Divorce is on the table. I put it there. Now what?
October 9, 2020 10:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for personal stories of how you navigated the time in between when the possibility of divorce was broached, and it happened (or didn't). How long did this time go on? Was couples therapy involved? Do you have any tips? Personal situation within.

Here's me: cis-het woman, married to husband for five years, together for almost ten. We are in our forties, and we have two children under five. A bit over a month ago, I told my husband I am unhappy and have been considering divorce.

My issues with the relationship are of long standing. Many have been there since the start. If something's changed, it's that as I have gotten older and especially become a mother, I'm increasingly less convinced of my ability or desire to deal with them. (They are rooted, mostly, in my husband's attitudes and behavior, sometimes his very personality.) I have mentioned all these things before, sometimes pleading for change, but I've never been this explicit. I'm not just saber-rattling, here. I can't imagine growing old with him; the thought of being separated brings me relief; I think co-parenting will be hard, but I can't bear the thought of this relationship being the way I model love and intimacy to my kids, who will sooner or later realize it's neither very loving nor very intimate. And I just simply can't imagine him changing thoroughly enough or quickly enough to make me want to stay.

Several months ago, I got into therapy. The therapist strongly encouraged me to let my husband know I've been seriously contemplating divorce, and I did tell him. He was blindsided and quite upset. I had been so focused on delivering the message, I didn't have a game plan for what came next. I'm continuing to see my therapist. Husband agreed to go to couples counseling with me, and we've been three times so far.

I find myself in a strange space I don't know how to navigate, and I'm wondering what other people have made of it. I'm 95+ percent sure that I want to divorce. That's not really what I'm asking about. I'm curious about how others have dealt with it, this liminal zone between when the topic of divorce has been broached and a firm decision has been voiced—especially when one party wants to split and the other doesn't.

If you've been through this, how long did it last? Did it include couples therapy, and if so, how did you use it? My husband is very much not a therapy guy, not adept at talking about his feelings, and he would be very content to let this all "blow over"—I think his wish is to just kind of hunker down, stay the course, and hope that I give up all this talk of divorce at some point. So when it comes to therapy, I'm scared of getting talked into returning to something I just know in my heart isn't working. Sticking up for what I want when it's in conflict with what someone else wants is NOT where I shine. That said, I would LOVE if therapy could help us achieve something we haven't on our own—an understanding of how we got here, some real acknowledgement of each other's suffering and how we've both contributed, a clear-eyed look at what life post-marriage, as coparents, could look like. (So far I've only gotten variations on "You might as well kill me, my life will be ruined if you leave.") As much as I want out, the impulse to just leave *right away* feels a little hasty or fantastical.

How did you get from "I'm considering divorce" to "I am divorcing you"? Especially if one party wanted it and one didn't? What did you consider yourself to "owe" your spouse—clarity ASAP? Time to process it? Something else? At what point did you do any of the following: move out, hire a lawyer, hire a mediator, tell the kids? How did you try to do the right thing when nothing you could do felt especially right?

I went on a lot about me, but really, it's your stories that will help.

Throwaway email: amazing.plastic.hen@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hi! I'm recently separated, on the path to divorce, and it's my second. Man, this is not something I want to know a lot about, but at the moment I do.

Under what circumstances would you stay? What constitutes that 5% of NOT wanting to divorce? You need clarity there.

If there is something he can do to make it work, it would be kind to be very clear about that. If there is nothing he can do, maybe that'll get you through that last 5%.

The reason you have a gap between putting it on the table and actually asking for a divorce is because you are theoretically giving it a chance. If you are not actually giving it a chance, get very clear on why you're delaying and why you're doing therapy.

The thought of letting him get around to it himself or get comfortable with the idea is not a terrible one, but it may not work out that way. There's also benefit in working on your communication and relationship because of coparenting, definitely. However, the longer it takes while you are certain you want to leave, the more unkind it will be and the more it will cause dissonance for you.

I know what you mean by "fantastical." It absolutely does feel that way beforehand, yeah. That's because this is a huge decision and a huge life change.

