How To Save A Marriage When Your Husband Or Wife Says, 'I Want A Divorce'

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When one partner wakes up one morning and says, "I’m done. I want a divorce," it’s not usually because they've just suddenly leaped to a decision.

Every time a sarcastic comment goes without being amended, a hurtful remark goes without repair, one spouse fails to acknowledge and attend to the other’s emotional needs, one partner refuses to have sex, one of your time and attention is shifted from the marriage to your career and other long-standing issues such as these occur, it takes another critical bite out of the armor that's supposed to protect your marriage.

The bond that holds a couple together chips away slowly, as a little more glue disappears and the couple’s connection is compromised.

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For years, many husbands blissfully ignore the alarms of discontent their wives are desperately ringing. After all, to him, the complaints don't sound like potential causes of divorce.

And eventually, when his wife "suddenly" announces she's moving out, the ground below a man shakes as though he's standing in the epicenter of an earthquake.

Of course, it's possible to fix a broken relationship and get it back on track — if you recognize and address the warning signs before it's too late.

Experts indicate that on average, one spouse first begins thinking of ending the marriage two years before finally taking action to initiate a divorce.

In the meantime, plenty of signals of trouble will be evident, and may include the following:

  • Lack of conflict resolution: Marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman refers to four behaviors that are the most common predictors of divorce as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If your wife no longer appears interested in resolving conflicts, this is a huge red flag.
  • Emotional disengagement: Emotional engagement is a minimum requirement for the maintenance of intimacy. If your wife is no longer interested in discussing her feelings, let alone yours, this is a bad sign.
  • Juggling family assets: Do your wife’s relatives all of a sudden need significant cash infusions ... from your joint bank account? Your wife may be "parking" money for the time being in preparation for separation.
  • Lack of sex: Sex is not only an expression of affection but also a way to reinforce your connection. If your wife is no longer interested in having sex with you, this is a strong indication that your marriage is in trouble.
  • Changing routines: Your wife no longer cares about the cleanliness at home, so you have to clean up after yourself. She doesn’t initiate intimacy and is no longer interested in sharing time with you. Or perhaps your wife has a new "private life" that you don’t have access to and starts avoiding your friends and family. Again, it's time to pay attention.

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Here are 7 steps to take if you think your wife wants a divorce.

1. Take the red flags seriously.

As family law attorney Andrew Feldstein told The Globe and Mail, "The pieces often don't fall into place until the blindsided spouse's first meeting with [a lawyer] after their husband or wife has initiated proceedings."

"They feel typically sick to their stomach," Feldstein says. "When you go through the facts and you realize a lot of these happened in the last few months before separation, they look at you and say, 'Did my spouse plan this?' And I say, 'There's a high probability that they did.'"

2. Ask your wife to share openly with you what you have done that hurt her.

Ask your wife to tell you honestly what it is you have done that's made her feel unhappy, and listen actively in an effort to truly understand.

When she expresses herself, take care not to become angry or interrupt with attempts to explain or justify her behavior. Perception is everything: the way your wife perceives her life with you is crucial.

Don't tell her she is being irrational or unreasonable. This will only lead her to think you don't care. And be careful not to exhibit indifference to her pain. Try your best to see things from her point of view.

3. Apologize.

When you have understood how you have hurt your wife, you can then apologize. Let her know that you are genuinely sorry that she has been hurt by the things you have done.

A sincere apology is the first step towards healing your marriage.

4. Take care not to be clingy.

As president of Marriage Helper, Joe Beam, states, "Nearly everyone tries it, but hardly anyone succeeds. Trying to keep the person you love from leaving you by pleading, begging, arguing, demanding, apologizing, or manipulating typically fails terribly."

Clinging behavior will push your wife further away.

5. Seek the help of a trusted third party.

Your wife may be adamant about leaving the marriage. If so, Beam also recommends that if you can’t convince her to stay, you might want to seek help from a third party.

"Ask that person to intervene in your marriage," Beam says. "It may be a pastor, a friend, her parents, or even one or more of your children (if mature). Ask the person(s) to spend time with your mate, to listen to her, and to do everything possible to influence her to agree to marriage counseling or our intensive marriage weekend workshop."

6. Consider marriage counseling.

If you can convince your wife to go for counseling, this will be the best way to increase the chances that you'll be able to work things out. If she isn't willing to go to marriage counseling with you, perhaps the person she trusts can help persuade her.

While the statistics vary, some sources report that traditional marriage counseling has a success rate of 70 to 80%.

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7. Offer a 'perk'.

Beam also suggests offering your spouse some material form of incentive for joining you in couples therapy.

"Many times in our workshop," he says, "people have told me that the only reason they came was that their spouse offered some concession in their pending divorce in return for their coming. Almost universally, I hear that from a person who during the workshop concluded that he wanted to stay in his marriage. 'I didn’t want to be here. She said if I came, she’d agree to _____ when we divorced. I’m glad I came. I see how we can work this out.'"

If you're skeptical about marriage counseling yourself, here are just a few reasons it's worth giving a try:

  • It's easier to work on your marriage in a low-stress situation
  • You will learn to communicate and understand your wife
  • You can secure a better future for your children
  • You may save money (yes, counseling costs money, but divorce is much more expensive)
  • If nothing else, you will feel certain about whether or not getting divorced is the right decision for you both

Above all, be patient. Patience buys time.

This will be one of the most challenging times of your life, so take things one day at a time. Even if your husband or wife seems in a hurry to dissolve your marriage, don't join in the race.

Time is on your side. Time provides you with the opportunity to demonstrate the changes you are willing to make.

Be sure to keep your emotions in check. When you feel your pain, anger, and frustration driving you to do something rash, resist the temptation to sacrifice the possibility of success for a short-term emotional outburst.

Bear in mind that for every action, your spouse will have a reaction. Positive actions are more likely to instigate positive reactions.

It is positive actions that provide a possible future for your marriage.

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Randy Skilton is a teacher and educator in the area of dating and relationships. He has a Graduate Diploma in Technology Education and an Advanced Diploma in Social Science.