Is it cruel to leave my spouse in the midst of *gestures at everything*?
June 18, 2020 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I've decided I no longer want to be married and need to tell my husband. I brought it up tentatively right before Covid hit and we went into lockdown. I've been in a terrible limbo ever since, and I'm finding it difficult to decide when and how to talk to him.

Background: Cis-het couple, late 30s, no children. No shared assets besides the house, which we've only been in a couple of years. We've been together since I was 21 (15 years) and July 4th will be our 5-year anniversary. I want to say something prior to that date because I'm not sure I'll be able to fake it, and I would hate to have this conversation on our anniversary AND create negative associations with the holiday.

My reasons for leaving aren't relevant to the question at hand, but he knows why I am unhappy. I told him about 4-5 months ago that I was at a breaking point and that if it didn't get better, I may need to move on. This was a soft introduction to the topic of divorce, but I knew in my gut that I had already made up my mind. We met once with a therapist who neither of us liked—then quarantine hit.

Things are fine day-to-day. We get along great and enjoy each other's company; we make great friends. That being said, I am still 100% sure I want to leave. He is in blissful denial; he doesn't want a divorce, and has been pretending, maybe even overcompensating, to maintain the illusion that everything is fine. He is extremely sensitive (and to be honest, I think has probably conditioned me not to bring up difficult conversations) and I know this is going to hurt him immensely. He has friends, but doesn't rely on them much for emotional support and for Covid reasons, there aren't many opportunities to leave the house right now. I know if I found someplace else to stay, he would be stuck at home, depressed and lonely. He's also currently unemployed for the foreseeable future until the bar he works at opens back up. It seems like a terrible time to leave him, both emotionally and financially.

But I have also been dealing with the weight and guilt of these feelings for three months, and it feels like it is eating me away from the inside out. I know I need to say something, but I don't know when or how. Should I suck it up until he goes back to work so he at least has something to keep him busy and will possibly be in a better mental health space? Or should I tell him now?

If I do tell him, I know I will probably need to make arrangements to stay elsewhere for a while. I can't imagine it would be in either of our best interests to have this conversation but continue living together, would it? I do plan to tell him that I will go to counseling/therapy to talk through the separation if that is something he wants. I will also eat the costs of living arrangements for a few months until he goes back to work.

TL;DR: Is it cruel to leave my spouse in the midst of global chaos? Should I pretend things are fine until he is in a better headspace to accept the news?

Feel free to message if you need more details or don't want to answer publicly. Thanks in advance for your advice!
posted by a.steele to Human Relations (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Since none of us knows how long this will go on, if you decided to wait it out, you could be waiting a year or more, which sure seems like it would be really hard. From what you have said here, it sounds like you are being very considerate. Breakups are just a bad time, but that doesn't make it wrong to leave someone.
posted by ITheCosmos at 1:08 PM on June 18, 2020 [15 favorites]

It's more cruel to stay. It sounds like he knows, and that dance of pretending you see is probably covering up some awful feelings. You know for sure you're leaving. Let your spouse (and yourself!) start healing and moving on as soon as possible, life is too short to wait.
posted by hought20 at 1:23 PM on June 18, 2020 [16 favorites]

Well, I would not wait. I did not wait. I am currently living with a 10-year-relationship ex but we are lucky we have enough space to manage, and we have remained friendly. And honestly it's easier financially for both of us and sometimes that matters a lot.

It's true the pandemic could last a long time and even then, there will never be a great time for it. If you feel friendly toward him, which it sounds like you do, maybe you could manage to tell him and yet both manage to live there for a while yet? Either way, telling him sooner rather than later if you are sure is usually best for everyone. Sorry you are dealing with this. It really sucks.
posted by Glinn at 1:32 PM on June 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

Yes it will be cruel. It is also very cruel to both of you to hang on. Basically you can’t sit still and you can’t move without inflicting some pain.

And let’s not kid ourselves that it would ever be possible to do this without inflicting pain. If anything the distraction of the coronavirus may give him something else to think about.