Practically, the first thing you do when you are ready is hire a lawyer, and they will advise you along the way. A mediator is only going to be useful if your husband's all in, otherwise you will want a lawyer (getting a lawyer does NOT necessarily mean litigation, however). As for telling the kids, I say do that when you and your husband are ready to do it together, with kindness. If you never reach that point, well, there are a lot of books out there that have advice around this stuff.

Please feel free to memail or email me, my email is in my profile.
posted by hought20 at 11:29 AM on October 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

I gave my ex husband three ultimatums before I finally left. Three chances to do the things that would make it worth my while to stay. Three times he fixed his act for two weeks, tops, before starting to backslide again. The first time I waited and cajoled for months, hoping. The second, I waited and cajoled for a couple weeks. Once the third backslide started, I knew I was out, and all I waited for was the right time to tell him we were done for good. He left the day after that conversation to sleep on a friend's couch "for a week" to process things, and ended up only coming back to get his stuff when he got his own apartment.

Hope that helps. My recommendation: figure out what you would need to stay and ask for it. If he can't do it, leave. If there's nothing he could do... Then yeah, move forward and pull that band-aid off. My friends and co-workers all mentioned that I seemed lighter the week after that conversation, even ones that didn't know the specifics. And I did feel so much better and lighter having things moving forward rather than sitting in can-I-make-this-work purgatory. Divorce is hard, being single (in COVID times!) is hard, but trying to make a shitty relationship work was harder.
posted by bridgebury at 1:04 PM on October 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've gone through this recently, but without the kids, which obviously makes a huge difference. We decided that a physical separation was the way to find out what we really wanted. The relief that both of us felt during the separation period made it more or less obvious that divorce was the answer. So I guess I would say that, if separation is possible, give it a try.
posted by nosila at 1:05 PM on October 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was about where you were three years ago. There were things I wanted changed. I had been asking for changes for years, but nothing ever really changed. Then one day he did yet another thing that I had talked to him about not doing. I had a clear thought, "This will be easier without him". I was at 100%, and I haven't gone back on that. I walked back over to him, told him that I was done. He had no idea what I meant. It was another couple months that I told him I wanted a divorce. I never told him I was considering it - he was blindsided and still thinks it's not "fair" that I never gave him another chance. From my perspective, he was not asking for a 2nd chance. He was asking for a 500th chance. The kids were both under 6.

If you've been through this, how long did it last?
Still not divorced, but working on it. I have a long long list of the meandering timeline... Basically he's done everything he can to draw things out, and the only time progress is made is when I assert myself. It's a skill I'm working on.

Did it include couples therapy, and if so, how did you use it?
We talked to one therapist who would “only work with us if we wanted to stay together” – that was a no go for me. Another guy we talked to was clearly advocating for my ex. I spoke up about this. We only attended two sessions together. I didn't want to work on the relationship and that's the only thing my ex wanted to talk about. My ex found another therapist later, but given their specialty, it was clear his goal was reconciliation still, and I refused to go. I would be willing to talk to someone about co-parenting and communication, but it seems like the therapy is more targeting to folks wanting to work things out.

So far I've only gotten variations on "You might as well kill me, my life will be ruined if you leave."
I have gotten a lot of this too. That's part of the reason for all the delays, because I was scared that by moving too fast, I would be a widow, not a divorcee... Per Lundy Bancroft in "Should I Stay or Should I Go?: A Guide to Knowing if Your Relationship Can--and Should--be Saved" this is emotional abuse. I read this book, and I felt like I could finally name all these things that I saw happening in my relationship. It was helpful for me.

What did you consider yourself to "owe" your spouse—clarity ASAP? Time to process it? Something else?
Honestly, I don't feel I owe my ex anything. He requested a letter "explaining" what went wrong. I wrote something, but I never felt safe to give it to him. I'm clear on my reasons for myself, but that doesn't mean I need to share that with him.

