How to Tell Your Spouse You Want to Separate: 10 Tips for a Respectful Conversation

April 14, 2023

Telling your spouse that you want a separation or divorce is never easy. It is one of the most challenging and painful conversations you may ever have, even if you both know that the relationship is at its end. How you navigate this conversation, and the early days of your separation can set the tone for the legal process that follows and how you and your spouse can co-parent as you move forward. Here are some tips to help you prepare emotionally and organise your thoughts before you have this conversation.

The first and most crucial step is to be clear that you are making the right decision. You cannot take your words back once you tell your spouse that you want to separate or divorce. Therefore, take your time, and carefully think through your decision. It may be helpful to talk with a counsellor or family lawyer to discuss and understand what you need to stay in the relationship, whether those changes are possible and what separation and your legal outcomes will look like if you go ahead with the decision to end the relationship.

Once you are certain of your decision to separate, you can begin to think about how to tell your spouse.

Here are 10 tips to help you navigate the conversation and make it as stress-free as possible

  1. Prepare yourself emotionally

 It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious, but it’s essential to prepare yourself emotionally before initiating the conversation. Take some time to process your feelings and think about how conflict and hard feelings have been handled by you and your spouse during the relationship. This will give you some understanding of potential triggers for each of you that you can navigate around as you try to remain calm and composed throughout the conversation.

  1. Pick the right time and place

The timing of the initial conversation with your spouse can make the difference between a calm, productive conversation and one that is chaotic and painful for everyone involved. It’s best to have this conversation in a private setting or a neutral place like a coffee shop where you both feel comfortable and safe. Choose a day when your children are not at home and avoid telling your spouse on a special day like Christmas or during an important event. If you are worried about the reaction, ask your spouse to join you in a meeting with a counsellor where you can talk about your decision in a more controlled environment and have a safety plan in place.

  1. Be Honest

Honesty is always the best policy. Be truthful with your partner about your feelings and why you’ve made the decision to separate, but

  1. Avoid blaming

When having the conversation, your goal is to be kind, firm, direct, and neutral. Avoid blaming statements and stick with “I-messages.” For example, “I have been unhappy for such a long time, and nothing seems to help us improve our relationship. I am sorry to say this, but this relationship isn’t bringing out the best in either of us so I have decided that I want to separate.”

  1. Be prepared for your spouse’s reactions.

Whether or not the separation will be a surprise or not, be prepared for your spouse to have some big feelings and to become reactive and escalated.  If your spouse is someone for whom rejection or being unlovable or unworthy is a significant trigger, they may act mean, without even being aware of it, when you tell them the relationship is over.  This meanness could be an initial lashing out because your spouse does not understand their feelings and are struggling to control themselves, but for others, it could be that they don’t know how to act when they feel rejected other than meanness and activating their victim blaming mentality where everything in the relationship is “your fault”.  Don’t get pulled into a fight, and don’t get defensive. Stay calm and on message as you assert yourself and stand by your decision. Whatever the reaction, acknowledge your spouse’s emotions and thank him or her for listening. If your spouse holds a long-lasting grudge against you, your friends or your family because of their feelings of rejection, that is on them and outside your control.

  1. Seek professional support

Consider seeking the help of a counsellor, family lawyer or uncoupling and divorce coach to help you process your emotions and learn strategies to navigate the conversation with your spouse. You can also get professional support with role-playing the conversation, carefully and mindfully crafting a script for the conversation and strategies to respond the reaction of your spouse.  It can also be helpful during this process to reflect on your spouse’s personality, how they react in situations that are outside their control, how they react to conflict and difficult emotions and try to gain some insight into their emotional triggers.  This will help you carefully prepare for the conversation and give you a better understanding on how they might react and how you can respond to the behaviours or comments that may be directed to you.

  1. Listen

Listen to your spouse’s perspective and try to understand their feelings. Why is listening so important here? Because, in difficult conversations, that person will be more willing to listen and care about your perspective if they feel like you care about their feelings and perspective.  It also opens you both up to being more understanding and being willing to make decisions that gets you both closer to what you want and need. Remember that this is a difficult conversation for both of you, and empathy can go a long way in making the conversation productive.

  1. Avoid Interrupting

Interrupting your spouse can make the conversation more challenging and can cause them to shut down, or for the conversation to become derailed and descend into conflict. Listen actively and wait for them to finish speaking before responding. When you do respond, be mindful of the language you’re using to avoid further conflict and stress. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For example, instead of saying “You never listen to me,” say “I feel like I’m not being heard.”

  1. Be prepared to make a short-term plan

Consider ahead of time whether you will be leaving the home or whether you will ask your spouse to leave the home. Be prepared to make a suggestion about who will move out, and when and how you will tell your children, family and friends about the separation. Although it is good to have an idea on the next steps, your spouse may not be in a place to discuss this level of detail until they have had some time to process the separation and their feelings. If you feel that bringing up the next steps is going to be unhelpful, you could suggest to your spouse “We will need to have a further conversation to sort out who will be moving out of the house and when we’re going to tell the kids. Do you want to take some time to think on these things and we can chat in the next few days?”

  1. Shift your perspective

Studies have revealed that people who have “fixed mindsets” tend to second guess and criticise themselves and be less hopeful about their future at the end of a relationship. Whereas those people who adopt a “growth mindset” see their breakup as an opportunity to grow and change. It is the people with a growth mindset who can recover more quickly from the end of a relationship as they are more willing to see that challenges and struggles offer an opportunity where we can grow more within ourselves. They take the time to reflect, enhance their self-understanding, challenge their inner critical voice, and strengthen their sense of self. In doing so, they suffer less when experiencing big life events such as a separation or divorce. Interestingly, researcher David Sbarra concluded “If you pick all of the variables that predict how people will do after their marriage ends, self-compassion really carries the day.”

Initiating a separation conversation with your spouse is never easy, but it is possible to approach the conversation with empathy, respect, and honesty. Remember to consider the timing, location, and emotional triggers that exist for your spouse, and prepare yourself emotionally before starting the conversation. How you navigate this conversation will set the tone for the legal process and future parenting relationship that follows. It can also turn a situation that has the potential for high conflict and stress, into a conversation where you both leave feeling heard and respected.

With these tips in mind, you can navigate the separation conversation in a way that feels empowering, compassionate and respectful to all parties involved.

So, if you’re considering separation or divorce, don’t let the idea of talking to your spouse overwhelm you. Instead, reach out to us to get guidance before you separate on how to navigate the conversation with your spouse and children, learn about the legal process and map out a plan that moves you forward.

Our expert team of family lawyers would love to help you to move toward the life and future you want to build with clarity and confidenceBook your strategic planning session today or download our helpful free resources.


This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or any other professional advice.

Feeling unsure where to start?

Let us guide you through what’s involved in untangling your relationship and give you the tools to set yourself up to move forward.

Feeling unsure where to start?

Let us guide you through what’s involved in untangling your relationship and give you the tools to set yourself up to move forward.

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