How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage

“I want a divorce.”

It’s one of the most alarming sentences a married person can hear. And — in one way or another — it means that your marriage is about to change.

But it doesn’t always mean that your marriage is about to end.

In my experience as a couples counselor and discernment counselor, I’ve learned that when your spouse asks you for a divorce, it breaks one of two ways: it either leads to a “transformational crisis” where couples make positive and often long-overdue changes to their relationship, or it’s the beginning of the end.

The good news is that you’re here, looking for answers. That’s a sign that you’re trying to achieve positive change. Now all you need are the tools to do it.

That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you. I wanted to give you some guidance for navigating this incredibly scary situation, based on my work with countless couples over the years who pulled their marriages back from the brink of divorce. I know from experience that it is often possible to stop a divorce and save your marriage, but only if you manage this relationship crisis effectively. My hope is that this episode of the podcast will help you do that. 

Later on, I’m joined by Rich Harris, a family law attorney in the Denver area who knows a lot about the other side of this issue. Rich is offering advice about where to begin if you aren’t able to save your marriage (although his team at the Harris Law Firm has seen many couples reconcile, even after their divorce cases were well underway). 

I hope you’ll join me. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Let’s Talk.
Schedule a Free Consultation Today.

Episode Highlights: How to Stop a Divorce and Save a Marriage

How you handle yourself in the hours, days and weeks after your partner has asked for a divorce can make all the difference as to how things unfold. 
I believe that you often can stop a divorce from happening if you are able to stay in control of yourself and rise above the immediate emotions of the situation. 
(Particularly if your partner asked for a divorce as a “cry for help,” and not as a serious, premeditated action.)
Read on for some insight into why divorce happens, and to get practical advice on how to handle yourself if you want the best shot at saving your marriage

Why Divorce Happens

Relationships fail when one person stops believing that the relationship can get better, and can no longer tolerate the way things are. 

This pretty much never happens out of the blue. If your partner has asked for a divorce, they may have been trying (and failing) to change your relationship for quite awhile, and gradually losing hope that change was possible. 

Your partner’s efforts may have made them look like they were the source of the problems between you, since they were the one agitating for change (which can look like criticizing, complaining, or “always” being upset). Their way of trying to create change may have even added some relationship-damaging ingredients to the mix (which marriage counselors call “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”). But neither one of you is “the problem” in your marriage — your partner’s distress was simply a symptom of the problem. 

Other times, relationships end after something dramatically horrible happens that both partners don’t know how to repair. It could be the discovery of an affair — including emotional affairs, Facebook affairs, financial infidelity, or sexual affairs. You may have had a fight so terrible that you feel like you can never go back to the way things were. Or, there may have been a time in your relationship when your partner really needed you and you weren’t there, which led them to feel abandoned and alone in your relationship

These “big bad events” can be silent sleepers. The terrible thing may have happened months or even years ago, and you may have believed you were moving past it. But if that hurt wasn’t repaired properly at the time, it won’t just go away, even if you and your spouse are getting along and things seem normal. The unrepaired injury can make it impossible for your partner to trust and rely on you, causing them to withdraw from the relationship until they no longer feel emotionally invested in it.

Finally, sometimes people ask for a divorce because they’ve formed an attachment to someone else. Long-term monogamous relationships are difficult, and new relationships feel exciting and easy. When you’re married with a crush on someone else, it’s easy to start believing that a new relationship is the answer to all your problems. 

People who are cheating often start to believe negative narratives about their partner. This helps them feel less guilt and shame about what they’re doing. Your partner may be telling you that they cheated because there’s something wrong with you or with your relationship — which is a mind-blowinglingly painful thing to hear. It’s also not the truth. In reality, many people cheat for no good reason whatsoever. If your partner ended the affair and released their attachment to the affair partner, they would most likely realize their marriage is worth saving. Working with an affair recovery expert who understands this common dynamic can be really helpful here.

How Did Your Partner Ask for a Divorce?

What was your partner’s emotional state when they told you they wanted a divorce? Were they crying? Raising their voice? Did it happen in the midst of a bad fight? 

Or, was your partner calm and collected? Did they tell you they wanted to discuss something with you and then ask you to take a seat?

There’s a world of difference between these two approaches. If your partner was flooded with emotions when they told you they wanted to call it quits in your marriage, it’s possible that it was a cry for help. They may have needed you to understand how overwhelmed and hopeless they were feeling, and brought up divorce because they didn’t know how else to make you see. 

Even though it was no doubt a scary moment, this is actually the best case scenario. Your partner would not be so upset if they didn’t still have an emotional stake in your relationship. It’s not that they want to get divorced (no one really wants to get divorced), it’s that they don’t know how else to resolve the problems in your relationship, and they don’t believe they can continue on much longer. 

No matter how emotional your partner was during this conversation, you should take what they said very seriously (more on that later). They just emitted a five-alarm distress signal. If you ignore it, there’s a very real possibility your marriage will end in divorce. 

If your partner communicates wanting a divorce calmly, that can be more serious. It may mean that they’ve reached this decision after a long period of deliberation and months or even years of detaching from the relationship. If this is the case, there may still be hope. 

Nearly everyone who asks for a divorce feels some degree of ambivalence. A special form of couples counseling called discernment counseling can help you both resolve your ambivalence, and get clear about the problems in your marriage and what it would take to repair them. 

Through the discernment process, most couples decide that they do want to work on their relationships. Then and only then can marriage counseling be successful, because you’ll both have clarity about what you want and commitment to the process of creating it. 

Some couples who go through discernment counseling decide that they do want to divorce. The process is still incredibly valuable, because it 

1) helps you grieve the end of your marriage, so you can heal and move forward.

2) lays the foundation for an amicable divorce, and

3) helps you establish a positive co-parenting relationship, if you have children. 

Learn more about discernment counseling

What to Do When Your Partner Asks for a Divorce

Now that you’ve learned about your partner’s state of mind, let’s talk about how to stop a divorce and save your marriage. 

If your partner asks for a divorce and you don’t want one, your one immediate goal is to restore their hope that your marriage can get better. 

