“I want a divorce,” your wife says, and suddenly your whole world turns upside down.
What should you do?
First, don’t panic. The threat of a divorce, though it may seem like an atom bomb dropped right in the middle of your marriage, isn’t always a guarantee that things are truly over. Plenty of relationships have teetered on the brink of divorce and yet survived.
But don’t minimize this – your marriage is in big trouble if your wife is threatening to end it.
Depending on how you feel at the moment she says this, you may not want to respond in detail right away. If you are feeling very angry, furious and likely to shout and say things you will regret later, then it’s best to just calmly acknowledge what she’s said and leave the room to find a quiet place to calm down and think about your response. Shouting angrily at her, or throwing and breaking dishes or furniture – even if that’s how angry you feel – isn’t constructive.
Shouting and hitting and breaking things, however, may be just what you need, provided you can do it somewhere in private. Violent anger should be expressed, but in a safe place and a safe way, a way that doesn’t hurt either you or the people around you. Going to the gym for a hard workout can really help you let some of that fury out. Put on some boxing gloves and punch the heavy bag for forty-five minutes – that will help. Or put on your trainers and go run a few miles, or a lot of miles. If you want to break things and get in touch with your inner Neanderthal, find a remote place where you can pick up rocks and smash them on each other, or something appropriately primal.
Dealing With Mixed Feelings
If you’re feeling tremendous despair or shock, it’s also probably a good idea for you to take a bit of time to regain your equilibrium. Listen to what your wife has to say and then find some privacy to calm yourself down. Remind yourself that this crisis is not an inevitable end to your marriage. Rather, it is an opportunity to address and fix the problems in your relationship.
Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings, expressed them, and gotten a bit of a grip on yourself, it’s time to sit down with your wife and hear her out. It may be painful, but it is vital that you let her express her reasons for wanting a divorce.
During this talk, if I could, I’d advise you to get a piece of duct tape and put it over your mouth. But that’s not realistic. However, you should act as though your mouth were taped shut! By this I mean listen – really listen, as though your marriage depended on it, which it does! It will hurt, and you will probably feel the urge to speak up, to argue with her, to point out where she’s wrong, and to defend yourself from all her accusations, whatever they are. But bite your tongue!
It might be a good idea to agree to some ground rules for this divorce conversation with your wife, to keep you both safe. Perhaps you could use a timer and take turns talking. One person talks for three or four minutes, while the other one says nothing at all, not a single word, no eye rolling, no hand gestures, nothing at all. Just listening. Then you switch roles.
This is vitally important for saving your marriage, if that’s still possible. Your wife must feel like she has really been heard. She must get a chance to say everything that is on her mind, without interruption, and she must feel like you have attentively listened to what she’s said and that you understand how she feels. You may not agree with everything she says, but that’s not the point right now. Few married people ever agree with each other about everything. But you need to listen, at least.
Often, just the catharsis of expressing all her frustration, fear, anger and sadness will help your wife feel better about your marriage, too. Even this conversation alone may reassure her that there is some hope, something worth fighting to save. That’s what you want. So let her talk, while you listen.
Once she’s spoken, it might be a good idea for you to take another break to think about what you heard. Rather than launching into a point-by-point rebuttal, just say, “Thank you. I’m going to take some time to think about all of this.”
And give yourself the time you need, whether it’s an hour or a day or a week. Think about what she’s said. If there are serious issues and you are to blame for some of them, then you will want to own up to your part of the mess and assure her you will take steps to clean things up. Many different issues lead to divorce despair – be honest with yourself about what’s going on. If you’ve lied or cheated, own up to it and figure out how to get the help you need. Some problems you can address on your own, while others, such as alcoholism, abusive anger, physical violence, excessive addiction to pornography, adultery, drug use and gambling might require professional help, either from a therapist or a support group. Talk openly to your wife about the steps you’re willing to take to repair and revitalize your marriage.
They don’t all have to be punitive or negative steps, either. Make a promise to invest more of yourself in your marriage, and keep that promise. Plan some fun, romantic activities together with your wife. Go out and have a few adventures together. Dine out, see a movie together, take a cooking class, anything like that. Put your phone away when you are with your wife and stop checking it during dinner or while you should be talking to her and listening to her. Change your own attitude towards your marriage. Write down a list every morning of things you are grateful for about your wife and your marriage. That will help remind you that you love her and you are happy to be married, and over time, that will change your attitude. She will notice the difference.
The threat of divorce is shocking and frightening. But if you take it as an opportunity to change both yourself and your relationship, you will find that this doesn’t have to be a disaster.