When and How to Tell Your Spouse You Want a Separation

One of the most difficult parts of the separation and divorce process is telling your spouse that you want a divorce. How you approach telling your spouse can set the tone for what is to follow — are you going to have an amicable separation process or will you be going to “war,” litigating every single issue in court?

These suggestions are based on my experience handling over 1,000 divorce and separation cases over the past 34 years and witnessing how this first conversation between separating spouses can affect both their ongoing relationship as co-parents and past partners, and the outcome of their case.

Be Certain You Want to Separate or Divorce 

If you are conflicted about your decision to leave your marriage, you may wish to consult first with a marriage or family therapist, or a clergy member, to assist you in making your decision.  Once you take steps to separate, such as telling your spouse you want a separation and/or divorce, it may be difficult or impossible to reconcile, and you want to be sure that you are committed to your decision to proceed with the separation before taking the next step.

What to Tell Your Spouse When You Want to Separate / Divorce

Before you approach your spouse, consider carefully what you will say and where you will have the discussion. You want to be calm and discuss your decision in a way that results in the least amount of emotional damage to you, your spouse and your children. 

You should state your desires firmly and be direct, but also show respect and kindness towards your spouse in your discussions. This is not the best time to catalogue all the reasons your spouse “caused” this separation and you should not approach the conversation with anger. Now is not the time to blame or shame the other, but a time to announce your decision in a calm and business-like manner.

Be prepared for your spouse to beg you for a second chance; think through how you will respond to his or her desire to go to or continue couples’ counseling, or his or her threats that you will never see your children again, or you will be cutoff financially. Think through each possible response you are likely to receive from your spouse and practice in your mind how you will respond to threats, tears or indecisiveness from the other side. 

Also, be careful not to negotiate too many details relating to your separation at this initial discussion. In an effort to appease your spouse, you might commit yourself to terms of settlement that are not advisable or in your or your children’s best interest. If you feel uncomfortable discussing specifics of the terms of separation and divorce directly with your spouse, you should have your attorney make those offers of settlement at a later time.

Where to Talk to Your Spouse About Your Separation Decision

You should schedule a time to talk when you both have some uninterrupted time and your children are not likely to walk in on your conversation. Be sure your cellphones are turned off or are on silent mode so you have each other’s undivided attention. For safety and comfort reasons, you may choose to talk to your spouse about your decision to separate in front of a therapist, if you and your spouse have been engaging in marriage counseling, or alone together but in a public place. 

You may want to schedule a “business meeting” with your spouse at a quiet public place, like a coffee shop, where each of you drive to the public place separately. You can then always leave separately if one of you becomes overly emotional, upset and/or angry. If the discussion becomes emotional or overheated, either of you are free to leave the public place and go to a safer place until the other spouse has calmed down. If you have hired an attorney before telling your spouse of your decision to separate, consult with your attorney about whether to tell your spouse that you have an attorney. 

Take Initial Steps to Protect Your Interests and Assets Before Telling Your Spouse You Want to Separate 

You should gather together all relevant financial documents, such as tax returns, bank and other account statements, credit card statements and statements of retirement accounts. Make copies of these documents and store them in a safe place, such as your office or a safe deposit box. If you have access to online banking or other financial accounts, download records of any shared online accounts. After you tell your spouse you are leaving, it is possible that your spouse may change the passwords or codes to these accounts, and it may become more expensive and difficult for you to obtain copies before you separate. 

Once you inform your spouse of your decision to separate, he or she may take steps that make it difficult for you to obtain the information needed to negotiate a settlement. The file cabinet that previously contained the tax returns and bank records might soon be emptied. While you are entitled to this information if you have to file a lawsuit, you can save money and time if you can assemble copies of the information yourself. Otherwise, you will likely incur the costs of your attorney filing a lawsuit in order to subpoena the banks and other financial institutions for the documents you could have copied on your own with some advance planning. 

If You Think Your Spouse Is Cheating, Document Your Suspicions Before Asking for a Separation

If you suspect your spouse is having an affair, it may be wise to seek the assistance of a private investigator before you announce your intent to separate. Once you announce your desire to separate, your spouse may seek legal counsel, and his or her lawyer will most certainly advise a cheating spouse to assume he or she is being followed. Hiring a private investigator after you announce the separation might not be useful, if your spouse suspects he or she might be caught and starts behaving.

Always Talk to an Experienced Divorce Lawyer Prior to Telling Your Spouse Anything About Separating

Short of an event involving domestic violence and danger to your personal safety, you should always seek legal advice in advance of telling your spouse you are leaving him or her. The attorney may advise you to take certain steps prior to informing your spouse of your desire to separate, in order to protect your legal interests. These steps could range from hiring a private investigator, securing financial assets, obtaining copies of financial or other documents, securing employment, or making a plan for where you might live. 

You might even want to have an offer of settlement prepared in advance of telling your spouse, so that you can provide the offer of settlement to your spouse at the time you tell him or her of your decision. A NC state bar board-certified family law specialist can guide you on what to expect in the process and can provide you with options for reaching a comprehensive settlement with your spouse.

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About the Author

Robin J. Stinson

Robin Stinson, a board-certified Family Law Specialist, focuses her practice on all areas of family law and dispute resolution, including complex marital estates and financial issues in equitable distribution, alimony and child support cases.
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