Time to go, how to go?
August 5, 2012 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I think it's time for my wife and I to separate, but I have no idea exactly how to go about it. Help me out, hive mind.

Note: I've anonymised this as best I can; some details are approximate.

This was me.

Since that post, things have moved on somewhat. I've had an initial counselling appointment (my wife refused to attend, but has since agreed to come with me to counselling, though she is still unsure about how useful it will be). We are now on a waiting list for an appointment with a counsellor; hopefully we'll get an appointment before the end of August.

We've just had a long vacation with little outside-world contact, and it was pleasant enough. We rowed a couple of times, but not quite as terribly as we have in the past. But throughout the two weeks I couldn't shake the feeling that I was treading water, and that for me the spark in the relationship had died.

One of the things that I talked about with the counsellor that I saw was that over the last ten years that we've lived together we've had some horrible, horrible arguments, and that I feel like I've given us a lot of chances to sort things out - another thing that I covered was that, being an optimist, I tend to brush the bad stuff under the carpet; the realisation of just how much bad stuff there has been in our past was a moment of staggering clarity.

A couple of weekends before we went away on vacation I was at a work event. I didn't want to go but having recently accepted a new role it was unavoidable. When I returned, the first thing - literally the first thing - my wife did after greeting me at the airport was accuse me of sleeping with one of my colleagues who'd also been at the event (for the record, I hadn't done any such thing). This blew up into a massive row and I had a back packed and was ready to leave. I can't remember now why I didn't, but I know that this kind of thing has happened many times over the last 10 years.

A couple of nights before we went away, my wife discovered in one of my notebooks the notes I'd made when reading Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, and we had another massive row. She told me that I was too good for her, that I would be better off without her, and that I should leave her. She several times acted as though she was about to leave - packed a bag, picked up the car keys, walked to the door, etc. - but never actually left. Whilst we reconciled and eventually went away, I've realised that what I mostly felt when she was moving as though to leave was relief.

When driving home from our vacation another moment of clarity hit me: I don't think I want to spend the rest of my life with this person.

I know, logically, that what we need is to separate, at least for a few months, to work out how we really feel about each other. Tomorrow I leave for another work trip. I don't think it would be particularly fair of me to say "by the way, I want to separate" before I go, but neither do I want to find myself vacillating when I return. As I said above, I've become aware of my tendency to ignore the bad and only look for the good, and I'm scared that that will mean that I'll get home and get immediately back into the cycle of waiting for counselling whilst nothing really changes.

Moreover, when we've had big blow-ups in the past she's hinted at wanting to self-harm or worse, though never in a way that's actually endangered her (taking a safety razor to her wrists and being disappointed that the safety features did their job is the most recent example that comes to mind).

So my question, hive mind, is this: How do I approach telling my wife I want to separate? At the moment she is semi-hopeful about things - in between bouts of certainty that I'm going to leave, which seem now to be well-founded. I do still like her hugely as a person - I'm certain we would have been friends had we not been in a relationship - and I don't want to hurt her more than necessary (I'm aware that wanting to not hurt her at all is a spectacularly naïve desire).

What steps do I need to take to prepare myself to leave? A few considerations:
  • I don't have a large local support network. Actually I don't have any kind of local support network. All of my friends are distant from me. The closest theoretically supportive person to me is my Dad, some 60 miles away.
  • I earn pretty decent money, but couldn't afford much on top of what I pay in rent for our current home (my wife earns a lot less than me, and couldn't afford our current home on her own; I don't want to screw her over when I leave).
  • Whilst I feel terrible for having lead her up the garden path with setting up counselling, I still feel that we should go - not least because we're both going to need help adjusting to the separation.
Any advice would be appreciated. I also appreciate that some of you will think that I'm not trying hard enough to save my marriage, and that I should pay more attention to what I said in my vows. I'm finding this hard to square with myself, too, but I'd counter that I've spent 10 years telling myself that this relationship is all wonderful and fine and have only just realised that I've been lying to myself all that time. It's not that I don't want to save it - if I could be convinced that it would suddenly become the relationship I know that the outside world thinks it is, I would be happy to stay. I think, though, that things have gone too far for that now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Go on your work trip. If your wife is willing to go to counselling with you, make the decision about whether things are too far gone there. You have made a commitment to go with her, and you should honour that commitment.

