was quieter than a shouting match would have been, but the impact was tremendous nonetheless.

Doug’s son Cody woke up on his birthday looking forward to the family celebrating turning 10, and Miranda had to tell him that his Dad was gone. Cody was devastated and thought that his Dad left because he had done something wrong. Instead of being the best day of his life, it was by far the worst.

When Doug later learned of the impact his departure had Cody, he felt terrible. He realized that he should have thought more about preparing his family for his leaving and perhaps even waited until a week later to take off.

Lessons Learned:

Prepare your family as best you can mentally, emotionally, and financially for the separation.

Avoid leaving during important holidays or celebrations.

And here’s another story demonstrating the importance of paying attention to the timing and manner in which you end your marriage.


After a great deal of mutual fighting and abuse, Bill decided to move out of the house. Rather than seek professional guidance, read books, or get any kind of support, Bill and Sally forged ahead with their divorce.

Their daughter, Megan, was at the pinnacle of her gymnastics career at age 14. She was in junior Olympic competitions and winning medals left and right. Her world revolved around her meets, and she was even home-schooled so that she could travel all over the world to compete. There was no question that Megan was an exceptional athlete who was headed for greatness.

Bill and Sally didn’t really think about how Megan’s future career would be impacted by their split. With two households to support, they could no longer afford Megan’s coach, the gymnastics program she was enrolled in, or the travel for her competitions.

Megan’s life and destiny were changed forever. On the one hand, although Megan missed seeing her father every day, she felt some relief that her parents split up because she didn’t like feeling the tension and disdain between them. But in losing her life’s focus and purpose, Megan became clinically depressed. Megan’s coach was like her second mother, and she mourned the loss of that relationship tremendously.

Six months later, when Megan’s grandmother (Sally’s mother) found out what had happened, she offered to give some financial assistance, but it was too late. The program Megan was on track for had already started and by the next opportunity Megan would have had to participate, she would have been too old to qualify.

If Bill and Sally had created some type of financial plan, researched scholarships (which they also found out later existed), or even sought assistance from friends and family, or divorce professionals, this level of impact might on Megan have been averted.

Lessons Learned:

Ask for support and guidance before acting in as many areas as you can: financially, emotionally, mentally and physically.

Consider how your children’s lives will be impacted, and wherever possible, maintain their schools, programs and support networks. 

It's not easy to know the exact right time to go and sometimes hindsight is the only way you can know if you made the right decision, but getting the right resources, information and support make a big difference.

This article is excerpted from Contemplating Divorce, A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (New Harbinger 2008).

This article was originally published at PsychologyToday.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.