4 Guidelines for Telling Your Partner You Want to Separate

By: Joy A. Dryer, Ph.D.
Last Update: November 01, 2016

So you’ve decided to leave your relationship. To separate. Maybe even to divorce. I’ve a strong bias that it’s best for the two of you to decide together. This may not be possible in the end. But it’s worth starting off with a cooperative, collaborative attitude and approach.

4 guidelines to discussing the topic:


1. Timing

a) By timing I’m not just talking about avoiding climbing into bed at 11 p.m. and starting this conversation. Or saying, “Hey, we need to talk,” as s/he is putting on his/her coat to take your daughter to soccer practice or heading to an important meeting with the boss. We all know to avoid those times! 

b) Getting your partner on board to have “a difficult conversation” can be really useful. You can ask: “Are you willing to have a difficult conversation? When’s a good time for you?"

c) I’m talking about neuroscience timing. You’ve made the decision that you want out when your amygdala, your mid-brain’s emotion center, in not in reactive OMG mode. When the giraffe sees (or thinks he sees) a lion in the bushes, he’s in flight/freeze defensive, reactive, OMG-I-don’t-wanna-be-eaten mode. We psychologists call it “amygdala highjack” mode.

Instead, you made your decision when you were calm and rational, when your frontal lobe, your judgment center, was fully “online” and operating clearly. A quiet decision that was repeatedly the same, standing the test of time (more than a week!). 

2. Empathy First

After you’ve figured out when is a good time for you both to talk, consider your partner’s feelings. Have a soft start. Use “I” statements. Sound familiar? These are common guidelines from couples' therapists. E.g. “I’m at the end of my rope... We’ve had lots of issues, and I don’t think I can go on. Where are you? Can we discuss what to do next?”

If you know your partner well, you know his/her history of separations, perhaps feeling in the past abandoned, left, even betrayed. So you may have a good guess how s/he might respond to your introduction, “Hey, we need to talk.” If you do not know your partner well enough to make an educated guess about how s/he might feel pained or hurt, then this lack of knowledge - and likely empathy too - may have contributed to your relationship difficulties.

3. Different Perspectives

This is a critical aspect of a Theory of Mind. This is a “mentalizing” ability to attribute to your mental states, such as beliefs, desires, motives, and knowledge. And by analogy, you attribute to others the same range of mental states. You use this understanding all the time, both consciously and unconsciously, to explain and to predict others’ actions and feelings. If we acknowledge that I have a mind, and you have a mind, we are likely to differ in our beliefs, desires, motives, etc. You might believe it’s important to go to your Aunt Millie’s for Sunday dinner, but I believe attending Suzi’s soccer game overrides that. Partners disagree all the time about every bit of Stuff of Life. Essential is how you disagree, especially whether to stay or to leave your relationship.

We know that you can’t stay married to someone who doesn’t want to be married to you. In that context, it’s crucial to know and to accept that your partner is likely to have a perspective that differs from yours. You don’t have to like the difference, but accepting and respecting his/her different perspective is a foundation to your discussion process.

4. Take Responsibility

No victims here. No devils, no angels. How many times have you heard that? Lots probably. Own your own stuff. You can only change yourself, not the other person. Easy enough to say or to write, but oh so hard to do!

In fact, all of this is oh so hard to do! All the more reason to be compassionate with yourself and your partner as you wend your way through this discussion - hopefully together.

Dr. Joy Dryer, Ph.D. is a psychologist/psychoanalyst, divorce mediator, and divorce coach in New York City and Poughkeepsie, NY.

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