I want a divorce but my partner doesn't - what to do if this is you

I want a divorce but my partner doesn’t – advice if one person is ready and the other isn’t

Separating couple walking together

Originally published on 13th July 2021 at 4:04 PM

A common hurdle to separating amicably happens at the very beginning of a separation; when one person says it's over, but the other person doesn't agree. Read Relate counsellor, Dee Holmes's advice on how to get on the same page.

"I'm ready to divorce but my ex isn’t."

It's important to accept that you may be at a different stage of a journey to your ex. The first step is to talk to your partner to see where they are and what they think will help them to process the news. Counselling may be useful, individually or together. Some people want time and space to process alone, others find that couple counselling means they can hear their partners story to aid their understanding.

How do I tell my partner that I want a divorce?

Be clear that ending the relationship is what you want, as often people are not clear enough because they fear hurting their partner or having the difficult conversation.

  • Choose time and space to talk when you won't be distracted or interrupted.
  • It can be tempting to have 'a trial separation' when one person knows they want this to move into permanency, this can give false hope and a mixed message that aren't helpful in the long term. Of course, if you are unsure and want some time to think and explore if the relationship has a future then this is a good idea, but make sure your reasons are genuine and you're not just prolonging the inevtiable. Read the blog ‘is it over, should I leave’ for advice on this.
  • Keep the initial message that you want a divorce short, don't confuse or dilute by talking about other things or getting caught in the detail. Allow them time to let the news sink in.

For more advice, read our blog 'How to tell your partner that you want a divorce or to separate'.

How do I get my partner to take the news seriously?

  • Be clear and concise, articulate to your partner that you have given the decision serious thought and this isn't a knee jerk reaction.
  • Don't break the news during an argument. When something is said in a row and the heat of the moment it's easy for the other person to think it was not a serious comment, just said in anger.
  • Respect that your partner may be at a different stage to you. The analogy of one person being at the service station on the motorway while the other is just getting in the car to start a journey is appropriate and common. You may have to be prepared to wait at the divorce-diagnostic a while to allow them to catch up.

What emotions are normal if someone isn't ready to divorce or doesn't want to divorce?

Your partner may experience shock, anger, denial and extreme upset. They may feel it is very unfair that they have no time or chance to put something right . Be kind, calm and empathic but also aware that you may not necessarily be the best person to offer support at this time as you are the one who has upset them.

Emotion change curve

You can offer practical support to enable them to seek help, for example looking after the children so they can talk to a friend, seek counselling, go for a run etc.

Understanding why your partner doesn’t want to end the relationship can be helpful, you may discover it is not so much about your romantic relationship but fear of the future, what would happen with finances and childcare etc. Identifying what is triggering their anxiety and resistance means you can address the specific areas of concern.

How long should I allow for my partner to catch up before I move on?

As per the analogy, time's a healer, you may be at very different stages on a journey, so you do need to allow some time for acceptance and adjustment. How long is hard to say, think about what is practical. Can you make some changes so that the separation starts and you can move on, without it all happening at once, for example can you live together in separate rooms or is it better to move out and separate more quickly. Also consider that if you take too long and go on as normal it can give a mixed messages that it's never really going to happen.

"I'm not ready to divorce / don't want to divorce but my ex wants to"

The reality is, if one person says the relationship is over then it is. Its not possible to stay in a relationship with someone who no longer wants that relationship. It can be very distressing to suddenly face the end of a relationship that you still want to be in. It will take time, like any grieving process you have to go through the stages of shock, anger, denial and will finally reach the acceptance stage.

It won't be a linear process, it can have ups and downs on the way. Look after yourself and seek help and support when you need it. Remember it’s not a failure, it’s part of life and the experiences we go through, not all relationships last forever. You will emerge the other side although that feels hard now.

How can you process the news that your partner wants to separate?

Talk to those close to you, tell them you may not necessarily want their advice or suggestions just to be listened to, that can really help to order and process thoughts. Counselling may help too. www.relate.org.uk

Reflection is helpful but it’s also important to balance with thoughts and plans for the future without living life pondering 'what if's?'.

Dee Holmes
Dee Holmes
Dee has worked for Relate since 1997 and trained as a couple counsellor initially and then as a family, young persons and children’s counsellor. Dee has worked in schools and colleges delivering counselling and has often heard and seen the effect of parental conflict around separation can have on young people.

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