How To Ask For A Divorce - Step By Step

When you've tried everything, including couples therapy, and things are still bleak, coming to terms with the fact that your marriage has run its course isn't easy.

Maybe you want different things in life. Perhaps addictions and other difficult circumstances have left you with no choice. Whatever the reason may be, the fact is: divorce is a daunting process.

Taking that first step and telling your spouse about your intentions can seem even more daunting. But knowing how to play your cards right from the moment you ask for a divorce can make things a lot easier.

If you’re looking for the best way to avoid an all-out war, start here:

Things to know

  • For a better reaction and outcome, pick the right time and place to ask your spouse.
  • Get your mindset, emotions, and reasons ready ahead of time.
  • Be firm, respectful, and empathetic, as this will set the right tone for the divorce process.

If you have doubts, it's understandable — this isn't a decision to be taken lightly. How do you ask your spouse for a divorce the right way? How do you even know it's time to separate? What are your options if you do?

To answer these tough questions, here's what we'll be looking at:

How Do You Know When It's Time To Separate?

Walking away from your marriage might feel like the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. But sometimes, it can’t be helped; an unhappy or unhealthy marriage is extremely damaging for everyone involved.

Here are the top signs it's time to let go:


If you and your spouse are constantly at odds about important matters like values, finances, parenting, and lifestyles, and this has caused a massive decline in the quality of your relationship, it might be time to file for divorce.

Since irreconcilable differences are the root cause of many marital issues, incompatibility is considered the leading cause of divorce.


As infidelity destroys the trust foundation of a marriage, it comes as no surprise that it is cited as the second most common cause of divorce. Infidelity doesn't always happen in the form of a sexual or emotional affair; it can also be financial.

When a spouse is negligent with joint finances, incurs hidden debt, or makes secret purchases, it's still very damaging to a relationship. This is why money issues are also a leading cause of divorce. If your marriage has been rocked by sexual, emotional, or financial infidelity and you can't move past it, it's best to walk away.

A lack of intimacy

If your sex life has been troubled for a while, and you're frustrated and unfulfilled, it isn't unreasonable to consider a dead-bedroom divorce. If you value physical intimacy, being stuck in a sexless marriage can be psychologically distressing.

Emotional insecurity can be just as distressing. When you and your spouse can no longer trust each other, and your emotional connection just isn't what it used to be, it might be time to call it quits.

Substance abuse

Any form of substance abuse that's threatening the emotional, physical and financial security of your family is a major sign that you have to let your marriage go. If you've tried everything and your spouse still won't change, it's best to call it quits.

Whether you're divorcing a pothead or an alcoholic, anticipate major resistance— especially if you've been bankrolling their addiction. You may need to seek professional help.


If you're a victim of physical, emotional, financial, or narcissistic abuse, you need to plan your escape carefully. Divorcing a toxic husband or wife can be a dangerous and traumatic experience.

It's important to remove yourself (and your children) from the environment first before making your intentions known. As you're likely in for a contentious divorce process, make sure you have legal representation and a strong support system to lean on.

Toxic communication

When your communication consists only of insults, criticism, and other contemptuous behaviors, your marriage is no longer a safe environment.

The inability to relate to each other respectfully is a clear sign that your marriage has become toxic. Your emotional and mental well-being is at risk, so it's healthier to call it quits.

What To Expect When Asking For A Divorce

While you've had time to prepare yourself emotionally, your spouse hasn't. Here's what to expect when you ask them for a divorce:


Even if your marriage is troubled and has been for a while, your spouse might be in denial. Divorce might not have crossed their mind. In fact, they may not think it's the right option for your family.

They may accuse you of giving up on your marriage or abandoning them. Your spouse might try to negotiate, beg, or guilt you into changing your mind. So, be prepared to stand your ground if that happens.


Your spouse might be livid about your decision and lash out. However, staying calm and not getting pulled into a screaming match is important. Stand firm and refuse to play the blame game.