At what point did you do any of the following: move out, hire a lawyer, hire a mediator, tell the kids?
  • Get a lawyer: 5 months before filing, but I talked to several lawyers a year before that
  • Move out: 2 months after I had the basic custody agreement, and it was legally OK for me to safely move out without jeopardizing custody
  • Tell the kids: As soon as I had the custody agreement. I got them books from the library about divorce. I especially liked the one from Mr. Rogers.
I've been lucky. I know very strongly what I want. Here are some resources that helped solidify that what I wanted in different ways:
  • The Marriage Decision: Everything Forever or Nothing Ever Again - I think the decision to marry has certain parallels with deciding to divorce. The most helpful bit was the question about, "If you could push a button and have everything in the divorce done and behind you, would you push that button?". I'll let you guess my answer
  • Love Is Respect This website is targeted for teenagers, but it had such a wonderful description of a healthy relationship here.
  • The fable for adults: "The Bridge" by Edwin Friedman. My therapist had me read this.
That's a little bit of the journey I've been on. I'm still in the middle of it. I am happy I've listened to my gut/intuition. I'm glad that I'm standing up for what I want and need. Even though I'm not divorced yet, I'm so so happy I moved out. It feels right, even if it's hard.

Best of luck. Feel free to memail me.
posted by skunk pig at 1:13 PM on October 9, 2020 [16 favorites]

I had quite a similar trajectory to my divorce. By the time we tried couple's therapy, I was completely checked out of the relationship, and the only thing keeping me there was the idea that I had to at least try everything before giving up. As you mention in your question, that was my notion of "doing the right thing."

One thing to remember is that the goal of couple's therapy is not necessarily to save the relationship at all costs. It may be for each of you to consider what you need out of a relationship to be happy, and understand where there are gaps in your compatibility. Maybe those gaps will be irreconcilable.

I mildly regret that we obtained a therapist through my ex-husband's corporate employee assistance program. Therapists working with EAP are often under a mandate to "give you the tools," essentially to DIY your own relationship fixes, within a brief number of sessions. Ours was three. It was not nearly enough time, and the things that came up during our sessions only served to really piss me off and solidify in my mind that divorce was the only way forward. I didn't feel that I owed him anything. He made his position clear, his disrespect for me, and I felt he should be able to figure shit out himself if he was capable of any self-awareness or introspection. I wasn't about to try spoon feeding it to him.

The process that gave the most clarity for me, was a trial separation. In our jurisdiction, a year separation is required anyway before you can file for divorce. I really thought I would miss him. I actually hoped I would miss him. Long story short, I did not miss him at all, it was a relief to have the time and space away from him. And the longer we stayed separated, the less I could see us ever getting back together.

There was not a single moment where I felt like, "Gee, it sure was nice to wake up next to him or have him ask about my day after work," or "I took for granted what a good husband he was in many ways." There was NOTHING. And I knew then that it was really over. I think it was different for him. There were times when he called me miserable and crying, and that was awful, but not in the way I thought it would be. The thought of seeing my current partner in so much emotional pain makes me want to cry. But seeing my ex like that only gave me this horrible empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I think we spent only about 2-3 months on save-the-relationship mode. Not very long at all considering our relationship spanned almost ten years. It's been several more years since, and I still have no regrets whatsoever, and I am a person who overthinks and regrets almost anything, including ordering X sandwich instead of Y sandwich.

We decided that we would still be friends, and that worked surprisingly well for a few months until his lawyer got involved and wanted to change the terms that we had originally worked out for dividing our assets. That was the most painful part of the whole thing, and it destroyed any chance of an enduring friendship. We don't speak anymore. That probably made things easier in the long run, though it would not be possible with kids.
posted by keep it under cover at 1:19 PM on October 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

If you are in individual therapy and couples counseling, and he's not in individual therapy, then I suggest asking him to do that. I had been in therapy for a while when my ex and I went into couples therapy, and it was a lot easier for me to talk about things. This made therapy harder. I felt like I was faking it.

It took years from those counseling sessions to my decision to divorce. We stopped counseling partly because of scheduling reasons but probably also because I wasn't really committed to counseling.