You’re right you shouldn’t live with each other after this conversation. Have everything set up and ready to go, and rip that Band-Aid off.

(BTW, given the simplicity of your position I strongly recommend that you both get mediators and settle everything out of court.)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:47 PM on June 18, 2020 [8 favorites]

I think you should do what you need to do, and it sounds like you need it to happen now.

One of the most insidious things women are taught is that we're responsible for ensuring that the men in our lives are kept happy and emotionally stable. But you're really not responsible for that. He's a grown-ass adult man, and you do not have to privilege his feelings over your own.
posted by invincible summer at 1:48 PM on June 18, 2020 [82 favorites]

One of the most insidious things women are taught is that we're responsible for ensuring that the men in our lives are kept happy and emotionally stable.

So very much this. Our separation was the thing that finally prompted my ex-husband to start seeking and prioritizing his own happiness and emotional stability.

I have been largely where you are, minus the pandemic, but even then I can say with confidence that it will not be less painful for him later on when things may or may not have improved, believe me. And while "blissful denial" is a form of magical thinking, it also absolutely sounds like he knows it is coming (i.e. the overcompensating). I would do it now.
posted by anderjen at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2020 [13 favorites]

He is extremely sensitive (and to be honest, I think has probably conditioned me not to bring up difficult conversations...

Should I pretend things are fine until he is in a better headspace to accept the news?

It sounds like your dynamic is such that he will never be in the right headspace. One way to respect him is to stop keeping quiet about your feelings just because you think he can’t handle them. He is an adult and is responsible for his own happiness, just as you are for yours.
posted by sallybrown at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2020 [12 favorites]

Don't wait for the right moment. There is never going to be a right moment. The sooner you do this, the sooner you (and he) will be able to start the process of healing.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:59 PM on June 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

Relationshipwise it's going to be awful no matter when you do it. Waiting indefinitely will probably not make it any better.

However, I would be concerned about (a) having somewhere to leave for permanently as soon as you drop the bomb, and (b) what happens to him when he's unemployed and suddenly getting divorced.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:01 PM on June 18, 2020

You already brought up that you were unhappy - he knows what's coming. As for how to bring it up with him, you don't need to bring up again how unhappy you are. You own property, so you do need a lawyer. Go get one. Listen to what they have to say. The conversation would go something like this, assuming you have done your legwork in advance: "Husband, I have been unhappy for a long time, and I am leaving you and filing for divorce. I'll be moving out this weekend."

It is not cruel. His headspace is not your problem to solve. You are not responsible for his feelings, even if he has conditioned you to believe this is so. The pandemic is irrelevant to your level of (un)happiness and it should be irrelevant to your plan to get happier. You can still like someone you are getting divorced from as a person and not want to be in a marriage with them anymore.

If your husband can't afford the house but you can, you can ask for it in the divorce settlement. If neither of you can afford the house singly, you can agree to sell it and split the proceeds. Let a lawyer figure it out, please get a lawyer. You deserve to have your rights protected by someone who represents your interests. You don't know how he will react to being served divorce papers.
posted by juniperesque at 2:03 PM on June 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

Tangential but make sure you speak to a lawyer about the divorce ASAP. And collect all pertinent personal documents and items and take them with you, if you decide to stay elsewhere for a while. You don’t want to make this more complicated legally and logistically than it has to be.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:30 PM on June 18, 2020 [8 favorites]

Don't wait for the right moment, because as others have said, there's never a truly "right" moment for this. My soon-to-be-former spouse and I decided to split in February. He moved out 10 days after the decision was made and we've stayed friends since. The pandemic has actually made the "being friends with the ex" part easier, because we both like to help others, so we've been very amicably handling and navigating all the things that need to get done together (for example, I gave him our car, and he uses it to do grocery runs and pick up our CSA farm shares and then drops off my portion).