Your goal is not to win the argument. It’s not to defend yourself against their complaints, even the ones that feel totally unfair. And it’s definitely not to convince them that things aren’t as bad as they’re telling you they are. Your only goal right now is to restore hope. 

You’re doing this because you have every reason to be hopeful — if you weren’t someone who was capable of tremendous growth, you wouldn’t be reading this article or listening to this podcast. But we all fall into bad relationship patterns, and it can be hard to see your way out of them. With the right support, you can create positive change in your marriage — and you should. 

The problem is that your partner is starting to doubt that it’s possible. They are close to giving up. Maybe because they’ve tried and failed to make things better for so long. Maybe because neither one of you knew how bad things were until you reached this point of crisis. Maybe you did know, but you didn’t know what to do about it. 

And why would you know what to do? No one teaches us how to remove an appendix, and no one teaches us how to save a floundering marriage. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There are professionals who know exactly how to help you — your job right now is to perform relationship CPR until you and your partner can make it to the hospital.  

Here’s how:

  1. Listen — Let your partner get it out. All of it. All of the hurt, anger, desperation, and confusion. Don’t challenge the way they see things, offer easy solutions, or minimize their feelings. Listen to your partner like what they’re telling you is the most important thing you’ve ever heard. Because it might be.  
  1. Ask open-ended questions — Do more than listen passively. When it’s your turn to speak, ask your partner open-ended questions about their experience in your relationship. This will help them see that you truly care about what they think and how they feel, so much that you want to make sure that you understand them fully. 
  1. Validate — This is where most of us get tripped up. When your partner is telling you something that hurts to hear — like the list of reasons they don’t want to be married to you any more — it’s the most natural thing in the world to push that pain far away by telling them their perspective is distorted or unfair. You might even be right about that; it doesn’t matter one bit right now. If you’re lucky, there will be time in the future for both of you to gain understanding about how you’re each contributing to the problems in your marriage. You’ll never get that opportunity if you emotionally invalidate your partner when you’re supposed to be performing CPR

Validating your partner doesn’t require seeing everything exactly the way they see it. Even if you have a different point of view, you can show them that their thoughts and feelings are valid to you with a statement like “Thank you for telling me this. I think it’s really important for me to hear. I love you and I want you to be happy. Can you tell me more about how you’ve been feeling?” 

  1. Empathize — If your partner has reached this place, they’re feeling terrible, and they have been for a while. Reflect their feelings back to them and let them know that you care. This is your partner and their pain is your pain. Tell them how sad you are that they’re feeling so hurt and so unhappy. 
  1. Show them you’re serious — This is not the time for empty promises. Telling your partner things will change and then failing to follow through will create greater trust issues in your relationship, and reinforce their belief that divorce is the only option. Tell your partner you recognize how serious the problems in your relationship are, that you’re committed to doing whatever it takes to fix them, and that you will make an appointment with a good marriage counselor (or discernment counselor) today. Then, do it. 

When Divorce Can’t Be Stopped

If you handle this situation well, I believe it is very likely that you will have an opportunity to work on your marriage, and to save it. Couples who get help for their relationships before things are awful usually have the best outcomes, but I have also seen many couples tip-toe right up to the edge of divorce, only to turn their relationships around in powerful ways through marriage counseling. Sometimes, a brush with disaster is what it takes to make positive change. 

But, it’s also true that some relationships cannot be saved. If your partner has reached the emotional “point of no return,” you might not be able to fix your relationship, even with the best marriage counselor in the world. 

If this is the case, it’s really important that you get connected with a good family law attorney who can help you divorce in the most amicable way possible. Mediation may be a good option for you, and is often a way to navigate this difficult process in a way that’s healthier for everyone involved, especially your children. 

Whether you’re seeking a divorce lawyer, a marriage counselor, a discernment counselor, or a divorce recovery counselor, the people you choose to work with at a pivotal moment like this will have a big impact on the trajectory of your life. Make sure you choose an experienced professional who you trust, who can answer your questions, and who shares your goals. 

Finally, take good care of yourself during this difficult time. It might not feel like it right now, but you will get through this and it will all be ok. 

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage

Music

Music in this episode is by Nice as F*ck with their song “Door.” You can support them and their work at jennylewis.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. On today’s show, we’re talking about what to do if your partner has asked for a divorce that you don’t want. You’re going to learn about strategies to stop the divorce, turn things around, and get your relationship back on track. We’re listening to the song, Door, from the band Nice As (bleep). Thank you to my producer for bleeping right there. 

That band is one of the amazing and numerous projects of the incredibly talented musician, Jenny Lewis. You can learn more about Jenny Lewis. She has a new album out called On the Line. I imagine that tour dates will be imminent. You can check out the album and when she’ll be around at her website, jennylewis.com. 

On today’s episode, I’m answering a question, that as a marriage counselor, I hear all the time, which is, “How can I stop a divorce and save my marriage?” If you’re asking yourself that question, there’s a reason why. You’re probably feeling panicked. You know, maybe your partner has just asked for a divorce, and you might have known that there were problems in your marriage. 

But if you’re feeling blindsided, you probably never expected that your partner would suggest separating or ending your marriage. And now that that gauntlet has been thrown down, you’re probably feeling really scared and anxious, freaked out and desperate for solutions, right? Like, “How do I fix this?” 

If you are in this position, I am, first of all, so sorry for what you’re going through. I know that this is a very scary thing for anyone to face and that the path ahead can feel very overwhelming and uncertain. And I also know that, believe it or not, one day, you may look back on this experience, even a couple years from now and feel, dare I say, even grateful that it happened. 

Difficult experiences are how we grow both as individuals and in our relationships. Sometimes it takes a near collision for us to make the deep and lasting changes that we need to make. Anxiety can be a powerful source of motivation, and it can also provide a lot of clarity about our most important values. So today’s episode is intended to help you assess these opportunities to stop a divorce, and also, give you a roadmap for saving your marriage if it can be saved.

Specifically, you’ll be learning about why people initiate divorces to give you some insight into your partner’s mind. And also, how to handle this very fragile situation, if they do so, as to, one, not make things worse, and two, ideally use this crisis as a doorway for a new chapter of your relationship and one that leads to really positive and possibly even long needed positive changes. 