I can't imagine growing old with him; the thought of being separated brings me relief; I think co-parenting will be hard, but I can't bear the thought of this relationship being the way I model love and intimacy to my kids, who will sooner or later realize it's neither very loving nor very intimate.
This is sad, and also a pretty good reason to divorce. My understanding is that it might be better for your kids if they are younger.

That said, I would LOVE if therapy could help us achieve something we haven't on our own—an understanding of how we got here, some real acknowledgement of each other's suffering and how we've both contributed, a clear-eyed look at what life post-marriage, as coparents, could look like. (So far I've only gotten variations on "You might as well kill me, my life will be ruined if you leave.")
This strikes me as extraordinarily unrealistic. If you're 95% ready to go, and he's saying "kill me now," then you are not going to achieve this outcome. He has a lot of emotional work to do, including grieving this marriage. It sounds like he's in total denial. You are hoping that counseling will not only bring him out of denial but essentially teach him emotional intelligence; help him grieve his marriage; and help him get past that to have a rational conversation about post-marriage life. You are wanting counseling to make him want to end the marriage. He might not ever want to end the marriage. That's not up to you. He might not be ready for any of this ever.

Even though my ex and I had had problems for a long time, I think he was shocked and surprised by my decision. It hit him very hard. That's not something you can prevent. It sounds like you are so ready to move on that you've done a lot of grieving this relationship already. He's not there. He might not ever be.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:05 PM on October 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

So, a classic book on divorce that I think might be useful to you (despite its ableist title, sorry) is Abigail Trafford's Crazy Time. It looks to me as though you and your spouse fit very well into the pattern Trafford sets out, where one partner (you) is a long way ahead of the other (him) in the emotional process of dissolving the marriage.

That said... my divorce didn't fit Trafford's tidy pattern at all. For one thing, I broached the topic of divorce a whole entire decade before it actually started happening. I let him talk me out of it... but nothing got better, and indeed things worsened as he built up new defensiveness and new barriers and new dislike of me, and as all my motivation to save the marriage devolved into cold and resentful dutyboundness.

When I did finally offer up the possibility of divorce again, the ex and I swapped places in Trafford's unlovely race quite a bit, as our relative desires to recommit or to split rose and fell. It was (for me, can't speak for him) a painful, confusing, draining, and lonely time. (Occasionally, nearly two years after the divorce became final, it still is.) I spent a lot of it numb and going through the motions due to emotional overwhelm. (As though the dissolution of a 20-year marriage wasn't enough, other stuff happening at work was messing me up too. That at least got better!)

Neither of us wanted counseling enough to make the effort to make it happen. For my part, that was because I'd had to make everything happen for us for close to thirty years and I had just plain hit the wall on doing any more of it. Ultimately another instance of him demanding to mooch off me was when I lost all doubt. I gave him what he asked for -- and got busy on filing divorce papers.

For what it's worth, I wish I'd stuck to my guns the first time. That extra decade didn't do me any good at all, and if I'd gotten out then I'd have a much better chance of finding companionship again than I do now.

Best advice I have: say or do whatever you have to say or do to and for yourself to commit to being done. I think, from what you've said, that you're five-nines done rather than a mere 95%, so wishy-washing the way I did won't help any of you. As for what counseling might accomplish for you both right now: if you don't have one of the counselors who is save-the-relationship-at-all-costs (and if you do, discontinue that counseling right away, as it's a waste of time, energy, and money), reframing into figuring out how to co-parent might be useful.

Good luck. MeMail me if you want.
posted by humbug at 5:21 PM on October 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Once you reach the point where there is nothing he could do that would make you change your mind -- and you are there, is what I think you're saying -- every day you stay and don't file for divorce will be an extra bit of cruelty in retrospect. you told him you were thinking about it, but you didn't leave, so now he thinks or hopes or pretends to hope you didn't mean it. The only way to prove you meant it is by doing it.

obviously there are plenty of practical and financial things to get in order before physically leaving, especially since you have kids. but in an ideal world you would tell your partner you wanted to leave; you would stay long enough to answer all their questions about why; you would let them make a counter-statement of sorts (whether it be 'Good, I hate you too,' or 'I want you to know this will destroy me' -- unless there's a threat of violence or history of abuse, you do have to let them respond, and unless he has a standing pattern of suicide threats or retaliatory self-harm, him telling the truth about the pain he's in is not emotional abuse.)

and then you're out. once you're sure, the time between saying it and doing it should be measured in hours, not days or weeks. Therapy for co-parenting guidance post-divorce might be useful, but marriage counseling is a bad thing when you know the marriage is over and he doesn't.