When your spouse has had a chance to vent, validate their feelings and apologize for your part in things, then give them space to process everything. If you think they might react violently or if they have a history of doing so, proceed with caution.


Your spouse might shut down and ignore you. Shutting you out is a self-defense mechanism and a way to process everything. If they tend to use the silent treatment to get their way, then expect it this time around too.

Make it clear that you’ve made up your mind and that you wish to work with them for a fair divorce. After that, give your spouse space and let them come to you when they're ready.

Unfortunately, your spouse might continue to behave this way even during the divorce proceedings. In fact, refusing to communicate is one of many common sneaky divorce tactics.


Chances are, your spouse is also unhappy. You might be thinking, "I don't love my wife anymore, but she loves me," when that isn't the case. You might be thinking that your husband is oblivious to how miserable you are when he isn't.

Sometimes telling your spouse you want a divorce may result in a mutual sense of relief. Your spouse may have been too scared to let you know they were also considering divorce.


Your spouse is likely to ask you why you want a divorce, so be prepared to answer their questions as honestly and respectfully as you can. Be accountable for your role in things and frame your reasons diplomatically.

Instead of saying, "You’re an inconsiderate, neglectful partner," say, "I’m tired of constantly butting heads over everything, and it’s best we go our separate ways before we do more harm to each other."

The first approach will likely spark a heated argument, while the second one might get your spouse to see reason and work with you.

How To Ask For A Divorce In 9 Steps

Asking for a divorce can be nerve-wracking. Although there isn't a secret formula to such a hard conversation, approaching it tactfully can set the right tone for the entire divorce process.

That said, doing the following might be helpful:

Step 1: Do some serious introspection

Before having the divorce conversation, be one hundred percent sure it's what you want. Make sure you aren't threatening divorce out of temporary anger and frustration.

If you want to get your spouse's attention, throwing the ‘D’ word around isn't the best way to do so. Plus, using divorce as an ultimatum or as a way to control your spouse is toxic.

If you're certain you've done all you can to save your marriage, and you’re sure divorce is the best option, it's time to gather your thoughts and plan how you're going to tell your spouse.

Step 2: Plan your approach

Consider all the reasons you want a divorce and practice expressing them calmly. Consulting a therapist is a great way to gather your thoughts and process your feelings before the difficult conversation.

What you shouldn't do is discuss your intentions with friends or family members; your spouse should be the first to know. You also shouldn't attempt sneaky divorce tactics such as clearing out your joint bank account or simply disappearing while they're at work.

If your spouse isn't dangerous or manipulative, you owe them a face-to-face conversation.

Step 3: Ask at the right time

There isn't a perfect time to bring up the dreaded topic of divorce. However, some conditions are more favorable than others. Gauging your partner's mental state may help you anticipate their response and plan around it.

Being mindful of stressful events will also make a big difference. Bringing up divorce when your spouse is dealing with a serious problem will elicit an extremely negative reaction.

When you've figured out the right time, consider where this conversation needs to take place. Ideally, it should be a private place where you won’t be disturbed. If you think your spouse might get violent, pick a public place.

Step 4: Focus on the right delivery

The way you ask for a divorce sets the tone for the entire divorce process. Approach your spouse from a place of anger, frustration, and blame, and they'll respond with the same energy.

No matter how much you resent your spouse, remain civil when you ask for a divorce. This isn't the time to criticize, insult or belittle your spouse. It's your chance to tell them how you feel. Try to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements.

“I feel like there’s no hope for our marriage, and I need to move on,” sounds a lot better than, “You’ve wasted years of my life!”

You’ve had time to prepare, so empathize with your spouse. Resist judging them too harshly for their reaction, and try not to get defensive. Instead, listen to their perspective. Best case, they agree to end things amicably.

On the other hand, they may be reluctant to divorce you without going to therapy first. If it's something you haven't tried, it might be worth exploring. However, if you're certain about your decision, don't budge. If you reach an impasse, try again when tensions aren't as high.

It’s possible that the conversation might be too overwhelming for your spouse. If this is the case, give them some time.