Additionally, later in the show, we’ll be visiting with an expert family law attorney about what to do legally and logistically if, despite all of your efforts, your partner is just dead set on a divorce and repair is not possible. So you’ll be getting some takeaways and tips there, too. There is lots of good information planned for you in today’s episode, so be ready to take notes. And let’s dive in. 

The very first and most important thing we should talk about to help you navigate this entire process is to develop an understanding of why divorce happens. Why does divorce happen? Because if you can wrap your head around the dynamics of the situation and not just what is going on, but what has been going on, then you will be able to make decisions in alignment with the truth of the situation. 

The reality of this, which may come as a surprise to you if you are genuinely blindsided or shocked that your partner is asking for a divorce, but divorce never happens all of a sudden. It happens because one person, at least one person, has lost hope that things can get better, and they can no longer tolerate the way that things are. 

That does not necessarily mean that your partner has been communicating the fact that they’ve lost hope. They might not have been communicating that they’re not no longer finding this tolerable. Some people really internalize this for a long time, and you don’t know what’s going on with them on the inside, and that’s a really hard situation. 

It can also be the case that your partner has tried many times to talk about it; tried to initiate counseling; tried to get both of you to make changes in your relationship; talked about the way they were feeling; talked about the things that they would like to have be different, like, “Let’s read this book. Let’s do the things.” 

It’s hard because if you are in a relationship that is stressed, right? If there’s conflict, if there’s issues, it can be very easy, just relationally, for the person who’s saying, “I don’t feel good about this thing,” to appear, like they are the problem, right? They’re arguing, they’re criticizing, they’re complaining, right? 

When people are arguing with you and complaining and asking for things to be different, that means that they are still in the ring. They are fighting for change. They are having conversations with you. They’re talking about their feelings, even if you know they are tinged with anger, right? Which can be hard to hear. But there’s hope when people are arguing, right? 

One of the actual big warning signs that a divorce may be coming down the pipeline, is if there has been a lot of conflict and arguing and complaining, and then all of a sudden, it stops, like it can feel actually like more pleasant and more peaceful. Do not be confused. That is also a sign of somebody giving up the fight, being like, “Well, this isn’t going to change so what’s the point of me continuing to argue and ask and try to make this different?” 

“Because I’ve done that 900 times and why should I continue?” So they are beginning actually the process of detaching emotionally from a relationship and that process of detachment can take a really long time. It can take months, it can take years, eve. And somebody is, sort of, quietly gliding down the off ramp of a relationship, but the relationship itself can feel more calm. 

If you’re experiencing something like that in your relationship, and there’s not an object or reason why things would have gotten better all of a sudden, you should ask your partner how they’re doing and hope that there’s still, care enough to try to tell you and take it seriously if they do. 

It’s also true that when people are asking for change, when they’re fighting, when there’s conflict happening in a relationship, sometimes they can say, “Okay, well, let’s let’s do marriage counseling.” And we’re like, “Okay, fine, let’s do marriage counseling.” Just because you, air quote, do marriage counseling does not mean that you have engaged in marriage counseling, or done marriage counseling with somebody who is qualified to help you. 

You know, one of the things that precipitates a divorce, and it kind of ties into that narrative of, “This is never gonna get better. I can’t tolerate this. And we’ve done everything that we possibly could to try to make this better.” If you try marriage counseling for the purpose of relationship improvement, and one or both of you isn’t really engaged in the process, it’s kind of like, yeah, you’re there. You’re sitting on the couch. 

You’re kind of participating in sessions, but not really opening up. Not really doing the work, both in and out of sessions, which is really where the action is. Not following through with the recommendations of a marriage counselor. You haven’t really done everything that you can, and that’s something to consider. 

The other thing to know, and I’ve mentioned this on previous podcasts, but a very dark and serious reality in my profession, is that the vast majority of, even licensed therapists who are providing couples counseling and marriage counseling services, do not have specialized training and experience in marriage and family therapy. 

They are LPCs, they’re psychologists, they’re social workers, who are– , nobody’s going to stop them from providing couples counseling and seeing those clients. 

Compared to a true expert in marriage and family therapy, which is a licensed marriage and family therapist, they don’t have nearly the education or training or expertise, specifically in evidence-based practices that help couples repair relationships, using a systems perspective, which is fairly unique to marriage and family therapists.

If you tried marriage counseling and dutifully showed up to the appointments, and it was with a licensed psychologist who did not have any of this training in school, and they’re talking about fairly rudimentary things, or, as is very common, trying to diagnose one of you with a mental health issue that is objectively the basis for your relationship problems, that is very different than the kind of experience you would have with an MFT.

Who is able to come in and do an assessment of your relationship, of your family of origin dynamics, of your attachment style, of different kinds of interactions that you’re having, between each other, with your family, because relationships are systems.

There’s a push, and there is a pull in relationships, and it can be very easy to miss the big picture and the systemic causes of relational conflict. And so, if you have tried marriage counseling before, and it wasn’t successful, and it was also not with somebody who meets the criteria of what I’m describing to you, it may be worth giving it another shot. 

I just wanted to put that out there. So, those are some of the reasons why divorce happens. Other reasons, of course, too, and this is kind of a different animal, but a divorce can also happen if something really just regrettable happens, and one partner doesn’t think that they can carry on with a relationship after that event. And that also does happen. Things are kind of humming along, and then, a current or past infidelity was disclosed. 

An infidelity can take many forms. It can be sexual, it could be emotional infidelity, financial infidelity. There could be a very big and explosive, and even tinging on violent kind of fight, where it’s just like, “How do we even come back from this?” It can be very bad. Big other betrayals, feeling abandoned by your partner and a time of need. Attachment traumas are very real, and they can fester for a long time. 

I’ve talked to so many people. And even though the relationship didn’t end right at that moment, when I talked to them, they go back, and they’re like, “It was when I went into labor, and was going to the hospital, and my partner told me, they’d be there in a couple hours after they wrapped up their their golf game, or whatever that was.” 

“I was never so scared in my life. I never needed them more and they weren’t there for me when I needed them.” And that created damage. And if that damage isn’t repaired in an organized way, and intentionally, those wounds don’t just go away. And so, very old attachment traumas and wounds can be festering for a very long time. 

