Who loves conflict? Raise your hands. Anyone?
Most of my clients, and most people, generally, do not like conflict and tend to avoid it whenever, and wherever, possible.
In divorce, you’re not going be able to avoid conflict. Even in an uncontested divorce, where all the issues are agreed upon, there was still likely a hard conversation that started the whole process! One or both parties had to acknowledge that the marriage was over.
Being vulnerable and sharing what may be an unpopular perspective is hard. But, your life will not change unless you are willing to do so. You either live in service to your future or you sabotage it. If you do nothing differently, your future will look exactly the same as your past. I think it was Brene Brown who once said that the quality of your life depends upon the number of hard conversations you’re willing to have.
So, just how do you tell someone you don’t want to be married to them anymore? How do you say to your wife that you’re worried about her drinking, and are concerned that the kids are not safe around her? How do you open up a dialogue with your spouse about your fifteen year old daughter, who has started cutting herself? How do you request spousal maintenance (alimony) from your husband, when all of the major fights with him over the last ten years have revolved around how you spent money?
First, acknowledge that this isn’t easy stuff. Give yourself permission to be scared. Give yourself permission to have the hard conversation anyway.
Here’s the process that I suggest. It is an amalgam of several articles from several different psychologists and relationship experts, mixed with my own 18 years of experience as a divorce attorney.
#1. Ask your spouse for time to talk. Let him or her know the reason for the conversation. Don’t hide the ball. No one likes a heavy conversation sprung on them.
#2. Choose the place for the conversation. Some of my clients have the hard conversation with their spouses at home after the kids have gone to bed. Some have them over the phone. Other clients to go out to dinner at a restaurant that is quiet enough for a personal conversation, but in a public place where outbursts or reactions might be socially constrained.
#3. Set some ground rules. You may want to say “I would like you to listen to me for five minutes, without interrupting, and I will listen to you for five minutes, without interrupting.” You may also want to agree that there will be no swearing and no yelling. Make your expectations clear for how you want the communication to occur.
#4. Limit the conversation to the hard issue. If you’re going to tell your spouse that you no longer want to be married, don’t also bring up that he forgot to take out the trash this morning. I recommend not clouding the one major issue. It is too easy to get off on a tangent and avoid talking about the real issue.
#5. Have a soft start-up. What does this mean? It means saying “this is hard for me to say, but I need to share something with you” versus “you’re an a**hole, and I’m leaving you!” Gentleness goes a long way in a hard conversation.
#6. Focus on your feelings. Make “I” statements. Describe what’s happening for you. “I feel frustrated, because it seems like my needs are consistently unmet.” Keep it about yourself, and your needs and interests. Avoid blaming your spouse – “you never touch me anymore” is better stated as “I need touch and affection, and I’m not getting these needs met.” Blaming your spouse will raise his/her hackles, and the conversation will likely devolve into an argument. Your spouse will be too busy defending himself/herself, as opposed to hearing anything you have to say.
#7. Politeness and appreciation go along way. So does “I’m sorry.” A hard conversation can soften with a little acknowledgement. “My dissatisfaction with our relationship has nothing to do with our children. You’re a great dad to the kids.”
#8. Let your spouse have his/her response. Few people enjoy disappointing or hurting someone else. It is hard, even when a relationship is over, to sit with your spouse’s emotions. As long as the response doesn’t threaten or hurt you, your spouse gets to respond. Even if you disagree with the response, I suggest hearing it and acknowledging it. This sets a precedent of respect for future hard conversations, which you will be having, especially if you have children together.
#9. Suggest, and, if possible, agree upon the next steps. Maybe your conversation leads you and your spouse to decide to try marriage counseling. Perhaps your spouse acknowledges that the marriage is over, and she offers to contact a divorce attorney to get the ball rolling. Simply put, there’s some comfort in knowing what comes next.
Having a hard conversation with your spouse is difficult, under the best of circumstances. When the stakes are even higher, though, like when you need to broach the topic of divorce, it’s good to have a plan for how to best navigate the conversation. Use these nine steps to plan for, and successfully have, the hard conversations with your spouse.