How To Ask For A Divorce, According To Renowned Psychoanalyst Dr. Robin Stern

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Ending a marriage is difficult under any circumstances — and starting the conversation can feel daunting. An expert offers insight and prompts to help.

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There are those who want a divorce, and then there are those who need a divorce to survive. I was that second person. Two years of couples therapy made it clear I was dealing with two different people — the person my husband showed up as in sessions, and the person I was dealing with as soon as the car door shut.

Still detangling from my evangelical past, I found myself stuck in a conversation loop in my head: "It could be worse. More grace. I don’t have a bruise on my body. More faith. Maybe I should give this more time and space. What if I’m wrong?" A therapist helped me identify the cycle I was in, pointing out that the window of calm in my relationship was growing smaller and smaller. The walls were closing in. It was time to get out. I remember the moment I chose to prepare my exit… only there was now a new mountain in front of me. I had to ask for a divorce.

How do you ask for a divorce, exactly? I didn’t know how to approach it. But here’s what I’ve learned.

First, think ahead.

"Emotionally and psychologically prepare yourself," Robin Stern, Ph.D. and co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, shares with Scary Mommy. As a licensed psychoanalyst with 30 years of experience treating individuals and couples, she claims that when the choice becomes clear, there are ways to prepare for this life-altering conversation and even some prompts you can follow.

To start, she suggests planning out your "time, place, and space" to have this talk. Ensure that there will be minimal distractions and that it will just be the two of you (if safe, of course). And if kids are involved, find somewhere else for them to hang out.

Preparation is key. If your situation is stable enough, do what you can to avoid having this conversation on a whim.

Make sure someone knows what’s about to go down.

If you have a therapist, inform them that "the talk" is coming. Then, "talk to a family member or close friend about possible scenarios," Dr. Stern says, "so that you are prepared for various reactions."

It may be wise to role-play the different ways this thing could go so you know what to do if the switch is flipped. Take extra precautions by giving a friend or family member a time to check in with you to ensure everything went as planned.

Prepare for backlash.

If this is your first time initiating a conversation about divorce, "be prepared for backlash from a potentially blindsided or an angry spouse," Stern warns. *If psychological and/or physical safety is at stake, make a plan for who you and your kids (if any) will stay with in the immediate aftermath.

If you have a reactive spouse, don’t go into this thing naively. I lined up all the safeguards I could, even using the word "separation" for safety until I had created enough distance to use the word "divorce." Make sure you have the support system you need in case all hell breaks loose. And consider that a conversation is a courtesy you don’t have to extend to an abuser. Sometimes, having a third party present to help announce you’re leaving is the only option.

Have ways to self-regulate.

"Use self-regulation strategies that have worked for you [in the past] to remain as calm and present as possible," Stern advises. For me, that was focusing my attention on a photo of my kids. Also, I consciously breathed slower when I felt my heart rate rise. You can always take a break. Go to the bathroom. Get a drink of water. It’s OK to take five.

Understand you may immediately doubt yourself.

"Understand that you may have some uncomfortable feelings such as guilt or doubt once you have started the conversation," Stern shares. Many people stay in dead/toxic relationships to avoid the pain divorce brings. Divorce isn’t fun — I was grieving my relationship long before I ever asked for a divorce. I looked for any glimmer of hope not to go through with it. But I knew. And so do you. Remember all your moments of clarity when you want to cling to what you feel is comfort.

The day I asked my husband to move out, I immediately felt a wave of doubt. So strong that I almost retracted my ask right then and there. You have to go into this conversation circling the reasons divorce is on the table. You have to remember your why. Write it down. Read it in the bathroom in the middle of your conversation if you have to. You can do this.

Think just as much about the end as the beginning.

"Think about how you want the conversation to end," Stern recommends. "Prepare for how you want to close the conversation just as much as how you want to begin; if you need to be the one to walk away, how will you do it?"

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to break the ice, never enough time on how we’ll pick up the pieces. Each situation is different, of course. Be sure to communicate your needs. Let your soon-to-be ex know what they can expect. You’ll both need space to process so you can get to the last part: logistics.

Save logistics for a second conversation.

"If possible, delay the talk about logistics. Save that for a different — perhaps a next — conversation," Stern suggests.

The topic of divorce is emotionally charged. Telling your partner "it’s over" will leave you gutted no matter how hard things have been. Neither of you will be able to plan out what your next few steps should be — things like who will go where, who will have what, how to split time with the kids. Let what just happened sink down deep. Then, in full acceptance, move into that next conversation.

The Bottom Line

Asking for a divorce is hard. It’s scary. Prepare the best you can, but understand that things will be messy. They’ll be messy for a while. At least there’s some sound advice out there on how to get through it!

Big thanks to Stern for advising us on this tough topic, and for leaving behind these prompts as guidance for those who don’t know where to start:

  • I’ve thought about this for a long time.
  • I’ve been unhappy for a long time.
  • I do love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore
  • All the working on it just hasn’t worked.
  • I wish it could’ve been different.
  • You are a wonderful father (or other relevant title), but I don’t want to be married to you anymore.
  • I still care about you, but I have known for a while now that our marriage is over.
  • Our marriage is over.
  • I know this will be tough for us and the kids, but I want a divorce.
  • I know I have put up with the same as you for a long time, but I just don’t want to do it anymore. I want a divorce.

For me, it was, "When is this going to start feeling like the miracle you say it is? It’s been years of being slowly erased. I’m afraid I won’t have anything left if I don’t leave now."

Peta Jane Kayes

MBA - Human Resources Management, Author, mother, wife, my passion is relationships and healthy living.

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