You know, five years later, it turns into a divorce, but there was a very long, long road towards that. Another reason why people can and do get divorced is if they have formed an attachment bond to someone else. When people are, and I just want to say something–I think there’s a myth, both in our culture and also, even with a lot of therapists that I’ve talked to.

The myth is that if you form an attachment bond to somebody else, you develop a crush on somebody, or an emotional sort of entanglement, or even a sexual affair, that is a sign of issues with the relationship. And that is not my experience. I don’t think that’s true.

I think, and I’ve experienced this many times with clients, that normal, healthy humans who are out in the world are sensitive to attractive people. We are all sort of engaged by novelty and new situations and exciting conversations. And it is also true that a long term, healthy relationship is very difficult. True emotional intimacy is very hard and it’s scary. 

What I mean by that is that, if you’re going through something, if you’re having a hard time, if you’re feeling unhappy about something that’s happening in the relationship, real emotional intimacy requires you to be talking authentically with your partner. Having courageous conversations saying, “I have been feeling this way, and I don’t know what to do, and I just  want so much to feel loved and cared for.”

“When these things happen, it just– it really hurts me, and I need to feel like we’re connected again,” those conversations are so hard to have. They’re terrifying, right? And particularly, if you guys are still figuring out how to have emotionally healthy, connected communication, you’re also putting yourself at risk for having a bad experience with your partner.

If you’re authentic, if you’re vulnerable, and then you feel rejected by that. So for that reason, we are all also vulnerable to a dynamic called trianguling, where it’s hard and scary to talk to your partner about how you feel, and it’s very easy to talk to this person outside your relationship, who you don’t actually have this enormous attachment bond to, and they’re very sympathetic listener, and you know what? They get you, right? 

I mean, I have done a whole podcast on this topic of what to do if you’re married and have a crush on someone else, that talks a lot about how and why these dynamics form. And having affairs or emotional attachments can be a precipitator of a divorce or a broken relationship when they don’t have to be. 

These two can be really amazing growth moments, where, if you’re able to unpack this with somebody who knows how to help you, turns into “Why did you feel so much more comfortable talking with this person about your feelings, and not have it turned into a situation where the other person is being blamed?” 

It is also universally true that when people lie, cheat, steal, or do any kind of bad things, they will develop a narrative in their mind about why it makes sense for them to do this, why they’re entitled to do this. They will start telling themselves stories about negative things that their partners may be doing or not doing, and these are magnified, not because the relationship was intrinsically flawed, or the partner is a bad person. 

But because they need to avoid a cognitive dissonance, right? They need to be able to justify the things that they’re also knowing that they’re doing, which are not for the benefit of the marriage or the family. So there can be many complex factors getting involved in this situation, and it’s important for you to have an awareness of what’s going on, so that you can navigate this clearly and without making it worse. 

Some of these issues are more difficult to fix than others. And there is hope, in my experience with just about all of them. The ones that are more difficult is– and actually, may be signs that your relationship is not worth saving, that maybe you should just let it go, are situations where there is abuse, domestic violence, emotional or verbal abuse. Sometimes, untreated substance use disorders. Sometimes, untreated mental health situations. 

If your partner is just patently unable or unwilling to get help, you may need to make decisions about how you want to handle that. And I’ve also recorded other podcasts on those topics you’ll want to check out. One is, When to call it quits in a marriage, where I go into that in-depth. And let me think, was there another one? Oh. How to get your needs met in a relationship. And then, What to do if your partner has a problem. 

Considering Divorce? Or Is There Still Hope?

Those would all be podcast episodes that you might consider listening to if you’re trying to figure out what to do. So with those things in mind, now let’s talk about, how to know if– do you have an opportunity to save this marriage, and what to do or not to do in order to steer it in the way that you want it to go? So when people start talking about divorce, when they throw down that gauntlet, it usually happens in one of two ways. 

Either it is passionately, right? They say it in the heat of the moment; they’re emotionally elevated. Maybe you were fighting. Maybe they just felt let down. Maybe they just felt really hurt or scared. It’s important to know, actually, that many times, anger is a secondary emotion. When people are seeming or behaving in angry ways, underneath that, they are scared or they’re hurt. 

If that’s the way your partner is feeling, they may be using words like divorce as a way of communicating how angry or hurt or scared they are. They’re trying to get through, right? Saying the word divorce is like a slap across the face. In those old movies where somebody’s hysterical, like, “Get it together!” A slap in the face. That word can have that impact, right? 

In these cases, if this is said with passion and extreme situation, in some ways, this is the best case scenario, right? They’re likely going there– using that language, because they don’t know how else to be heard. They’re trying to get through to you. They’re trying to communicate to you how serious their feelings are. It’s kind of like a cry for help, right? 

It is very, very important that you take this very seriously, even though it’s coming from an emotional place. When people get elevated and escalated, it’s because they’re not feeling heard. And so, if you can, “Stop, I hear you. And you know what? We’ll talk more about how to handle this moment later.” 

But that in itself, can be a healing moment, rather than, yet another experience that accumulates into this overall picture of, “Change is not possible, and this is not tolerable for me anymore.” So the way you handle that can be a healing experience or another wounding one.

The other way that divorce can be communicated is calmly, and this is often more serious. Sometimes, people ask for divorce, or many times after a very long period of deliberation, and incremental detachment, right? And this is may be a surprise to you, but it’s been a couple of years coming for them. 

Over the course of this, they have slowly given up hope that things could change, and started silently withdrawing from the relationship, years before they actually asked for a divorce. Think about the quiet quitting concept, right? They’ve been done for a while. This is much harder to fix, than an empassioned threat of divorce. 

It is also true that if your partner is, by the time they’re talking about the divorce, completely out of the pool, from an emotional perspective, sometimes, there’s not really a lot you can do. And this is hard. I’ve had this experience so many times, where I get a frantic call, like, “Oh my gosh. We have to save our marriage.” And it is the person who has just been told quietly and calmly that their partner is not interested in continuing the relationship.

