“I want a divorce.”
These words are dynamite and have the potential to blow your world apart.
Society has a very polarised view of marriage. The expectations for each partner are set out in our culture and there is a duty to comply. The partner being left is often cast as the victim and the partner doing the leaving is the villain.
2/3 of divorces in the UK are petitioned by women. Society views this negatively and divorce is still a taboo subject for many people.
Marriage is a very private space, and no one on the outside really knows what occurs inside the relationship. Your reasons to want to leave are valid and you will not have made the decision lightly.
There are numerous reasons for difficulties to arise in relationships. Problems with communication are common. This can make having the conversation about divorce challenging. There are strategies, that you can use to make that conversation easier on you and your partner.
The following account is my personal experience of breaking unwelcome news for the first time. It illustrated some useful learning points for me, which I think are helpful for anyone who is faced with having a difficult conversation with another individual.
In my 30-year practice as a doctor, I have broken unwelcome news to many patients and their relatives. It is hard and not something that I find easy to do.
I can still remember vividly the first time that I had to break unwelcome news to a wife. Her husband had sustained a severe head injury and was brain stem dead. He was being kept alive by machines and had no hope of survival. It was 1st January 1993.
I was 23, and a newly qualified doctor. The skill of breaking bad news was not something that we had been taught or practiced as medical students. I had no experience of how to do it. It was a skill that we were expected to learn through watching more senior doctors and then putting our learning into practice over time. Or not, as I was soon to discover.
The ward round ended, and the consultant neurosurgeon told me that I had to tell the patient’s wife that her husband was brain stem dead and ask if she would consider donation of his organs.
He went home to enjoy New Year’s Day with his family. I was tasked with delivering the news that would change her life forever. I stood rooted to the spot with fear.
I had no frame of reference for how to deliver the news, what the reaction might be, what to expect of myself, or the aftermath.
The ward sister was far more experienced in these matters than me. I told her that I was terrified, and that I had never done this before:
- She reassured me that I would be able to manage this challenge and to do the best that I could.
- She arranged a quiet, private space, and a time for the meeting to take place.
- She came to the meeting with me and held my gaze when I did not know how or whether to fill a silence.
- She showed me how to be in the face of extreme shock, disbelief, and visible anguish.
- She arranged for another nurse to sit with the patient’s wife at the end of the meeting.
- She accompanied me out of the room and gave me feedback on how she thought it went: “Well done. You were kind, caring, and did a much better job than the consultant would have done.”
- I thanked her and went off to the toilet for a good cry. There was a cup of tea waiting for me when I returned to the ward.
Divorce has been categorised as the second most stressful event after the death of a partner. You are not responsible for your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. You can make a difference to how they receive the news. The following steps will help you to deliver unwelcome news with kindness and empathy.
14 Tips for breaking unwelcome news
- Make sure that you are certain that you want to get divorced. Do not bring up divorce in the middle of an argument. Wait until you are both calm and can give each other time to speak without distractions.
- Doing something for the first time is hard. Having difficult conversations is hard. Think about and rehearse what you want to say in advance. When you are anxious, it is hard to think logically.
- Make sure that you are safe and that you can leave if you need to. A top tip is to make sure that you have a clear pathway to the door. Do not position your partner between you and the exit.
- Choose the location for the meeting wisely. If you have children, make sure that they are not there. Are you happy to meet in private or would the meeting be better in a more public place?
- Use clear, unambiguous language. It might be hard to say the words but do not leave room for misunderstanding. It will make follow up conversations much harder.
- Be kind and have empathy for your partner. Avoid accusatory language and do not apportion blame. It is much better to start sentences with “I want/need/know…” rather than point out their failings with “You did or didn’t do…”
- Your partner may have no idea that this was coming and has a lot to catch up on. You have spent time with your thoughts and feelings. You have had time to process what you want and what you do not want. You have made up your mind. You are ready to move on. Be patient and give them time. Allow for pauses and give them time to think and speak.
- Be prepared for the emotional fall out and how it is expressed. You may not expect the reaction that you get from your partner, even when you think that you know them well.
- Avoid playing the blame game. Your partner may want to blame you for everything. Listen to what they have to say but state that you would prefer to have a constructive discussion in the future, when they have had time to process and think of any questions.
- Make sure that you have a plan for how the meeting will end. This is particularly important if one of you is likely to be leaving a shared home. Set boundaries if you plan to remain in the same home.
- Do not try to cover too much in the first conversation. It will be better to leave planning and negotiating to a later stage.
- Make sure that you and your partner have emotional support after the meeting. This is important for both of you.
- Consider couples counselling. This may help you to have difficult conversations in a supported and constructive way. It may help your partner to accept the situation and move forwards.
- If you have children, it is especially important to keep them out of your conflict. Plan together how you will tell them in an age-appropriate way. Do not have this conversation until you have agreed how to manage it.
The process of divorce does not need to be adversarial, and mediation is an excellent option. Keeping divorce out of court is a much less stressful and cheaper pathway for your family. There are options available to follow this pathway in the UK and you can find out more about this option here. The organisation Resolution is another excellent source of information and provides access to professionals who can help you.
To find out about working with me book in for a 20 minute call.