Telling your husband you want a divorce is undoubtedly the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do, and getting it right can set the tone for your entire divorce process.

Getting it wrong can add layers of toxicity that could take years to clean up.

The most important thing for you to know at this juncture is that this is not a “conversation”. This is a declaration. You are not asking for permission to leave your marriage. You will likely not get agreement on your decision, nor understanding. You will likely get a lot of pushback and argument, and it’s vitally important that you not engage in any of it. As soon as you do, you’ve lost control of the narrative.

Remember: this is not a point to be argued with. It is a statement of fact.

That being said, you should also lead with empathy and kindness. The grace you show the man with whom you’ve shared a life and children will go a long way towards creating a collaborative co-parenting relationship with the person you’ll be connected to for the rest of your life.

After coaching hundreds of women through this conversation, and having had it myself, here’s what I recommend as a step-by-step guide to the most important and delicate conversation you may ever have.

  1. Choose the right time. There will never be a perfect time. There will always be a vacation planned, or a birthday coming up, or an anniversary weekend. If you wait till the calendar is completely clear, you may never actually do this. That being said, you don’t want to have this conversation five minutes before the kids come home from school, or before dinner at your parents’ house. Find a time when you’re both calm and free of distractions. You may want to have your sister watch your kids for a few hours. If there is any risk that you may not be safe, you may want to go to a public place, like a park or a Starbucks, or have a close friend or family-member on stand-by.
  2. Start with empathy and gratitude. Start the conversation by showing appreciation for your husband as your co-parent and father of your children. Find a few things you can list that you’re grateful for. Some examples might be, “I’m so grateful that I get to co-parent with you.” or “You are an amazing father to our children.” This not only softens the blow, but it will create a container of kindness for the conversation as a whole, and make clear that you intend to have this go smoothly and peacefully.
  3. Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean. At this point, it’s time to actually drop the bomb. Don’t pussyfoot around it. Speak the words he needs to hear, but speak them kindly. It could be, “As you know, I’ve been unhappy in our marriage for a long time. I’ve been doing as much work as I can to determine if I can find happiness in our marriage, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply can’t and that I’m ready to move forward with a divorce.” While the word may feel like a bomb, it’s also the truth and hiding it won’t help.
  4. Keep it in “I” language. Keep all the blame out of this conversation as much as possible. The more you keep your words about your own feelings and experiences, the better this will go. When you blame the other person for their failings, their actions, or their lack of commitment, you walk yourself right into a back-and-forth about what’s true and what’s not, and this is not the time for that. When you keep your words about your own experiences and feelings, you can reduce conflict by a large margin.
  5. Prepare for what he’ll say. At this point, you probably know all the things your husband will pull out. I urge my clients to literally write out this conversation, as they know their husbands better than anyone. Usually people know exactly how this conversation will go. Often there’s rage. Sometimes there’s bargaining. There’s usually a last-minute hail-Mary begging to go to therapy. You can expect all the stages of grief to show up really quickly. You need to be prepared for this, and you need to not engage with any of it. What do you imagine your husband will say at this point? Craft a response that will guide the narrative back to your point. For example, “I’m sorry you’re angry. I know this isn’t what you want. But this is my final decision.” Or, “Divorce doesn’t screw up kids. The research shows that living in an unhealthy home can do far more damage to children. It also shows that children who go through a collaborative and healthy divorce with parents who are equally committed to putting them at the center of all their decisions go on to lead healthy and happy lives. I hope you’ll agree to go through this process with me in a way that won’t do any unnecessary damage to them.”
  6. Lead with empathy. You are not “asking” for a divorce. You don’t “want” a divorce. You are done with your marriage and will be filing for divorce. There’s an important distinction here. But this doesn’t mean you need to be a bitch, or aggressive about this; it simply means you are asserting your own rights as an individual to no longer be in a marriage that doesn’t work for you. And you can do so while also being empathic. Using words like, “I know this is hard for you,” or, “I’m sorry this feels like a shock,” (even if inside you’re seething that it shouldn’t be a shock) will help ease him through.
  7. Rinse and Repeat. During the onslaught of his emotional response your husband may make a lot of arguments against your decision. This is where the narrative can get lost really quickly. You may be tempted to counter every argument he makes against divorce. When he says, “You can’t make a unilateral decision for our family!” you may be tempted to say, “You’ve been making unilateral decisions for our family for decades! What about x, y, and z!” DO NOT DO THIS. Simply say, “I know you’re upset and this is hard for you to process. We both have a lot of processing to do, and a lot of decisions to make. But for now, I just want to be sure you understand that my decision on this is final.” Lead with empathy, then repeat your decision. (If you ever studied non-violent communication in parenting, you’ll recognize this pattern. It’s like telling a toddler that they have to stop playing, put on their shoes and go to the store. “I know it’s hard to put down your toys and go to the store (empathy), and you can come back and play later, but right now it’s time to go to the store (firm re-statement of fact).”) This step may go on for weeks. Try not to get frustrated, and hold your narrative. The only exception to this is in relation to your children, the response to which you can find in step five.
  8. Give him time and space to process the news. Remember that no matter how many times you’ve told your husband that you’re unhappy in your marriage, this will still be news to him. You’ve been building up to this conversation for months, years even. He has a lot of catching up to do. Give him the space to do so. Don’t file as soon as you’ve told him; if you try to move the process too quickly, he’ll be reacting out of his emotional shock, rather than making decisions from a place of acceptance — which is really where you want need him to be. Remember, you’re about to make the biggest legal and financial decisions of your life. Doing so in the midst of the biggest emotional upheaval of your life is a terrible idea, so let the dust settle before making any actual moves.

This is the hardest decision you’ve ever made, and the hardest conversation you’ve ever had to have. If you’ve been passive in your marriage, if he’s controlling, or at all emotionally abusive, this will be even harder for you to get through. With proper preparation it will be exponentially easier, and can set your family up for a much smoother transition.

Want more information on how to have this conversation, as well as all the other super-hard conversations that you’ll have to have throughout this entire process? The Divorce Survival Program has you covered!