That is oftentimes after the partner, who is now quietly calmly asking for divorce, has previously, for years, been upset, arguing, emotional, trying to fight for change in the relationship, and finally gave up. And then, when this is done, the person who had been minimizing the problems in their relationship, “Oh, it’s not that bad. No, marriage counseling is too expensive. No, it’s fine. You just need to accept me the way I am.” Or like, unwilling to engage. 

That person is now calling my office frantically and trying to set up an appointment and I mean, “I need the first appointment available, and we need to see you three times a week.” And they’re coming in and they’re on the couch, and they have their notebooks, and they’re ready to take notes. And they’re like, “Yes, I’m gonna do all the things. Tell us what to do.” They’re super motivated.

Their partner is like, “Where the hell was this five years ago? Because this would have made a difference to me then. And now? I’m not sure that it does, actually.” And that is so, so hard. And it’s very real. When relationships are resilient, they can be repaired, and the earlier, the better. So that’s why I’m constantly harping on like, “Come in sooner, rather than later.” 

Even if you don’t think it’s that serious, this is actually when you should be addressing it and growing together as a couple because you can get past a point of no return. So there is– well, I’m  going to talk about a couple of other things here. 

There can, still, potentially be opportunity, even at that point, and we’ll talk about that more in a second. But before we do, I just want to give you a couple of tips for what to do or not to do when your partner asks for divorce. 

So, if you do not want the relationship to end, if your intention is to get this back together again, your number one goal is to restore your partner’s hope that things can get better in your marriage, and to be very, very careful that you are not trying to win an argument, be the person with the most valid grievances, fight with them. Your only goal is to show them that this can get better. And the skills of doing that are, one, just listening. 

Don’t challenge how they see things, don’t offer easy solutions, don’t minimize. Just like, “Tell me more about how you’ve been feeling.” So open ended questions. “Wow, I didn’t realize that. How long have you been feeling that way? Tell me more.” Not not looking to fix or problem solve or talk about you. We’re listening, right? Also, very important to validate your partner’s feelings, acknowledge their reality, even if you see things differently. 

If you want to learn more about validation, what it is, and how to avoid emotionally invalidating your partner, I would invite you to check out another podcast about emotional invalidation, that I made. Also, you want to be sure to empathize with your partner, which is putting yourself in their shoes. 

Even if you see things differently, you feel differently, being able to understand and recognize how your partner must be feeling right now if they’ve reached this place, and what the journey must have been like for them to get there. And then, empathize with that. Reflect their feelings back to them, let them know how important it is to you about how they they feel, and communicate your desire that they feel happy with a relationship. 

Also, if you’re feeling this way, talk about how sad you feel, that they have had these experiences with you, and that has led them to the conclusion that this relationship is no longer sustainable to them. I mean, hearing that in itself might be helpful and important. Because many times people who’ve been on that off ramp really feel like their partners don’t understand them or if they do understand them, they don’t care.

Even using this conversation as an opportunity to show them that that’s not true, can be really helpful. Also, if the time is right, you can talk about what a path forward could look like. Not that you need to know how to solve all the problems in your relationship. You don’t need to know. That’s not your job. That’s what marriage counselors do. 

But to be talking about the fact of how serious you are about making positive changes in your marriage, intentions to take full responsibility for the things that you have been doing that have been contributing to the way that they’ve been feeling, and then following through. Showing them that you’re serious about making these positive changes, taking the responsibility to find a good marriage counselor, make the appointment, make sure everybody gets there on time. 

Whatever you do, don’t promise anything that you aren’t fully able and willing to follow through with because if they’re willing to be, “Okay, let’s see. To have that fall through, and we’re done.” So be very careful. Understand how fragile of a situation this is. 

Then most importantly, it can be very easy for any of us to get hooked into an argument, particularly, if your partner is talking about things that they’ve experienced with you that you perceive differently, or that you– “That’s not what I meant. That didn’t happen.” Don’t do that. Getting angry or getting defensive is not going to help you. Your goal is not to win this argument. 

Your goal is to show your partner that there still hope for your marriage. Okay, so the other thing that I’d like to talk about just very briefly before we get some other advice from a family law attorney is about a very special kind of couples counseling that is called discernment counseling. Any time that people make big decisions, including whether or not to get divorced, even if, on some levels, they’re pretty clearly want to do this. 

There’s always usually at least a smidge of ambivalence, right? “Am I making the right decision? How do I know if it’s okay or not? Can I get better?” I mean, this is going on inside of people. And so, it is also true, though, that if you and your partner are in different places about where you are in terms of your commitment to the relationship, like say, your partner is further on down that path of like “ I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” 

You’re like, “Oh, yes. Here I am. Let’s do this.” That is called a mixed agenda couple. And very frequently, particularly, if you are, unfortunately, going and attempting marriage counseling with somebody who is not a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, they will assume that you are both there for the purpose of improving your relationship, and we’ll set forth with marriage counseling, as usual, with a goal of marriage counseling to be improving your relationship. 

When people are in different places, if somebody is ambivalent about the relationship, that marriage counseling will almost always fail. It will not be successful because that’s not really why we’re here. There are, kind of, hidden agendas in that. 

One person could even be like, “Yes, I will go through the motions of attending marriage counseling, so that I can say that I’ve done everything to try to save this relationship, and will be further validated in my decision to leave the marriage.” I mean, there can be all kinds of stuff going under the hood there. So, instead, engage with a very special kind of counseling called discernment counseling, or discernment coaching. 

The goal of this kind of counseling is not to repair a relationship. The goal of discernment counseling is to help two people decide whether or not they have the mental, emotional resources, desire, commitment, motivation, to repair a relationship, and to get clarity about if the relationship is going to be repaired. 

What specifically would be involved in repairing this relationship, and do you want to do this? So the outcome of discernment counseling is either that two people, through doing this work with a qualified MFT, can come to the end of it, and say, “You know what?”

“After really understanding the true problems and our relationship more clearly, and doing some assessment of motivation and commitment and values, we have both come to the conclusion that yes, we would actually like to work on a relationship, and that it is sincere.” And then, we can move into marriage counseling for the purpose of relationship improvement. 

Most of the time, that is the outcome of discernment counseling. Sometimes the outcome of discernment counseling is that, after really talking things through, and what is the commitment? What do we have to work with? What would we each be needing to do in order to have the kind of relationship that both of us want? 