Step 5: Don’t talk about anything else

Deciding who gets what in a divorce is a complicated process that requires you to consider a lot of factors. Often, you may need to seek counsel to make the right decisions. So, be careful not to discuss what happens next. Don't talk about child support, alimony, or who is entitled to your marital home.

As you're both emotional, you might say things you'll regret later on. Only discuss short-term arrangements like where you’ll stay to give each other space. If your spouse keeps pushing, assure them that when the time comes, you’re happy to work with them for a fair and equitable divorce settlement.

Step 6: Get ready for what happens next

If moving out of your home just isn't an option yet for either of you, finding a way to coexist peacefully is crucial. Don't pretend everything is normal out of guilt, and try not to send your spouse mixed signals. You don't want to leave your husband wondering, "My wife wants a divorce but still sleeps with me??"

Granted, it’s a confusing time, but if you find it difficult to keep your interactions friendly without crossing certain boundaries, come up with an alternative arrangement as soon as possible.

If you're dealing with an abusive spouse, make sure you've prepared a safe place to go after your talk. If you've experienced domestic violence before and if you fear for your safety, consider getting a temporary restraining order. This temporary order will keep you (and your children) safe during the divorce process.

Divorcing a narcissistic woman or man will not be easy. Narcissists like to be in control and will do anything to thwart your plans or make the divorce as messy and as miserable as possible. For example, a narcissistic spouse might try to destroy you financially and emotionally. They may even try to tarnish your reputation.

Trying to divorce a toxic spouse won’t be an easy task. They might try to manipulate you or use your children against you. They may even try to exploit any power imbalances in your relationship. For instance, if you're financially dependent on them, they might cut you off immediately to teach you a lesson.

Step 7: Consider your options

There are different types of divorce, and divorce law differs from state to state. Although your spouse might choose to cooperate after they've had time to process everything, their initial reaction might give you insight into what type of divorce you're looking at.

If you can work together and agree on important matters, you're looking at an uncontested divorce. Your divorce papers will be filed with the court, and your divorce case will be processed without a trial. As you only pay a filing fee, it is less expensive than a drawn-out legal battle.

If you can't agree on some things but you're willing to work together, divorce mediation, arbitration, and other collaborative options are cheaper alternatives to a lengthy court case. You can still seek independent representation to help you come to an amicable resolution.

If your spouse digs in their heels and refuses to change their stance, even after you've given them time, you're in for a contentious court battle. A contested divorce is your only option when you strongly disagree on major things such as child custody, property division, and spousal support.

As your case goes to court, you'll each need a divorce lawyer. A judge will oversee the divorce proceedings until a divorce judgment is passed. Ultimately, the court will determine an equitable distribution of property and suitable custody arrangements. Unlike an uncontested divorce, this option tends to be long, costly, and ugly.

Step 8: Keep things civil

The best-case scenario for everyone is a collaborative divorce process. Not only is this route cheaper and less stressful, but it also models appropriate behavior for your children, if you have any.

Throughout the entire process, try to remain civil with each other, especially if children are involved. This will likely be a very stressful experience for them, too, and working together will make the transition as smooth as possible.

It's also in your best interests to make the entire process straightforward. Refusing to work together only prolongs your suffering. When all is said and done, you’ll need to rebuild your lives. Instead of trying to destroy each other, give yourselves a fighting chance at starting over.

Step 9: Seek professional help

If your relationship is strained and collaboration is simply not an option, seek legal advice. A professional divorce coach and a therapist may be able to support you through the whole divorce process.

Even when collaboration is an option, it is still wise to get in touch with divorce professionals to guide you through some of the more complex issues involved with dissolving a marriage.

Final Thoughts

Whatever your reasons for letting go, how you ask your spouse for a divorce will set the tone for how the entire process plays out. It will also determine how amicable, fair, cost-effective, and family-focused your divorce will (or won’t) be.

Getting this essential first step right gives you a better chance of moving forward peacefully. So, prepare ahead of time, consider the tips provided here and get all the support you can from qualified divorce professionals.

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