If you are renting, when is your lease up? Do you two have any savings? You can both move out at the same time, or you can pay rent on the apartment for the X remaining months to give your wife time while you live somewhere else, or whatever. It would help to know how much time we're talking about here.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:12 AM on August 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Before you tell her you want to separate you need to go and see a lawyer to clearly understand what your rights and obligations may be.

The idea that you do not want to screw over your wife does you credit but she sounds prone to outbursts and drama and I am not convinced she'll show similar restraint so you have to allow for that and be prepared for it.

Therefore you need to find your key documents now and put them somewhere safe, outside your current home, so you can access them any time.

You also need to open a bank account in she doesn't know of and doesn't have access to and start to use that and work out where you're going to sleep if push comes to shove.

Then you tell her. How she reacts is not your responsibility. Stuff like accommodation etc will be sorted in time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:19 AM on August 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Use the appointment to tell her you are leaving. That will either calm her outbursts or allow someone else to step into the nurturing role she expects from you (and the role you are used to playing as her partner). If possible, leave the apoinment early to go home and grab essentials while she discusses options with the counsellor. You may want to set up several apoinments with the counsellor to have three way meetings about logistics/finances until she has accepted it.
posted by saucysault at 11:33 AM on August 5, 2012

I'd suggest you talk with a divorce attorney before you leave for your business trip. In fact, depending on how many assets that have accumulated while married, it might be a good idea to consult with every good divorce attorney in town before saying a word to your wife.
posted by 99percentfake at 11:42 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree that it's a good idea to talk to a divorce attorney, because they will know from experience what kinds of problems can come up, which will enable you to prepare and plan.

It sounds to my untrained ear like your wife may be depressed. Threatening self-harm is not normal. You can't be responsible for her mental health, but I would follow through on counseling for that reason.
posted by prefpara at 11:56 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

it might be a good idea to consult with every good divorce attorney in town

This will no longer prevent your wife from hiring those attorneys (depending on your jurisdiction) and is an ethically questionable move.
posted by prefpara at 11:57 AM on August 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

You do realize that sometimes a separation heals a marriage? This may or may not be the case with yours but you won't have to finally decide anything for awhile.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:06 PM on August 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know you want assurances and a "best practices" guide here, but... it kind of doesn't matter.

Yes, you should talk to a well-recommended divorce attorney. Yes, you should have joint counseling and talk about it there. Sure, it's ideal to talk about doing the right thing.

But I feel like the best thing you could do would be to immediately separate and make the drama stop. You will be met with resistance. (Saying "You'd be better off without me" and pretending to leave and then not leaving is the very essence of manipulation and drama.)

Why prolong this? It's not going to get any better. So she will have to move and you will have to move. She will have to earn more money or live where she can afford. Life will go on. There will be a divorce. It will be, by definition, unpleasant, and likely expensive.

Whatever dramatic actions your wife takes are entirely her choice. You cannot be responsible for what she does. She is a grown human being. You don't need to be a victim.

Also, you didn't "lead her down a garden path" with counseling. She refused to attend.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 1:10 PM on August 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

When I have had to leave relationships, I always felt better in the end -- could sleep better at night and was not haunted emotionally afterward -- when I acted in a way I thought was appropriate, crossing T's and dotting I's during the ending. It doesn't matter if Metafilter thinks you tried hard enough. It matters what you personally think.

You won't get a second chance to play out the next few months with your wife. If I were you, I'd be careful to figure out what you personally think is ethical end-of-relationship behavior, and what counts as having given a relationship your best shot during the time it lasted, and do those things, as per your own values. Some ideas if I were in your shoes (though I am not in your shoes!):

- Show up at the counseling appointment because you said you'd go
- Decide for yourself how many appointments are appropriate and necessary and stick to that plan
- If you think a separation is necessary before finalizing things, decide for yourself how many weeks or months is necessary and what steps you will take before, during, and after
- Stick to your plan
- If you're unsure of how long that is, get advice from your own counselor and trusted friends
- Obviously, don't start any new relationships until this one is terminated
- Make sure you have calmly communicated what is on your mind in a way you think is clear enough and appropriate
- Make sure you've waited what you think is long enough for her reply
- Protect your assets and get legal protection in a way you think is ethical
- Don't badmouth her to anyone else

In other words, when things are confusing and emotional, and you're dealing with a high drama situation, it's good to decide in advance on your own principles. Sometimes showing up, e.g. to counseling, feels like "going through the motions." Sometimes talking calmly to someone who is having a tantrum feels somewhat pointless. I have felt like that when ending relationships. However, in my experience, the long term result (6 months to 1 year after a breakup) was to be emotionally pretty well off, if I had acted with dignity and in accordance with my own relationship principles during the ending.