Navigating the Post-Divorce Stages of Grief

Sometimes, at the end of that unity, people will like, in the cold light of day, “Even if this was as good as it possibly could be, I still don’t think that this would be the best for both of us.” And then can consciously uncouple, in the words of dear Gwyeneth. But make make a really informed but also, authentic decision to end. 

That helps the person who is wanting the divorce more, the leaning out partner, feel more confident in that decision, but also, it can be enormously helpful for the partner who had wanted to repair that relationship, the leaning in partner, even if the result of those conversations is not that the marriage is going to be repaired. 

They’ll still have a lot more understanding about why the relationship failed. Understanding about what they were up against. It will be a growth experience. And it is really incredibly helpful, I think, for their own healing process to have had those conversations with their partner and with a counselor. 

Amicable Divorce

Furthermore, I think going through that process, in the event that a couple does want to divorce and if there are children involved, really, can also create a foundation to have an amicable divorce that is much easier and healthy than one where it’s fraught, and people haven’t done this kind of pre-work to get there. 

More on the topic of amicable divorce on yet, another podcast I have recorded for you. But to consider that discernment counseling– there are no bad outcomes of discernment counseling, even if the relationship isn’t repaired. And even if your partner who is asking for a divorce is pretty far gone and 90% convinced that they want to get divorced, they probably wouldn’t go to marriage counseling with you. 

But to be talking about discernment counseling, to talk about the pros and cons, and the goal of this is “For both of us to have clarity,” that may actually be appealing to them because that is where they are, right? They do have a little bit of ambivalence. 

To get them to engage in that process with a stated goal of clarity can also lead to a growth process, where now, they are having new experiences and thinking about the relationship in a different way. That can be quite helpful, and healing and, even restore their hope. That isn’t always the outcome, but it certainly can be. And so, discernment counseling is something to think about. Okay, this is a ton of information, and my friends, there is still more information. 

We have been talking a lot about the emotional and relational factors when people ask for divorce, what’s going on, things that you can do to stop a divorce, do’s and don’ts to steer your relationship back towards repair, if that is possible. And as I mentioned, in previous sections, there are situations where a divorce is basically inevitable. Maybe something so awful has happened, there really is no going back. 

Maybe your partner is simply dead-set on it and is not willing to have further conversation. There is no hope for repair, and whether or not you want it to happen, it is going to happen. And that’s such a hard situation to be in, right?

I wanted to give you some expert advice on what to do and how to handle that, if a divorce is definitely coming down the pipeline. And since I am not an attorney, I decided to invite an actual expert family law attorney on the program to share their advice with you. So joining me for this part of our important conversation is my friend Rich Harris. 

Self-Care Tips for When You’re Going Through a Divorce

Rich is a family law attorney and managing partner at the Harris Law Firm, here in Colorado. Rich has many years of experience in providing both advice and practical assistance to people considering or going through the process of divorce. And he’s joining us today to share his tips with you. So Rich, thank you so much for joining me.

Rich Harris: It’s my pleasure, Dr. Lisa. Thank you for having me.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, on today’s show, we’ve been talking primarily about– with with our listeners, about how they could handle the situation if their partner asks for divorce, throws down that gauntlet, and we’ve been talking about it from a relational and emotional perspective. So how they can navigate this situation with their partner, in order to ideally steer this crisis situation back towards repair, right? 

You and I both know that there are situations where a divorce is just unilateral, one person is done, they’re doing this and whether or not their partner wants it. It’s it’s happening, right? 

Rich: Sure. 

Lisa: Yeah. And so obviously, that person is going to be in terrible pain and just devastated. And, in times like this, among other things, it can be very hard to just make decisions. I mean, we’re so emotional, right? 

Rich: Sure.

Lisa: That’s why I was hoping to bring you in. I mean, if somebody isn’t able to kind of get this back on track, do you have general thoughts or ideas about what they should do in this situation? Should they try to find an attorney and a mediator? So how do you find somebody who’s good? I mean, where would they even start?

Rich: All great questions, Dr. Lisa. So, let me start here with the following. In all my years of doing this kind of work, it is almost always the case that only one of the spouses actually wants the divorce. 

I don’t know if it’s because I happen to get a skewed cross section of all the folks who are going through divorce that they’re hiring attorney so things are contested, perhaps. But it’s my experience after doing this for almost three decades. Wow. I have to pause on– even say that myself, it’s been long. But it’s almost always the case that only one of the spouses wants it. 

The first piece of advice I would give for your listeners, and I know this is your language, too, is to give yourself a little bit of grace. Have some patience. Realize that you’re not alone, for sure. It is very common. If you’re the spouse that either doesn’t want it, or is perhaps, even worse, blindsided by it, realize, it’s gonna be incredibly hard no matter what, and you’re in a situation that, sadly, many, many folks are in. 

I do think that having a good network around you from the very beginning, is an important first step. From my perspective, that starts with a great therapist to help somebody all along the way at every step of it. It should include folks you can talk to outside of the professional world, a friend, a relative, somebody that you can talk to, unload on, take your call at two in the morning when you might be losing it a bit. 

Then, and perhaps, only then, you should be thinking about, “Alright, what are the other professionals I need, including a good attorney?” And I can talk about how you can go about finding a good attorney if that’s helpful.

Lisa:  Well, yeah. And I know that there can be different paths forward. I know that there are attorneys and there are also mediators. To most people in the situation, where it’s not something that they’re both seeking, is mediation possible at this point? Or is the recommendation to find, a family law attorney– because many attorney practices, they can offer mediation services, is that right?

Rich: Yes, that’s true, and we do as well. So, let me say the following. First of all, I believe very strongly in mediation. I think that almost every divorcing couple can benefit from mediation. Whether the divorce is wanted by both sides or not. Whether it’s contested or not, mediation will almost always help. Unless it’s a situation involving domestic violence, mediation is something that will always help. 

Having said that, I strongly believe that having legal advice from an independent attorney who can advise you as to your rights is indispensable as well. A good attorney can help you mediate, can help you prepare, help you go through it, help you make sure that if you reach an agreement, that it’s written up in a way that protects you and your children, if you have them. So I think that folks should be interviewing attorneys, first. 

