5 things you MUST know before saying ‘I want a divorce’

By Attorney Ed Sherman, Founder of Nolo Press and the Self-Help Law Movement

Couple Discussing Getting DivorcedThere are ways to go about breaking up that will give you the best chance for a smoother trip through one of life’s most difficult passages. This is an exceedingly sensitive time when it doesn’t take much to stir things up.

Fortunately, because we go through this with other couples a few thousand times a year, we know exactly what you can do, and the kinds of things you must avoid, to make breaking up as smooth as possible.

Whether you are a married couple, or have been living together in a long-term committed relationship, breaking up is almost always painful, but the essential thing is to avoid unnecessary pain and cost, much of which can be avoided or minimized if you are careful.

It is essential to avoid words and actions that escalate from hurt, fear, and anger to hostility, lawyers, courts, and huge expenses. That would be very hard on you, on your kids if you have any, and devastating to your pocketbook.

For couples who are not married, breaking up presents many of the same challenges. In this discussion, if you replace divorce with breakup and spouse with partner, it will work the same for you. So here are the five things you really need to know before telling your spouse you want to break up:

* If you’re the one who wants to separate, don’t do one more thing or say one more word to your spouse until you understand the rest of this article. The way you announce the decision, or respond to it, will make a huge difference in the way things unwind.

* The most common cause of conflict in separation and divorce is lack of mutuality in the decision—in other words, both spouses haven’t accepted the idea that you’re breaking up. Ideally, the decision would be arrived at together, but in most cases one spouse decides alone after taking time to think about it, get advice from friends or professionals, process emotions and make plans.

* Once the decision is made, it is presented to the other spouse as a done deal and the sooner the better. Opportunities to solve problems and possibly save the relationship have been lost. What’s worse, a long, hard divorce is more likely because the first spouse is ready to break up right away while the other spouse is upset and still working through denial and resistance. This person hasn’t had time to process the reality and will be in some kind of emotional upset, in no way ready to discuss details or work out accommodations.

* This is not a good time to push along on the breakup, even though the first spouse is ready and highly motivated to do so. Moving along too quickly at this point is the root cause of a lot more trouble to follow. If you are the first to decide, you are in a unique and powerful position to affect the future tone of the divorce. By being abrupt and insensitive, you can almost guarantee a bitter, expensive divorce.

* If you want to encourage a sane resolution of divorce issues, be patient, be sensitive, but most of all, slow down. Give your spouse time to process the changes. Stay positive and as close to your spouse as possible. You can express caring and concern while being firm in your decision. Work with your spouse until you can both accept the fact that going your separate ways is inevitable, and you can both focus on moving forward. This is the best way to break up, and will lead to the best result.

I give you everything you need to further prepare yourself before letting your spouse know you want to break up, in my book Make Any Divorce Better.

Copyright © 2012 Ed Sherman

Ed Sherman is a family law attorney, divorce expert, and founder of Nolo Press. He started the self-help law movement in 1971 when he published the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce, and founded the paralegal industry in 1973. With more than a million books sold, Ed has saved the public billions of dollars in legal fees while making divorce go more smoothly and easily for millions of readers. You can order his books from www.nolotech.com or by calling (800) 464-5502.


  1. Arnold Z says

    My wife just handed me divorce papers, refusing any discussion, telling me not to speak to her, only her lawyer. She then spent 15 minutes with our college age kids (one commuting from home), told them she was never coming back to our area, but she could visit her at her mother’s house, 5 hours away.

    3 hours after handing me papers, she was gone. And I was left with two confused kids, angry at her. Although I suggested that both call her, after 2 months, my son still has yet to speak to her.

    In case you’re wondering, there was no cheating or violence, although we certainly weren’t getting along.

    I have no idea how the divorce negotiations will go, but I’m not expecting them to be simple and cheap, and there is paperwork here that she was unaware of (disadvantage of doing a quick disappearing act) that will not help her in these negotiations.

    And now she has two kids who feel abandoned (they are still kids when in their late teens, despite the law). I’ve avoided badmouthing her, but haven’t had to.

    Aim for a discussion, rather than a mad dash (have the papers delivered later), or the price you pay will last a lifetime. I’ve known parents who get nasty letters from estranged children living 12,000 miles away at age 50 for lesser things.

    • Nolo Press Occidental says

      Thanks for sharing that, Arnold. Hopefully it will help others who may be tempted to do what your wife did, to reconsider. It’s so sad when kids end up feeling abandoned as yours do, and so unnecessary. You make a good point at the end of your post.

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