Divorce often arises from persistent disagreement and fundamental differences in perspective between spouses. Usually one spouse arrives at the conclusion to divorce, strongly in favor while the other experiences some reluctance. In many states, the divorce process itself can put additional stress on the situation. In a recent meetup of divorce professionals that I attended, we discussed this very topic of The Reluctant Spouse, how to best work with them and honor their resistance to ease the divorce process for everyone involved. Our group included therapists, financial and legal professionals.
Reasons Behind the Reluctance
To understand how to support a hesitant spouse, it's important to recognize what's driving the reluctancy.
Here are 3 potential causes:
- Ethical and Moral Reasons
- Divorce shatters their idea of "family." It feels like the death of a dream.
- Guilt over being viewed as responsible for a broken marriage and the impact it will have on the children.
- Legal and Financial Tactics
- When one spouse files for divorce, a lawyer may advise the reluctant spouse to do nothing. This can tire the other spouse and make them more amenable to their terms. The law in PA, for example, allows a spouse to wait for up to 2 years before responding, if they have been served divorce papers. And so, if a couple does not mutually consent to the divorce, they could remain "in limbo" or separated for up to two years before moving ahead with a no-fault irretrievable-breakdown divorce.
- Holding out for the other spouse to file so they can collect spousal support
- Fear and Painful Emotions
- a vengeful and/or controlling spouse.
- Don't want the marriage to end; afraid of being alone.
- Worried about the future and uncertainty.
So how can you help your reluctant spouse when you have decided it's over?
There are many factors that contribute to hesitance to move forward but, fortunately, there are several strategies to support the reluctant spouse in pursuing a healthy divorce.
Tip #1 - Work through Grief and Toward Acceptance
Maybe you have firmly decided to divorce, but your spouse is on the fence. It's critical to have some level of patience. Gently help your spouse realize that the divorce is going to happen while still acknowledging their loss. Without grieving the good and bad aspects of the marriage, your spouse may interpret divorce as meaning they just wasted years of their life. Discernment counseling can be extremely helpful in this regard.
Respectfully point out the dysfunction in the marriage to make them feel better about the divorce. Acknowledge that your marriage has been unhealthy for awhile, and while your spouse may be used to the dysfunction, it doesn't mean it's the optimal environment for you. Remind your spouse that s/he doesn't want to live with someone who doesn't want to live with them. Use the least amount of force for the best outcome as small steps allow for transition and the grieving process.
Tip #2 - Involve the Non-Reluctant Spouse
Foster a healthy and productive conversation between the two of you so you can help your partner come to terms with their divorce. If you are the initiating spouse, remove the blame from divorce by emphasizing that you assume responsibility for this divorce, and that it's not your partner's fault that you are leaving. The marriage just hasn't been great for either of you. Also, communicate clearly about your desire for a divorce with your partner. Sometimes, in an attempt to be nice, the non-reluctant spouse sends mixed signals about divorce and gives their partner a reason to hold onto hope that the divorce won't happen.
"How many people would take a ship without a known destination? This is what it feels like for the spouse not initiating the divorce."
Tip #3 - Reassure and Empower
How many people would take a ship without a known destination? This is what it feels like, if your spouse is not initiating the divorce. Unlike you, your reluctant spouse hasn't yet planned and prepared for divorce. Advise your reluctant spouse to read about divorce so they can start creating a picture of the other side of divorce. Dispel common divorce myths such as the mother milking their ex for child support and limited custody for families. People are afraid of a process that they've heard will take away their control so help them regain control by creating a realistic plan. Mediation can be an ideal option to help spouses feel more in control of what's happening.
Reassure the spouse that they're not alone in this process, and to seek outside sources of support. When emotions become too overwhelming, it may be helpfuul to switch gears and focus on more rational aspects, like financial planning. Once your spouse sees that they're going to financially survive, it may be easier for them to move forward with divorce. By crafting a concrete plan and more informed image of divorce, your spouse can start to envision the "light at the end of the tunnel."
Respect and Acknowledge Different Cultural Backgrounds
People from different cultures don't always understand the American divorce system, which can lead to hesitancy about moving forward. To help address confusion, professionals who work with divorcing clients can tap into metaphors and contexts that resonate from their cultural background. Also, when working with spouses from different cultures, do not stereotype them based on their background but, try to recognize if it's impacting how they're acting during the divorce process.