The Absolute Worst Way To Ask For A Divorce

Being nice only causes more pain.

Last updated on Jun 10, 2024

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Sheila had been thinking about it for months and she had talked to her girlfriends about it. They were shocked by her admission — she wasn't sure she loved her husband Jeff anymore. Her friends were shocked because, even after all these years, Jeff seemed to be hopelessly in love with her. But she just wasn't hopelessly in love with him anymore. She'd made her decision; she was going to tell Jeff she wanted a divorce. That weekend was their twentieth anniversary and they had plans to take a long weekend at a resort without their children. Sheila reasoned that because the resort would be a relaxing setting, they would be alone, and it would provide the time they both needed to talk about divorce.


On their first evening at the resort, they had reservations at a romantic restaurant on the property. After the wine was served, Sheila told Jeff she wanted a divorce. She chose to tell him this first night so they would have plenty of time to talk about the details of the divorce. What she hadn't planned on was Jeff's shock and confusion when she told him her news. After a bit of a scene, he left her at the table and returned to their room. At first, she was confused by Jeff's reaction. He'd always given her everything she'd wanted before. Then she felt the full impact of how she had hurt him. She felt guilty — terribly, terribly guilty.


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After signing the check, she returned to their room and was intimate with Jeff. It was the only way she could think of to make him a little less sad and to make her feel a little less guilty. They fell asleep in each other's arms. In the morning, Jeff asked her if she was feeling better about them now. She replied, "No, I still want a divorce." Jeff was once again shocked and confused by her answer. How could she want a divorce after they had made up last night? And so their weekend (and their subsequent separation) continued; a chaotic mixture of messages: "No, I don't want you," turning into "Yes, I want you right now."

Sheila told her friends she was just trying to be nice to Jeff. She didn't want to hurt him. The part she didn't admit to them or herself was that she didn't want to feel guilty about hurting him. I regularly hear people tell me they want to be nice to their soon-to-be ex. They'll tell their spouse they want a divorce and then act like they're still married. I'll ask why they do this and without exception, the reason they give is they want to be nice. What this means is they feel guilty about hurting their spouse and want to make it easier on themselves. What these folks fail to take into account is what their niceness does to their soon-to-be-ex.


From the dumpee's standpoint, the niceness is confusing at best and an outright attempt to derail their ability to heal at worst. Just as the dumpee is starting to get to the point of accepting that their marriage is ending, their spouse comes back into their life offering intimacy, presents, cash, or some combination of them. Then just as the dumpee is starting to have some hope that the marriage can be saved, their spouse dashes those hopes and confirms that they do indeed want a divorce. It's a horrible yo-yo of emotions and positively draining for the dumped. You need to be clear when you ask for a divorce. To avoid putting your spouse through this painful yo-yo of emotions, you'll first want to be very clear about what you want. Ask yourself some questions, and answer them honestly.

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Lots of people aren't truly clear about what they want when they tell their spouse they want a divorce. If you aren't sure, then decide you simply need to talk to your spouse about how you'd like to change your marriage. The kindest thing you can do for your spouse if divorce is what you want, is to be crystal clear about your decision. Where and when you tell your spouse you want a divorce is critical to being truly respectful and kind. You'll want to choose a time and place that will give each of you privacy, safety, and the time for the discussion to happen. How you tell your spouse is probably the most difficult for people who want to be nice, but the truth is that the most compassionate way is to be as straightforward as possible. Straightforward does not mean abrupt; it means not beating around the bush and making your spouse guess that you want a divorce.


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Finally, you'll want to be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Chances are your spouse isn't expecting to hear your news. People receive the news that their spouse wants a divorce in all kinds of ways — from shock to anger. And their reaction, whatever it is, will probably make you feel uncomfortable. Being prepared for this will help prevent you from automatically trying to make your spouse feel better in a way that makes them think your marriage can be saved if you've already determined it can't. The kindest thing you can do if you know you no longer want to be married is to be as certain of your decision as possible and to communicate that as clearly and compassionately as possible to your spouse. Trying to be nice by easing your spouse's grief and pain is robbing them of the ability to begin their healing and move on with their life. Being nice just isn't.

Here is your functional divorce assignment: Be clear about what you want. Spend lots of quality time becoming very, very clear about what you want from the marriage. The more clarity you have about what you want to discuss with your spouse the more respectful and kind you are being to them. Express your wants with compassion and boundaries. It's important that as you express your want to your spouse you do so with as much compassion and respect for yourself as for your spouse. Discussions about divorce are rarely easy, but you can make yours go more smoothly by:

  • Choosing a time and setting that will give each of you the privacy safety and time the discussion deserves.
  • Setting the tone by being straightforward and compassionate. Avoid beating around the bush.
  • Preparing to feel uncomfortable. Telling your spouse you want a divorce is uncomfortable in and of itself, but your spouse's reaction can exacerbate the feeling. By expecting to feel uncomfortable, you'll be better able to continue to be kind to your spouse and not fall into the trap of being nice.

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Dr. Karen Finn is a divorce and life coach. Her writing on marriage, divorce, and co-parenting has appeared on MSN, Yahoo, Psych Central, Huffington Post, Prevention, and The Good Men Project, among others.