Divorce with Kids

Good attorneys will talk about mediation from the very first meeting, and steer you in that direction. But mediators are ethically prevented from giving either side legal advice. And I think most folks would benefit from legal advice, especially if you have kids.

Lisa: Thank you so much for talking through that. I’m not sure that I was aware of all the different distinctions, but I see how that would make a ton of sense like, “Yes, get involved in mediation, and have your person in your corner, who’s, kind of, coaching you and providing you with advice and helping make sure that the outcome of it is positive for you. 

Rich: That’s right. 

Lisa: Ultimately– Yeah.

Rich That’s right. Thank you. 

Lisa: That makes a lot of sense. Okay. Well, and so, I think you’ve already given us some information about that. But I mean, just putting ourselves in the shoes of a listener who is dealing with this terrible situation and, now they need to find their attorney, their person who can help guide them through this. One sign, perhaps, of a good attorney is that they would be advocating to participate in a mediation process. 

Are there others? I mean, like, somebody Googless, “family law attorneys in Boise, Idaho,” like, I’m sure there’s a bunch of different people. Do you have any advice for how to narrow it down and find a person who’s going to be more helpful versus less helpful? Because you and I both know– I mean, if you have the wrong attorney, it can make a bad situation worse, right?

Rich: So well said. Absolutely. So, first of all, I would advise your listeners not to overthink this. You should be a wise consumer. You should look for all of your professionals with the same mindset, in my opinion. Whether you need a therapist, a lawyer, or financial adviser, you want to find somebody you can trust, you can talk to, you can meet in person, if that’s what you want. 

Somebody that is willing and able to answer your questions, someone that you feel comfortable with. Be a wise consumer. So when I say, “Don’t overthink this.” I don’t mean to minimize how important the choice is. It’s incredibly important. But first, start with a human being that you can connect with and trust, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with this individual. It’s an important time in your life. You need to make sure that you feel comfortable as a consumer. 

Beyond that, you should ask how they bill, how their fees work. You should insist on receiving transparency and all the billing. You should be asking how things, like how often they return phone calls. Who are the other professionals that might be working on the team? So in our office, there might be a paralegal that you’re assigned to, as well. You’ll want to meet that individual if possible. 

In terms of finding the right attorney, maybe I should have started here, you can get recommendations from friends and family. I happen to think that the internet is a really good resource, and, of course, can be a bad resource, too. But you’ll find a lot of information on the internet. Do your homework. Don’t just look at the flashiest ad.

Go to the Law firm website. Read some of their articles. Look at the credentials of the attorneys, and ask around, too. Who do you know, in your network, that might have gone through this? Who have you used? Those are all good initial steps.

Lisa:  Yeah, those are all fantastic tips. To be asking your network for recommendations, and certainly looking at credentials, but I really like your emphasis on that, it’s a relationship and it’s a very important relationship. And so to not prioritize bells and whistles and, where somebody went to law school over how you feel with that person?

Do they feel like they would really genuinely care about you and your outcomes, and be a trusted partner through this really difficult process? And also, that they’re able to communicate clearly, like their organization, or what to expect? A different team– you kind of feel taken care of.

Rich: Absolutely. Absolutely. You’re hiring a professional to work for you. You really need to be a wise consumer. You should be able to expect that any family law attorney can give you legal advice, and they should know the law. If you have any questions about that, run away immediately. 

But take those things as a given. From there, make sure you feel comfortable with the individual. Just like I assume you would need to, when you’re hiring a therapist for the first time.

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. Well, and I think that you can also tell a lot about the culture of an organization from the things that they put out there. And one of the things that I really love so much about your firm, Harris Law, which is based in Denver, but I know you have other offices. 

But, you guys, I think have done such a phenomenal job of creating really helpful content and activities for everybody that’s kind of going through or thinking about divorce or ending a relationship. I know that I’ve had the great privilege of participating in some of your webinars and learning events, and you guys do those on a regular basis. And I feel that they’re just so well done, and really, for the purpose of putting good information out into the world that is helpful to people. 

I think, to be, as you say, looking at websites, “What do they have on the blog? Or are they trying to be helpful for people?” Is a good indication that they might be helpful for you as well. If you can’t get a recommendation from a family or a friend, that’s something to be looking for, I think.

Rich: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that, Dr. Lisa. And the fact of the matter is, that’s how you and I initially met because we have that in common. Your website is so comprehensive, so welcoming, so helpful to people. We’re in a unique position. People are going through one of the most awful times in their life, if not the most. If we can be sort of the anchor, the source of comfort as opposed to the source of stress, I think that’s when we’re doing our job the best.

Lisa:  Yeah, I agree with you. Well, and just to mention because your resources, your webinars, they’re available for everybody. But your practice is limited to Colorado. Is that right?

Rich: Yeah, it is. We’re limited to Colorado. Having said that, we will periodically appear in other states, so long as we can coordinate with local counsel. We’ve handled some cases in California and New York, and in other locations, but we’re primarily here in Colorado. Yes.

Lisa:  Okay. Well, though, your educational resources are available for everyone. Where would people find your webinars and the blog posts that your team has put together? 

Rich: Yeah, thanks for asking, Dr. Lisa. So everything is on our website, it’s www.harrisfamilylaw.com. H-A-R-R-I-S family law dot com. You can download any of the webinars that we’ve done over the last several years for free, at any time. All the blogs are there. There are links to other websites that we think are helpful. 

There are books and seminars from other locations that you can link through our site, too We hope folks find it as a useful resource. Whether they end up hiring us or not, it’s a public service.

Lisa:  That’s why we’re here. 

Rich: Right?

Lisa: Podcast, honestly. I love it. Okay, and so I’m sure there’s a lot more specific information and do’s and don’ts for all those resources on your site. And are there any last tips or thoughts that you can leave our listeners with about things that they can do? 

Or things they shouldn’t do? I mean, to prepare to meet with somebody like you? Or is it, basically, just like, find your person, make an appointment, and they’ll provide you with all the guidance you need? Or–

Rich: Well, I love this question. Thank you. So one of the things I would tell folks is, “If you’re in this situation, whether the divorce has already started or not, please consider reaching out sooner than later.” I think that we can be so helpful, even if the case hasn’t started. So you can get an idea of your rights, what you’re looking at. You can start planning for the costs. Write down all your questions, don’t try and remember everything. 

