Talking about divorce can be tricky no matter what your situation. We asked experienced therapists and solicitors to answer your top questions about telling your partner you want a divorce (and how to approach things if you’re worried about your mental or physical wellbeing)
Divorce. It’s still considered a taboo subject despite how common it has become. As of 2021, the average divorce rate in the UK was 42%, with the most common causes cited as couples having drifted apart, a lack of compatibility or intimacy, money issues, infidelity, poor communication, or abuse.
As of April 2022, no faults divorces were introduced in England and Wales, meaning couples can now divorce without needing to assign fault - and can even file digitally. That means an end to the blame game and, for many, a softer way to approach the subject.
But how do you raise the topic of divorce with your partner? And how can you do so safely, if you are seeking a divorce from an emotionally abusive or narcissistic partner? We spoke to three experts to find out more.
I want a divorce. What do I do?
We spoke with Katherine Rayden, Senior Partner at Rayden Solicitors, to find out more about how you should tell your partner that you want a divorce.
“Broaching the topic of divorce with your partner is never easy, especially when the decision is made by a single party in the relationship. Some people ask their solicitors to send the first letter but the ideal way is to broach the topic directly with your partner.
“I recommend choosing your time carefully. Never sit down with your spouse just before important events such as birthdays, family gatherings or important work events. The best time is during a quiet weekend so that you can take the time to answer any questions your partner has and to discuss important next best steps for your children and family. You should also ensure that any children are not around and there are no interruptions.
“Choose your language and words carefully. You will, of course, be feeling the stress and the pressure already after countless times reevaluating whether you’re making the right decision, but, deliberating over the words you choose can put you in a stronger position psychologically. Planning the words and language you will use will help you to deliver a very clear message without any room for miscommunication.
“Using statements in the first person such as “I” when referring to the reason for your decision and your feelings can help the conversation from turning into a ‘blame game’ by using words like “you”. It can help to highlight the reason for your unhappiness in a few prepared words.”
How do I tell my emotionally abusive partner I want a divorce?
Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship can feel particularly tough, due to the often hidden nature of the abuse. As emotional abuse can be harder for others to identify, it can leave those being abused feeling unable to speak out and ask for help.
We spoke with Counselling Directory member Sandra Harewood, Reg. MBACP., UKCP, to find out more about how you can approach the topic of divorce and prepare to split from an emotionally abusive partner.
“Having a conversation about divorce is rarely easy, especially in relationships with emotional abuse. Preparation is key. Make sure you have a support network which might include a counsellor.
“Before the conversation, it's essential to practice regulating your emotions. Then as you talk, you will better manage when you are triggered, stay calm, feel more assertive, respond, and not react to your partner.
“Be prepared for this to be a difficult conversation with some friction and self-defensive behaviour. So, pick a good time when neither of you is likely to be tired or distracted. Think about it and be clear on what you want to say, making sure you use the word divorce, so it's clear to your partner that you want the marriage to end.
“Although this has likely been on your mind for some time, it might not have been for your partner. So as you share your decision, listen to them and give them the space to speak while maintaining your boundaries.”
Find out more about how to get help for emotional abuse.
How do I tell my narcissistic partner I want a divorce?
While many people will display some degree of narcissism from time to time, those with narcissistic personality disorder may believe themselves to be superior to others, that their feelings, interests and opinions are more important, and may struggle to empathise with others. For the partner of someone with narcissistic personality disorder, this can mean that you are constantly adapting to fit their needs (often at the expense of your own), and may find yourself struggling with your self-esteem.
How, then, can you approach the topic of divorce with your partner? We spoke with Counselling Directory member, Integrative Counsellor David Cooper Prof.Dip.PsyC MNCS, to better understand how you can tell your partner you want a divorce.
“Any communication with a narcissistic partner has to be approached with extreme caution. It is easy to lose your voice when interacting with them. Persevere to advocate for yourself rather than be confused by their manipulative patterns. The narcissist will then recognise you are both knowledgeable and aware of their tactics making them less effective.”
Doing your best to stay strong and have faith in your own values and beliefs, David explains, is an important part of the process. If you haven’t already, research and try to better understand the difference between various types of narcissists, as this can help you to recognise their behaviours. It’s important to recognise that you cannot change them.
“Recognise that any attempts to change the narcissist will fail. They will never admit to being wrong due to their overriding sense of self-importance and grandiosity. The likelihood is they were originally attracted to you due to your empathetic nature so they will attempt to gaslight you the moment they are aware you wish to leave the relationship.”
You should also be on the lookout for friends, family members and acquaintances that may try and change your mind. As David explains, “Be aware of the narcissist’s 'Flying Monkeys' - the individuals they will 'recruit' to prove they are right and you should not leave them.”
Planning is key. Before you take the leap and have the conversation, try to get yourself ready – but be prepared to leave sooner if needs be. “Take legal advice and put money away to support yourself,” David suggests. “Seek the support of others (including professionals) and distance yourself from the narcissist as much as possible.
“Set your boundaries and stick to them, no matter what. The narcissist will attempt to break down these boundaries as they prevent them from reaching their goals. Keep a diary/record of all examples of narcissistic behaviour and abuse.
“If you have past evidence that there just is no talking or reasoning, understand that you may have to just leave (if this is possible). Narcissism is abuse. It is hard to prove in the courts but, if there is any threat of physical abuse, make the police aware of your situation and communicate with your partner through solicitors only.”
What should I avoid when telling my partner I want a divorce?
Now that we’ve heard from the experts on how we should approach talking to our partners about divorce, is there anything we should do our best to avoid?
Katherine suggests making sure you are absolutely certain that this is what you want before talking with your partner. “Don’t have the conversation unless you are absolutely certain it’s what you want for the long term. If it's something you have considered for a short while, don’t be too hasty in having the conversation with your spouse. Marriages do take work and relationships can be complicated so it’s natural to find yourself at low and high points during your time together.
“Be wary of who you confide in about your decision to divorce if you’re seeking advice and support from your family and friends before speaking with your partner. Your decision can become clouded with input from those close to you and the decision needs to be right for you and your immediate family such as your children. When approaching the topic of divorce with your spouse, the worst thing to do is to bring other people’s opinions and views into the conversation which is why the decision needs to be made by you and you alone.
How do I know if I truly want a divorce?
Before speaking with your partner, it’s important that you understand your own wants, desires and needs. There are a lot of things to consider, and no single set of circumstances or checklist of requirements to go through before knowing what the right option is for you. Just as every relationship is different, so too is how those relationships may end.
Consider what you are both contributing to the relationship, and to your own levels of unhappiness. Sometimes when we are unhappy, we look for outside causes, without considering if we are looking after our own health and wellbeing. Ensure you prioritise self-care, enjoy activities and have friendships outside of your marriage. Your own needs and wants should be a priority.
While it is perfectly natural to have different wants, interests, and needs, if you and your partner disagree on some fundamental areas, such as if you want to have children or where you are going to live, it may be a sign of incompatibility. Consider what is a deal-breaker for you.
Couples therapy (also known as relationship or marriage counselling) can be a healthy option for many. Couples counselling provides a judgement-free, safe space to discuss your relationship, and any specific areas of conflict, problems, or underlying issues.
A therapist can help you learn new ways of communicating together more openly and constructively, as well as give you both the opportunity to better understand how external factors (e.g. family values, culture, religion) may affect your relationship and why arguments may escalate. However, therapy doesn’t always ‘fix’ things - and that’s OK. It can still provide the space to work through your thoughts and feelings, to see if you do want to work together to rebuild or strengthen your relationship or decide if it may be time to move on.
A lack of intimacy (emotional or sexual), communication difficulties, a lack of respect or emotional connection, as well as imbalances in finances, and physical or emotional labour can all be common reasons why people decide divorce is the right option for them. For others, a loss of their sense of self, feeling unable to picture their future together, or a loss of trust due to infidelity can be dealbreakers.
It’s important to remember that any instances of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual, or financial), whether a ‘one-time thing’ or an ongoing situation, are never acceptable. You deserve to feel safe, supported, and loved. No one should live in fear or be made to feel like they are to blame for their partner’s behaviour.
Find out more about the barriers that can hold you back from leaving an abusive relationship, where to get help, and how you can move on from abuse.
Taking the next steps
To find out more about how you can apply for a divorce to end your marriage or apply for a dissolution to end your civil partnership, visit Citizens Advice. Here, you can find more information on how to divide shared money with your partner, what happens to your shared home, and how to decide where your children will live.
What if I can't afford a divorce?
Currently, legal aid is only available in England and Wales for divorces or dissolutions involving domestic abuse, child abduction, or those at risk of homelessness. To find out more, visit MoneyHelper.
I'm worried about my safety. What should I do?
If you are worried about your partner’s behaviour, feel threatened, or are worried about your safety, women can visit or call Refuge or Women’s Aid, or men can visit or call Men’s Advice Line. If you are worried about your or someone else's immediate safety, call 999.
Is it normal to be scared about divorce?
It’s normal to feel scared about the prospects of divorce. Big life changes can be daunting and complicated, while the fear of the unknown (what will happen next? How long will things take? What does the future hold?) can increase your overall sense of anxiety. Counsellor Christina shares more about what to expect when going through divorce, how you can reconnect with yourself, and the importance of allowing yourself time to grieve.
Can you still love someone and want a divorce?
It’s possible to still love someone and want a divorce at the same time. You may love someone, but recognise that you want different things or have different priorities in your lives. The person you love or you yourself may have changed over time, meaning you are no longer compatible. Or love may not be enough.
To find out more about separation and divorce counselling, what it involves, how it can help, and what to look for in a therapist, visit Counselling Directory or enter your postcode below to find a qualified, experienced therapist offering online, telephone, or in-person therapy sessions near you.