Since you have a relatively simple asset situation, I second the recommendation above to proceed via mediators if you can, or even something like LegalZoom, if you can both agree to terms and an uncontested divorce. (YMMV with regards to what your state allows, assuming you are in the US.) If there is even a little bit of disagreement on terms of the divorce, get a lawyer.
posted by bedhead at 2:34 PM on June 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine recently broke up with their partner of 10 years. They asked a question which they regretted, which was "how long is it since you loved me" and the answer gutted them: way way way too long ago. (They acknowledged it was a silly question to ask but they wanted to know, but it still hurt. )

Don't provide false hope, it just makes things hurt more later.
posted by freethefeet at 2:36 PM on June 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

The consensus in the therapeutic/divorce support circles I'm currently part of: if you're 100% certain you want to divorce, the correct time to tell your spouse is *right now.* As in, get up from the computer and tell them. A big part of this rationale is that as/when it becomes apparent that you've made this decision *in the past* while living together without disclosing your decision, you're depriving your spouse access to the same information, and the same amount of time, to process the coming change. The longer this period lasts, the harsher the disdain can be that comes from it (e.g. spouses who are told "I've been unhappy for X years and I decided Y years ago that we're going to divorce but I'm just telling you this now" routinely bring up how difficult it is to watch their soon-to-be ex coolly handle themselves, since they've had Y years to process their decision, while they themselves are starting from square one—its not an arrangement that fosters compassion or understanding because it is not equitable).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:47 PM on June 18, 2020 [57 favorites]

I think it's cruel to yourself to stay. You deserve better than that!
posted by capricorn at 3:44 PM on June 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

My ex and I started the process of disentangling our lives and separated for the second and final time a year before the pandemic hit. We were about to start concretizing our plans for moving on when social distancing and lockdowns began. My ex lost their job; my current partner lost their job; their entire family lost their jobs. I've been providing some level of support (ranging from grocery deliveries to paying for internet to paying all the bills) for folks in multiple households. I still wouldn't say wait. Be as kind and compassionate as possible, given all that's going on, but have the conversation and start talking about what that looks like and taking steps. Yeah, my divorce has been postponed because of the pandemic, but I feel like I've done my best to be deliberate and act with integrity in difficult times, and my ex and I are friendly. At some point in the next year we'll probably be able to totally go our separate ways, but for now, yeah, I'll end up paying for that ER visit they had to have this past week. So it goes.

It is frustrating at times to have to remain in this limbo, but we're far from the only ones who are dealing with that now. I think, for what it's worth, a lot of people are taking a hard look right now at what life looks like and what they want to do with the rest of it. You are far from alone. Read the stories on the Social Distance Project. Then have the conversations you need to have. It won't be fun, but it's necessary. Good luck!
posted by limeonaire at 4:07 PM on June 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

When it's time, it's time. Talk to a lawyer, decide whether it should be him or you that moves out, and start.

And check your memail.
posted by medusa at 7:45 PM on June 18, 2020

I just got dumped (We were not married) during this time. It is not cruel to leave now. Just focus on logistics of lockdown and how to gracefully transition.

I assume he’ll respect how long you tried to hang in there. I feel this way and it has made me more accepting of the end. I think everyone in Shaky relationships is asking what if any changes they want to make as this progresses. That’s reasonable.
posted by Freecola at 8:57 PM on June 18, 2020

I knew in my gut that I had already made up my mind.

This alone makes it more cruel for you to stay. You may no longer love him, but I think you owe him this final bit of respect.

I'm sorry that you're experiencing this right now, and I wish you so much strength moving forward.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:57 PM on June 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

This was a soft introduction to the topic of divorce,

There is no such thing. There is no such thing as a soft break-up in general, but there is especially no such thing as a soft "introduction" to a break-up. A soft intro, particularly one left to drop, is unkind because it is talking to yourself and not the other person, knowing that you know what it really signifies and pretending that means he knows, too. maybe you needed to do this as out-loud self-talk to work yourself up to it--fine. we need that sometimes. but that's all it is.

I told him about 4-5 months ago that I was at a breaking point and that if it didn't get better, I may need to move on.
but I knew in my gut that I had already made up my mind

He is in blissful denial

you cannot deliberately deceive someone by implying that you will stay if this unnamed or unnameable thing gets better, when you say you "knew in your gut" that this was not the truth and that you were going to leave anyway.

He is not "in denial" as some kind of state he inflicted on himself. you denied the truth to him.

sometimes people have perfectly good reasons for doing this, like fearing for their lives from an abuser or not having any place to go if they leave. If you were just holding it in until you worked out where you were going to go, fair enough. otherwise, you are right to feel guilty but you are feeling guilty for the exactly wrong reason. His "hurt' or depression after you leave him is none of your business and not in your control or possession. The only thing you will be responsible for after leaving him is having held out a possibility of reconciliation or things getting better when you say you knew that possibility didn't exist.

tell him the truth. as the people say, the best time to tell him the truth was the first time you knew it in your gut and were 100 percent sure. the second best time to tell him the truth -- which, again, unless he is a danger to you, you owe to him -- is right now. It isn't cruel to leave him if you know you're done, but it was cruel to stay for months after you did know.

and if I were you I wouldn't be promising to spend money on breakup counseling if you know he's going to be hurting for rent soon. I don't know whether you owe him any help after you leave, but if you want to help him, do it with something that counts.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:00 PM on June 18, 2020 [14 favorites]

I stayed in a long-term relationship which made both me and my partner miserable for way too long, because I was sure that he still loved me and was still invested, and therefore I would be a monster if I ended it. And our lives were so intertwined that separating them seemed unthinkable. So instead I sank deeper and deeper into a depressing rut in which I let everything in my life run on autopilot while I told myself that everything was fine and our relationship would magically fix itself any minute now. Because I couldn't be honest with myself or with him.

This was not a good idea, and if I had a time machine I would go back and tell Past Me to stop being stupid. When I think back to all of this now I just feel an incredible sense of relief that I no longer have this unhappiness constantly gnawing away at me.

There is no way to end this without hurting him. It's still the correct thing to do, for both of you, and the longer you draw it out the worse it will feel in the end. You are not helping him by not doing this.
posted by confluency at 2:33 AM on June 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

A followup: if you are concerned that leaving him now will place an unfair financial burden on him, make a plan to split your shared wealth in a way that is "fair" given your current difference in income, who is keeping what furniture and appliances, and so on. It sounds like you're already considering something like this. But try to do this once and then make it a clean break; don't get stuck in a weird and uncomfortable bond of financial obligation which isn't likely to be pleasant for either of you. It's inevitable that splitting one household into two is going to have a financial impact on both of you, and it's important to budget for this.
posted by confluency at 2:41 AM on June 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

You should move out as soon as humanly possible—like today, if possible—but, definitely before July 4th. Staying isn’t helping anyone, it’s just prolonging the pain for both of you.
posted by blueberry at 3:37 AM on June 19, 2020

I would first recommend you get yourself a collaboratively-trained lawyer to review with you what steps to take now in case things turn south, but also how to proceed legally if it does turn out amicable (like, right now, in my jurisdiction you would have to pay him spousal support for up to the next 15 years which for some passive people turns into them never becoming self-sufficient).

Next, get yourself your own therapist; you need someone to talk to and if you lean heavily on friends and family they can meddle and make the situation much, much worse. You would then be ready to tell him it is over and have a conversation about how he would like to proceed. If he is open to it, get a separation coach so you can work out together what is fair for everyone (dm me if you want a recommendation of someone who does virtual appointments and is fantastic at a very reasonable price). Don't date. It isn't fair to you or any new partner.

Good luck in building a life of your own, you'll look back in five years and be happy to took control now, but I'm not going to lie, it will suck for the next little while.
posted by saucysault at 8:26 AM on June 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

So, I guess I will be the dissenting voice, as someone who ended a live-in relationship of many many years about...oh, 72 hours before the pandemic lockdown? We knew *something* was coming and I knew I had to make my choice right then, or hold my piece until *something* was done. And I decided to make my departure.

Don't do it.

Your situation sounds almost identical to mine except that we were not married: no kids, shared home, he's unemployed because of the pandemic (my ex partner was actually employed when I left, but lost his job due to the shutdown about a month later). Before I left, he said, it's the end of the world, can't you just hang in there a little longer?

And you know what, he was fuckin' right.

It is's so hard. It's doing both a breakup AND a pandemic on Ultra Mega Lethal Hard Mode. Three months later we are both still fully in limbo because of the logistics of renting apartments in a pandemic. It's impossible to move on because there are no fucking PEOPLE in our lives -- I don't mean just to date, but like, even to talk to. We've both been basically on the brink of full collapse ever since.

It was hard before I left. I had honestly only made up my mind maybe a week or so beforehand, but I was unhappy for a long time and I thought that was the hardest possible thing, and I was wrong.

I appreciate that it's cruel to stay with someone when you don't love them anymore but honestly, if there is any level of love and caring there I think this current situation is actually different. Don't lie to him, don't make him believe your feelings have changed and that you're happy now. I'm not saying you have to stay until every last COVID case is gone from the Earth or anything. But if you have it in you to think of yourself as his partner in pandemic, my vote is to stay at least until he can leave the fucking house and hug a friend*.

*will he actually do that? Not your problem. But he'd have the option.

Anyway. Obviously I'm in no position to judge you if you do leave, but since you asked, my advice is not to.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:40 AM on June 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

If you have the space to turn your current situation into more of a roommate kind of thing until the outside factors settle down, it would be worth consideration. Only you know whether that is something you and he could handle, but given that you've already broached the topic and yet still get along day-to-day, it seems like a possibility.
posted by wierdo at 1:14 PM on June 19, 2020

I know exactly what you mean by "conditioned me not to bring up difficult conversations": I've been there, felt that iron wall commanding me to stay silent, I know you're not making this up or imagining it. The force-field that some people are capable of generating around themselves is real. And your husband is absolutely responsible for creating it.

But your relationship and your partner are entitled to honesty from you. It's cruel and disrespectful and morally wrong of you to silently build up a reservoir of grudges against him while allowing him to pretend that everything's fine... and then, when your reservoir is full, to blindside him with, "Hi, I want a divorce and that's final."

Would you want someone you utterly love and depend on to treat you like that?

Heck, can you imagine if a faceless bureaucracy treated you like that?

Like, say you're terrible horrible very bad no good library patron. One time you lost a book. A few times you racked up late fees. Another time you lost a DVD. But your library never mentions it. You kinda want to think it's one of those progressive libraries which don't charge late fees or something? But wait, there was that one time when the librarian said, "Hey maybe you should think about paying off your fines?" And you're all, "Oh! I have fines? Ughhhh. I hate this. How much do I owe?" And the librarian is like, "It's COVID time, bye!"

And you're confused? But also hopeful that maybe you have a temporary reprieve?

And now, three months into COVID, the library suddenly sends you a legal notice banning you from entering the premises ever again for the rest of your life and has started legal action against you to collect all the back fines you owe them.

They gave you no warning. There was no transparency about these charges. The fines never showed up on your account. Nobody communicated with you that what you were doing was against library rules. In fact, you notice that in addition to late fees and lost book/DVD fees, you're being charged for things like "walking into the library wearing open toed sandals," - shit you didn't even know was a rule? You had no idea you were racking up all these fines all these years.

Do you think that's a fair way for the library to treat you? What if the library were to claim in court: "This patron is blissfully unaware of all the rules they are breaking. This patron loves to pretend that everything is hunky-dory with the way they use the library. This patron makes it difficult for us to tell them they have fines." -- Would that be fair, do you think, for your library to say?

Look - I know you aren't an evil person, you are not intentionally cruel to your husband, but you have to recognize that the way you have handled this so far IS really wrong. You've been lying to him about the status of your marriage. You've been judging your marriage by secret rules that he is unaware of.

He was wrong to do all that shit which caused the fines to be racked up. You are also wrong for never telling him he was racking up the fines. It would be very different if he was abusive or manipulative or unsafe in other ways: it's not your responsibility to risk your safety in order to be honest with him. But in the circumstances you describe, it absolutely was and is your sacred responsibility to be honest, even if he has the "lalala no bad news" force field around himself.

If you're interested in doing the right thing and being as kind as possible to him now? Two possibilities, and both of them involve you recognizing and owning that you really messed up when you nurtured secret grudges instead of being honest:

1. You nurtured secret grudges instead of being honest, therefore in your conversation where you end the marriage, you will be 100% direct that you are ending the marriage AND you will fully accept the blame for the marriage ending. (Yes, yes, it's not all your fault, but that's not the point. The point is that you're trying to be kind and cause less pain, therefore you won't place any blame on him.)
  • You'll say, "Our marriage is over. I'm sorry, I will not change my mind. I know I'm blindsiding you. I'm sorry I never found the courage to be honest with you before. There have always been issues in the marriage for me, which I know I should have brought up to you earlier, but I didn't. And now things cannot be fixed anymore. I'm sorry."
  • Then you'll sit there and make room for his process and his questions and his feelings without arguing with him or making him feel bad or expecting him to forgive you or expecting him to empathize with your side of things.
  • You will not bring up your list of complaints against him when you break up, even if he asks for this list. You'll be scrupulously honest with a particular focus on not blaming him and acknowledging your mistakes: "Well I hold all these silent grudges against you for the time when ____ and that other time when ___. In my mind, all this has been adding up into a story about how bad a husband you are. If I had brought up my complaints before you would probably have addressed them. I wish I had. But I've let the grudges build up to the point that I can't stay in the marriage anymore."
  • You'll say in a gentle tone: "Our marriage is over, and I won't change my mind. I'm sorry." You'll say it over and over if necessary. Every time he says, "Maybe we can...," you'll interrupt him to say this.
  • You'll understand that this may not be one conversation. You may need to take a break if one or both of you is losing it. Then you'll come back and finish the conversation.
  • It's your job to restart the conversation after such an interruption. You'll say, "Hey, let's continue talking if you're feeling ok?" or "Hey I'll give you a few days and then check in with you on Sunday?" - and then start up on Sunday.
  • Ideally, the conversation ends when he has: (a) been told the marriage is over (multiple times may be necessary) AND (b) heard some of the grudges you were keeping from him so it's not a complete mystery to him, AND (c) had a reasonable chance to process and express his feelings to you (think 1 hour of denial, disbelief, respectful anger, bargaining, and sadness.... definitely not namecalling or yelling or you having to sit through 15 hours of his emotional process!)
2. You nurtured secret grudges instead of being honest, therefore you realize you never actually gave your marriage a chance at repair. You understand that no relationship can survive a partner who does not communicate their issues. You understand that refusing to communicate is your way of protecting yourself, not something you were forced to do by your partner: it is easier to feel silently wronged than to make yourself vulnerable by baring your hurt to your partner! That's only human! But radical vulnerability is guaranteed to improve your marriage AND your divorce (whichever you end up doing). You commit to giving therapy a shot and being 100% honest about your needs and your grudges, vulnerable about your hurts, and humble about you mistakes. Then if it turns out that your husband is incapable of meeting your needs AFTER YOU HAVE BEEN HONEST, you will know that you gave your marriage the respect it deserves, you'll know you were not cruel or dishonest or passive-aggressive, and will be able to leave with a clean conscience, without having to take the blame, without having to do all that lopsided emotional labor from (1), feeling free rather than guilty. (FYI therapists are working online during Covid, this pandemic is not an excuse to quit therapy.)

Oh and as for the timing re: the pandemic? I don't think it matters. If your marriage is over, it's over. Larger world events don't stop personal life events from happening. Like even if one of you is in dire straits and need the other to survive, that's still not a reason to pretend everything is fine! You can say, "We're getting a divorce after this crisis."
posted by MiraK at 2:35 PM on June 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

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