You don’t need to worry about bringing in paperwork or remembering anything. But as you’re going through these stressful moments in the days and weeks leading up to meeting with an attorney, write down your questions. And then, the other thing I would say is take care of yourself. Take care of your mental health, your physical health, as much as you can.

Give yourself some grace. You’re not going to be able to stay with your same rigorous workout schedule if that’s what you had coming in. But try and get some rest. Try and treat yourself with a nice meal. Try and keep your friends and get outside. The healthier you can be, mentally and physically, the better you will, almost definitely, do in any family law court.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s fantastic advice. That’s good. Okay. And then also, just on behalf of listeners who might be thinking about this, is it okay to get in touch with somebody like you if the situation is dicey, but may or may not wind up leading to an actual divorce situation? I mean, do you have people coming into your office and asking these questions, and then, they wind up reuniting with their partner, repairing the relationship? Is that okay?

Rich: Definitely. It’s more than okay, I recommend it. We meet with people in that situation almost every day. We’re happy to do it. Hopefully, you never need us. But we’ll arm you with the tools. We think knowledge is power. It’ll help you feel better. And even folks who have started the process, I’ll just add this. We have lots of folks reconciled during the divorce case. 

Right up until the date of the final divorce decree, I’ve had folks not show up for the final hearing because they reconcile. Those are the happiest calls I ever get. It’s all good. We’re here for you at any stage of the process or beforehand.

Lisa: Well, just out of curiosity, I just have to know. Rich, what do you make of that? So couples that you see reconciling, I mean, during the divorce process, because they’re probably not in my office anymore, right? What are your insights about– what is happening between the two of them that feels so just, redemptive and hopeful? Like, what’s going on with that?

Rich: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, that this is more your expertise than mine, for sure, but I don’t think that any of us ever have 100% clarity. Whether we’re married, or divorced, or divorcing, I can tell you that most of the folks we work with, have doubts all along the way. Whether they’re the initiating party or not, stuff happens. Love is probably the most powerful force on the planet. 

I can tell you, I have seen some of the most difficult, hateful contested cases that went on for months and months, and they reconciled before it was complete. Nothing surprises me anymore. It’s never too late. I literally had one case, I found my client with her husband on the courthouse steps, while we were about to be called for the case. They were together physically, and they stayed together. It can happen. Don’t lose hope. Be open to your heart.

Lisa: Thank you, Rich, so much for sharing that, that hope, and that message. And I bet a lot of people needed to hear that. So thank you so much. And what a beautiful and hopeful note to end our conversation on. Thank you so much for coming and joining me today. It was really great.

Rich: Thank you very much, Dr. Lisa.

Lisa: Hey, thanks so much for spending time with me today and with Rich Harris. I know that this was a longer podcast, and I really wanted to make something that was chock full of helpful information for you. So I sincerely hope that if you are at a make-or-break moment for your marriage, you got some really valuable takeaways from our conversation today. And thank you in advance, too, for sharing this episode. 

If you have a friend or a loved one who is staring down the barrel of a divorce right now, I think that they would appreciate getting this information, and thank you again for subscribing to the podcast. This is a labor of love, and the only way that people find out about it is if it gets shared, or if you subscribed to it. It’ll be easier for other people to follow. 

If you would like more on this topic and related topics, about how to handle a relationship crisis situation, you can come to my website, growingself.com, and I have a whole collection called Relationship Clarity, that is devoted to how to navigate these tricky moments in a marriage or a partnership. You can get more articles written by myself and other expert marriage and family therapists on my team, here at Growing Self

You can also access other podcast episodes, including many of the episodes that I referenced over the course of today’s show. And there is a Spotify playlist that I put together for you that has, kind of, curated podcast episodes around this topic. While you’re on Spotify, don’t forget to check out Jenny Lewis and jennylewis.com for more information about her new album and upcoming tour dates. 

If you have follow-up questions or things that you’d like to hear about on upcoming podcasts, please do get in touch with me. You can leave me a voice message on the homepage of our blog at growingself.com/blog-podcast, or send us an email, growingself.com. Otherwise, I’ll be back in touch soon with more Love, Happiness, and Success advice for you.

Growing Self Counseling and Coaching

Let’s Talk: Start With a Free Consultation

If you’re ready to grow, we’re here to help. Connect with us, and let us know your hopes and goals. We’ll follow up with recommendations, and will help you schedule a first, free consultation.

Marriage Counseling Questions | Couples Therapy Questions

If you’re considering getting involved in marriage counseling, couples therapy, or relationship coaching you probably have questions! Get your marriage counseling questions answered, right here.

2 Comments

  1. Hello! thank you for the helpful podcast. My question might be a bit away from this episode subject. I went through a breakup a year ago and still can’t get over it. My ex initiated the breakup and I still had hopes in the relationship because we connected very well together. I listened to all the episodes related to getting over an ex and going through a break up but I can’t stop abscessing about him. One of the main issues is that we work in the same space and we live in the same neighborhood so I can’t cut him totally from my life. We meet regularly, and although communication is reduced to the minimum but I am still feeling the attachment and I developed the feeling of waiting for these encounters because I miss him. What is making things worse is that I don’t have a real support system in my life, connections are almost absent and I am mostly lonely. How can I overcome this?

    1. Hi, getting over a breakup is hard…and that’s with distance! I can imagine how challenging it must be to have to see your ex regularly. Healing from a broken attachment takes time but we can help our nervous system heal, detach, and find peace again by taking concrete steps, both in our external environment (as best we can) and internally. I’ve put together an online Heartbreak Recovery class you might find helpful, that walks you through these steps. And I also hear you’re lonely, and lacking in support and meaningful connections. I’m so sorry you’re going through this alone. We also have a support group for breakup recovery, to help you heal and also connect to others going through similar situations. But if a group’s not for you, I do recommend meeting with a therapist or a coach who can help you both heal, and create fulfilling connections in your life. My best to you, Lisa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *