When You Don’t Want to Divorce but Your Spouse Does

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What do you do when your spouse wants to end the marriage but you don't want a divorce?

I ran into my friend Bethany* at the mall. She looked thinner, and her eyes had dark circles under them. After a hug, I inquired about her life. She and her husband, Dirk, though living under the same roof, had been carrying on separate lives for several years. Now nearly 20 years into their marriage, he was filing for divorce.

She shook her head and sighed. “I don’t want this divorce, but what more can I do?”

It wasn’t as though they didn’t get along. Though they’d argued bitterly for the first half of their marriage, they had eventually settled into what Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” Although Bethany wasn’t happy, she wasn’t ready to call it quits either.

“I made a vow — for better and for worse,” she told me. She had begged God to restore her relationship, but the more she prayed, the more it seemed her husband was committed to ending their marriage. “I feel like such a failure,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye.

Three months later, the divorce was finalized.

What do you do when your spouse announces the desire for a separation or divorce and you aren’t at the same place?

Stay calm

When Kelly’s husband had an affair, it devastated her. She didn’t want a divorce or to break up their family, but she was so wounded, she got back at him by having an affair of her own. When her husband found out, he immediately went to a divorce attorney, and she received the very thing she hadn’t wanted.

A rash reaction will do little to change your spouse’s opinion. The best thing you can do is to stay calm and not push your spouse further away. That means no begging or pleading that you’ll do anything to keep the marriage together. No stalking or threatening to keep the kids from your spouse. No bad-mouthing to friends, family or especially your children. No desperate clinging. And above all, no doing things out of spite, such as going on a spending spree or having an affair. As Kelly learned the hard way, an affair will only cause more damage and give you exactly what you don’t want—even if it seems “smart” at the time.


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Talk to a Counselor

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Reach a counselor toll-free at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).

Find out what’s really going on

Asking for a separation or a divorce rarely comes out of the blue — although sometimes it may feel that way. But if you look closely and assess the situation, you should be able to see the signs. The best way? Ask. And then listen without interrupting, justifying or trying to fix things. But again, be careful in how you request information. “Becoming an interrogator will end up causing your spouse to clam up rather than share what’s really going on,” cautions licensed clinical professional counselor Sheri Mueller, who specializes in working with married couples. “If your spouse tells you he doesn’t love you anymore, simply state, ‘I don’t believe that for a minute,’ ” Mueller says. “There’s something else going on.”

Let your spouse know where you stand

Once you’re able to express your thoughts clearly without becoming emotional, ask your spouse for a time when you can share your opinions about your marriage. “This isn’t a time to make a case to convince your partner they are wrong to separate or divorce or to start blaming,” says Mueller. That will only cause your spouse to dig in their heels. Instead, express that you don’t want a divorce and you’re willing to seek counsel. Then ask if your spouse will explore less drastic options. Mueller suggests a healing separation, which is working to build a different relationship since most people really don’t want to divorce the person but the relationship as it is. This type of separation allows couples to remain in the same house and allows for “space” to let calmer heads, hearts, and emotions prevail while offering steps toward hope and growth.

Try not to be predictable

“You’re too predictable.”

Lee sat across from his counselor and tried to take in the counselor’s insight. “What do you mean by that?” he finally said, feeling more confused than ever.

“Your wife knows how you will react, so she purposefully gets a rise out of you and then manipulates it to ‘prove’ that her accusation is right.”

Lee thought about the last argument they’d had in which his wife said he was always angry, but then realized he wasn’t — she just knew what buttons to push. “So what do I do?”

“Be unpredictable.”

If your spouse is looking for an excuse to leave your marriage, a good way to do it is by making you the “bad guy.” Typically that will come by your spouse pushing your button and then when you react, they’ve got you. Fight against it by flipping your behavior on its head. If your spouse wants out because you’re constantly critical, the next time they do something that you’d normally criticize, shrug it off — respond in the opposite way of how you usually would. Don’t get drawn into the drama.

Focus on self-care

One of the best things you can do is bring in an objective third party to give you wisdom and guidance, such as a professional marriage counselor. If your spouse is willing to go, that’s great. But if your spouse refuses, you can still go. That’s the first step to making sure you protect your mental and physical health. Instead of giving in to anxiety or fear, focus on things that fill you in life-giving ways, such as exercising, meeting with friends for fun times or investing yourself in a hobby you’ve put off for years.

My friend Bethany sought a Bible study to become involved in and also began swimming. Though she admits they didn’t take away the ache or pain, those things helped her take better care of herself.

Stay true to your boundaries

Making drastic changes to yourself in the hope your spouse will stay isn’t a long-term solution — something my friend Mary discovered. She lived several states away from me, so I didn’t see her often, but I knew she was struggling to keep her marriage together after her husband moved out. I was pleased when I heard they’d reconciled. The next time I saw her, though, my eyes popped out. She’d gotten breast implants!

“What in the world, Mary?” I said.

“I know,” she said, wearing a sheepish expression. “He wanted them. Told me if I got them done, he’d come back.”

Turns out he didn’t stay long. A year later, he filed for divorce.

Desperation causes people to give in on things they normally wouldn’t for the assurance that their spouse will stay in the relationship. Don’t compromise on your boundaries.

Don’t give up on God

In this dark season, God might feel silent or absent, leaving you to wonder if He even cares about what you’re going through. Be assured that He does. A broken relationship breaks His heart as well (see Psalm 34:18), and He isn’t idle; He’s working even when you can’t see or don’t understand. He will see you through this season — even if it doesn’t turn out the way you want—for, as Psalm 46:1 tells us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” As you pray for God to restore your marriage, ask Him to be glorified above all. Ask Him to grow you in your faith through it all. Those are prayers He will always answer, since “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Finally, let go

While it takes two people to have a marriage, it takes only one to dissolve it. After doing all you can to save your relationship, if your spouse remains unmovable, then let go and continue to pray that God will work on your spouse’s heart apart from you. Now is the time to focus on healing your heart. A divorce is a death, so it’s OK to grieve. Though the marriage failed, it’s essential to understand that you aren’t a failure. So, grieve — and know that God isn’t finished with you yet. His plans for you are still — and ever — to give you a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).

*Names have been changed.

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