So as to your specific question, how do you approach her and say you want to separate? Calmly, without putting her down during the conversation, using as few unnecessary words as possible, listening to her response and answering her questions, while maintaining composure. At a moment when you are both calm and alone. Bracing yourself for a possible tantrum and a rough/long few months or year afterward.
posted by kellybird at 1:23 PM on August 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

For what it's worth, my ex-wife and I did a couple sessions of counseling after we split up, before we made the divorce official. The relationship was totally and irrevocably beyond help at that point. But the counseling was still helpful, if only because it helped me see that the relationship was beyond help — this wasn't some misunderstanding, there wasn't something I was going to be able to do or say to smooth things over, I could quit trying to fix shit and just move on.

I don't know whether my ex found the counseling to be psychologically helpful or not. I'm sure it had some practical value for her, though, since it finally got me to shut up and quit badgering her to come back. :)

So there are definitely positive outcomes from counseling that aren't "you stay happily married for the rest of your lives." Just something to consider.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:33 PM on August 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

What nebulawindphone said about counseling being useful to split as well as to stay together. It will clarify the situation and enable you both to make better decisions.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:49 PM on August 5, 2012

... there are definitely positive outcomes from counseling that aren't "you stay happily married for the rest of your lives."

I was about to post several paragraphs in this regard, but I'll spare you my advice in favor of 2nding what nebulawindphone already wrote.
posted by she's not there at 1:50 PM on August 5, 2012

IANAD, IANAT - if this behaviour has been going on for years and not just recently due to the prospect of you two separating, I would Google "emotional dysregulation" and discuss this with your counsellor.

It is important to understand that you are not responsible for your wife's behaviour and that it is up to her to get help. If she doesn't get help, then she's not holding up her end in the marriage (even if she does have ED). Threats to kill oneself in the context you've described certainly fall into ED, but it is also abusive if she fails to get help for such behaviour. Those with ED tend to not get help because of the shame associated with their feelings, but by not getting help, she's putting that ahead of her marriage.

FWIW, I have led a far calmer, happier existence by minimising the contact I have with people I know who have ED. It's sad, I would like to have better relationships with them, but I can't in order to protect myself.

The second thing I would do is talk to a lawyer. Both of these things you need to do before you talk to your wife about anything further.
posted by heyjude at 3:31 PM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

... there are definitely positive outcomes from counseling that aren't "you stay happily married for the rest of your lives."

Absolutely. Write these words down and carry them with you, if need be.

I would also add that another positive outcome from counseling can be helping you understand that ending a relationship is not a referendum on your decency as a human being. (I get the sense from your questions that you may be carrying this as an unspoken assumption or fear.) By the same token, of course, it's not a referendum on the decency of your spouse as a human being, either. It is a sad fact of life that sometimes -- and not all that rarely -- two basically good people with good intentions can embark on a relationship that turns out not to be built to last. Recognizing that you have a bad marriage does not mean that either of you are bad people.

At the same time, what RJ Reynolds says here...

Whatever dramatic actions your wife takes are entirely her choice. You cannot be responsible for what she does. She is a grown human being. You don't need to be a victim.

...is exactly right, too. Divorce is painful; there is no getting around it. But you are both adults, and as such you are not responsible for the potentially bad choices she may make in response to the pain she will experience when the marriage ends. You can end the marriage respectfully and honorably, and encourage her to seek whatever support she may be able to find in dealing with things. But at the end of the day, her choices are hers to make, just as yours are yours.

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that we each get exactly one finite life, and its purpose is not to be miserable.
posted by scody at 3:32 PM on August 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

I don't have any suggestions per se, but perhaps an example of something that worked well would help you think this through. So here is a bit about my divorce after a lengthy marriage:

My marriage was rocky for many years. Many times, I cried and screamed about wanting a divorce. He comforted and reassured me and would not leave. Then one day in the midst of an ugly argument we were having for approximately the 200th* time in about four years, I stopped yelling and calmly said:

"I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to hurt you anymore. I don't want to be hurt anymore. I think we have both given it our best shot. If we could do this dance, we would have figured it out by now. I want a divorce."

He heaved a sigh of visible relief, sat down next to me and quietly agreed. He told me he still loved me but it wasn't the same -- too much water under the bridge. In other words, too much baggage we couldn't resolve from when we were young and stupid. The divorce was amicable, far more than the marriage had been.

I proceeded to gradually move my possessions out of the bedroom and his into them. I eventually bought a sleeper sofa for my "office" and increasingly slept there. He proceeded to volunteer for travel assignments at work in order to make the process easier on us.

I hope that helps. Best of luck.

* Actual estimate, not hyperbole.
posted by Michele in California at 7:50 PM on August 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

My big thing in your post was this...

"When driving home from our vacation another moment of clarity hit me: I don't think I want to spend the rest of my life with this person."

You won't entirely understand what I am about to write. But it is relevant, nonetheless.


I had a shitty upbringing. It is MORE than fair to say that the relationship I had with NYC entirely than replaced any sense of family for me. I never thought I would leave there. NEVER.

On a trip back from NZ in 2000, for the first time, I was unhappy to be back in NYC.

That's when I knew it was done.


Everything that was fabulous and familiar about NYC I have not exactly replaced in the 12 years since I left. My life has not turned out as I previously pictured it would, since am no longer in NYC.

That said.

I have a better marriage and a better lifestyle than I had in NYC.

There is no replacement, my heart still breaks, but I KNOW I am lucky lucky lucky TODAY.

What I miss no longer exists! This is true for you, too!!


I see your marriage like my relationship to that powerful city which still defines my identity.

The truth is that the NYC I experienced is not there any more. It's OK that I moved on.

Just wanted to say that part of your story touched me. I remember that moment. I could not go back from it, either.

The future is out there. it's UNKNOWN.

Go get it.
posted by jbenben at 9:32 PM on August 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

The shitty thing about what I just wrote is that I don't know your wife's feelings.

Does she know it's The Last Stand?

Would that change things?

Might that be enough??
posted by jbenben at 9:41 PM on August 5, 2012

and I'm scared that that will mean that I'll get home and get immediately back into the cycle of waiting for counselling whilst nothing really changes.

Have you addressed this fear in counseling? And all the bad stuff that you have been sweeping under the rug for ten years?

Your wife sounds like a drama queen, whether she realizes this about her behaviour or not.

The way you address your fear and put a stop to her bad behaviour is by discussing these things that bother you in therapy and hopefully the therapist will have some things for your wife to start doing or stop doing. You hold her accountable to that. You also have a timeline on how long you are going to be in therapy if you want to make this work. IF you seriously want to give this a shot.

When driving home from our vacation another moment of clarity hit me: I don't think I want to spend the rest of my life with this person.
I know, logically, that what we need is to separate, at least for a few months, to work out how we really feel about each other.

So my question, hive mind, is this: How do I approach telling my wife I want to separate?
What steps do I need to take to prepare myself to leave?

You clearly want a separation and there is NOTHING wrong with that. However, it is unclear whether you want a "trial" separation or separate for good? Either way, given what you have written about your relationship and your wife's behaviour, I don't think you should feel guilty about wanting to separate. What you are being really unfair about is going to counseling on one hand and then asking internet folks on how to prepare yourself for the separation on the other. This is very, very unfair. And I think you should come clean ASAP, preferably in therapy sessions where you can address this. If there seems to be any doubt or concern that you are acting in haste, the therapist would (hopefully) call you on it. Your wife will also know about your true feelings and you don't have to agonise yourself over how to break this news. However, you really do need to come clean in therapy rather than go behind the scene and prepare yourself in advance. That's a sh**** move. You sound like a decent chap who can handle this better.
posted by xm at 12:41 PM on August 8, 2012

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