That said, I would LOVE if therapy could help us achieve something we haven't on our own—an understanding of how we got here, some real acknowledgement of each other's suffering and how we've both contributed,

oh no. jesus, no. this isn't for him, this is only for you. explore this in your individual therapy, and really come to terms with the fact that you will be liberated, not him. you cannot therapy him into sharing your post-divorce goals, you don't need to, and it's unfair to him if he thinks giving the right answers will get you to stay. you want him to know and say that it's aspects of "his personality" that drove you away? you can't ask that of someone.

btw I assume he is objectively at fault for whatever made the marriage intolerable. it isn't that I think you shouldn't leave him. but the longer the delay between announcement and action, between contemplation and follow-through, the more it gives the illusion of a final failure on his part. as if he had this one last chance to get you back, this final probationary period, and fucked it up, on top of fucking up the marriage overall. but if it's a done deal in your mind, that isn't true.

As much as I want out, the impulse to just leave *right away* feels a little hasty or fantastical.

It's not. it's the only decent thing. unless you have a past history of making impulsive decisions on a grand scale that have done damage to your life. I mean like a pattern of self-destructive urges or manic episodes, something consistent and recurring. If not? just do it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:02 PM on October 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

I would not want to stay with someone who was 95% sure they wanted to divorce me. Staying won't help him.
posted by emjaybee at 10:29 PM on October 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

Child of parents who divorced. And I told my ex-husband that we were separated and getting a divorce when my youngest was three years old.

The two bits of advice that my mother gave me, and that I give:
1. You can only divorce the man you married
2. If you are not sure at the beginning, by God, you will be sure at the end.

as to 1. If he is a pig during the marriage, he is not going to get better during the divorce
as to 2. Getting married is much less complicated and takes much less effort than untangling the marriage and getting a divorce which is major hard work, most of which you will be stuck doing. And you get to see your ex at their most spiteful and vindictive, so that ruins the rest of the relationship.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 3:55 AM on October 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

The denial/begging/wishful thinking will turn on a dime. As in literally, on Friday he'll be talking about where to go for Thanksgiving given COVID and Saturday morning, gone, and plenty often, gone to the house of the girlfriend you didn't know existed until that morning.

Some variant of this has happened many times I've seen, and every time the wife who put the divorce on the table is shocked and dismayed. Don't be her.

Besides being ready for this emotionally, be ready for it practically. Dividing your joint account money into separate accounts is a good idea. Have enough funds to pay for your lawyer's retainer and a long while's expenses, because he can stop his direct deposits immediately, while you may never be awarded or support or it will take months to do so.
posted by MattD at 3:41 PM on October 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've been exactly where you are, three years ago. I would advise you to put everything into the hands of the marriage counselor... in the sense that you need to stop trying to stage-manage this process.

You go into the session, you speak your truth no matter how scary that may be. You have to literally say the words, "I am 95+% sure that I want a divorce." And also the words, "It seems crazy and fantastical to make a plan to leave the marriage right away." And all the rest of this post.

You have to be willing to allow everyone else to have their own reaction, whether that's anger or shock or sadness or panic or whatever. And you let yourself react honestly also, for example, say, "My husband's fear or sadness or anxiety or anger or pleading or stonewalling makes me feel scared that I won't have the courage to leave even though I really want to leave." Stop trying to calculate the consequences of your words. You do not have to manage your husband's feelings for him. You don't have to fix him or change him or make him feel better or help him accept your decisions or get him to understand your reasons. Let go of this huge burden and be authentically present in the couples' therapy, taking each moment as it comes and being honest the whole time.

That's what I mean when I say you should not stage-manage this process: you have to let go of your need to control what happens inside of other people's hearts or minds. Let go. You must commit to staying 100% in your own skin, taking responsibility only for yourself. Put everything else in the hands of the professional who knows how to guide you both through this, whatever the outcome.

During your marriage you have taken some responsibility for his emotional wellbeing, and rightly so, but now is the time to disengage. Emotional boundaries must go up.


In my case, I said I'm 95% sure I want to leave and we went to couples' counseling. Within about 5 weeks, it became clear that even though he was totally desperate for me to stay, he was not willing to make even the most basic changes. He gritted his teeth and made one small change for three weeks before it all became too much for him, and he blew up at me saying it was ~so unfair~ that I was making him jump through hoops to keep me, what did I think of myself, etc.

I took the next three weeks to make my plan to leave, and then I told him I'm done for good. He had a massive meltdown - a real crisis - and quit going to couples' counseling. So that ended, while I continued with my individual therapy. He had no help. Least of all from me. I just stood back, refused to argue, refused to give any more reasons or help him understand, adopted a businesslike cordial attitude, and let him come to terms with it.

During those weeks I went to a lawyer and drafted my own separation/custody agreement, etc. After two weeks, when he was calmer but wellllll before he could convince himself it had all blown over, I showed him the draft separation and custody agreement I had drawn up based on internet research and one initial consult with a lawyer. Cue another meltdown, this time a suicidal crisis because the agreement draft made it all too real for him. Another two-three weeks of businesslike cordiality, and I told him I had found an apartment and I would be moving out within two weeks. And then I did move out, even before the custody/separation agreement was officially signed. (In spite of all his difficulties, I knew I could trust this guy not to screw me or the kids over, we had basic trust in spades.) From start to move-out, that was a little over 5 months.

It took another 3 months to hammer out a separation agreement and officially sign it, and then another 2 months to file for divorce, and 8 months after that my divorce was granted. But really, it was over when I moved out. BY FAR the most stressful part was living with him while he was in crisis, alternately in tears begging me to stay or else cursing at me and lashing out angrily. It was a really tough time for him, but it was also very hard for me... I had to maintain an iron discipline, never argue, never get angry myself, never respond to his threats or cursing, never take the bait, never even explain or try to make him understand. I was DONE. That meant I had to stand back and let him find his own way to deal with it. Disengaging from him was the kindest thing to do but it was seriously hard. I could not have gotten through it without my own therapist helping me through.

Within a year, thanks to the same iron discipline from me ito keeping every single emotional response OUT of this relationship, we were amicable exes capable of co-parenting excellently together. We still are, three years later. The kids have benefitted immensely because of our ability to focus on them rather than on our divorce.
posted by MiraK at 3:21 PM on October 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

I would add to MiraK's excellent post that it's wise to be prepared for reactions and assertions that are... not reality-based, is the kindest way I can put it. In my case, some of the "wait, WHAT?" stuff from him was criticism aimed directly at me -- some of it passive-aggressive, some of it actually (emotionally, not physically) aggressive-aggressive -- and some of it was just... decidedly original... views on the world in general and our relationship specifically.

He'd had a very few instances of wildly unfair and cruel lashing-out critiques of me before, but impending divorce made them commoner.

Unless the issue (and whom he's spouting it to) is genuinely material to the terms of your divorce, do not react, do not try to correct, do not engage -- do what MiraK suggests, gray-rock it all the way. If you find yourself falling under the nonsense spell, I suggest either bringing it up with your therapist (not the marriage counselor; that's unlikely to help) or a good friend who can offer perspective.

I had to gray-rock my ex all the way through the actual divorce process and even a bit beyond. He was still trying to convince me I'd miss him, my issues with him weren't valid, and he was a real catch at the meeting where I took out a mortgage to pay him his half of the house value. (I don't, they were, and he isn't. What I miss about the marriage is complicated, but nothing to do with him.)

This wild time does end. I promise you that. You'll get to breathe deep again.
posted by humbug at 8:47 AM on October 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

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