Difficult Discussions: How to Talk About Divorce -- Without Getting Divorced

In The Dance of Connection, best-selling author Harriet Lerner explains that even if you're on the brink of divorce, you can use your hurt and frustration to actually turn your marriage around. Read this excerpt to find out how you can improve your relationship:

Don’t Threaten Divorce - Do Talk About It!

To say, "If these things don't change, I'm not sure I can stay in this relationship, " is to voice the ultimate bottom line. People threaten to divorce or break up in the heat of anger, which isn't helpful or fair. Nor should you bring up divorce as an attempt to punish, scare, shape up, or shake up the other person. And surely you shouldn't feel compelled to mention divorce simply because it passes through your head now and then. Many married folks entertain fantasies about divorce yet are far from acting on it.

That said, talking about divorce is important if you're thinking seriously about it -- even ambivalently. If you're going back and forth about it in your mind, you need to consider sharing your struggle with your partner. If you do eventually terminate the marriage, a partner will be better able to handle a loss that can be anticipated and planned for. Everyone has the right to know just how high the stakes are if they choose to continue to behave as usual. You owe your partner honesty about a matter that so deeply affects both of you.

I've seen any number of devastated men in therapy who tell me their wives left them out of the blue. The wives, however, claim to have voiced their anger and dissatisfaction for a long time. Both are right: he hasn't listened well enough; she hasn't shared her thoughts about divorce clearly enough or early enough in the process. Often the wife does not make a serious issue of divorce until she's finally made up her mind to leave. Any changes the husband then agrees to make are too little, too late. In the end, neither spouse has had an opportunity to test the potential for change in their marriage.

Exceeding His (or Her) Threshold of Deafness

Divorce is one of many issues that deeply affects a partner's decision making and future planning. On such matters, we need to make ourselves heard, rather than conclude that the other person can't hear. Sometimes the word divorce has been thrown around so much it's become a hollow threat, or your partner just can't imagine that you'd ever leave. When this happens, you need to push the conversation to an entirely different level to be heard.

While it doesn't help to over-focus on divorce, you can’t approach the subject in one hit-and-run conversation either. Some people absorb difficult information best in a note, so if spoken words aren't getting through, you can also put your thoughts down in writing. For example, a client of mine, Julia, recently wrote a note to her partner of nineteen years that said:

I'm writing this note because I don't think you're hearing me. Maybe I've mentioned divorce so many times in our fights that it sounds as if I'm just trying to threaten you or shape you up. That's not true anymore. You need to decide whether you want to work on our relationship and make some changes. But I don't think I can continue the way it is. On a 1-10 scale of divorce, I'm about at a 9. If nothing changes, I predict I'll be a 10 within a year.

4 Reasons to Why You Should Talk about Divorce

Here are four reasons why it’s necessary to make yourself heard if you’re seriously thinking about divorce:

  1. It’s not fair to conceal crucial facts that affect your partner. A spouse has a righ to know essential facts in order to think clearly about the present and to plan for the future.
  2. The loss of a spouse or a partner should never come out of the blue. Many couples constantly fight, blame, complain, and angrily threaten divorce - but never take action. That’s why, if you’re truly considering leaving, you need to tell your spouse/partner in a different way. You’d expect no less from your boss at work, right>? You wouldn’t want a supervisor to be criticizing you and giving you negative feedback when the the real message is, “These are the specific things that need to change in order for you to keep this job.”
  3. A partner will have the best chance of deciding whether to make the necessary changes (go to marital therapy, find a job, become a partner in housework and parenting) if he knows that the problems are so serious that you’re contemplating divorce. If you’re very clear that you can’t continue with the status quo, your partner will also be clear about his willingness (or unwillingness) to change and about how much the marriage means to him.
  4. Talking frankly about divorce will make the possibility of divorce more real to you. Doing so will ultimately add greater clarity to your own thinking, whatever path of action you choose.

A couple of caveats: Obviously , we should never mention divorce (or anything else for that matter) if there is any possibility that a partner will become violent or out of control. In such a case, we first need to seek appropriate help and ensure our physical safety. Nor is it wise to begin a serious talk about divorce if we suspect that a partner might do something sneaky with money that would jeopardize a fair and equitable financial settlement. In such a case, it’s wise to first consult an attorney. Finally, if you’ve already made up your mind to leave, it’s not fair to involve your partner in conversations that imply you’re still willing to work on the marriage.

Excerpted from The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You're Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate © 2001 by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from Harper Collins.

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