Tips to deal with reluctant or resistant spouses. A mutual and amicable divorce is the ideal way to go when it comes to ending an unhappy marriage. But it doesn’t always work like that, does it? In many cases, one spouse refuses to divorce the other, no matter how unhappy their marriage might be.
Key Points: Even if a spouse doesn’t want a divorce, most come to accept that it's inevitable if one spouse is determined to divorce. Resisting spouses can thwart, control, or obstruct the legal process, or it can be a power struggle. They may deal with shame, fear or rage. Seek legal advice to help engage the reluctant spouse in a non-adversarial process. Learn about your divorce process options.
Many of my clients have come to me with this situation. One spouse has decided to divorce and the other spouse doesn’t want to. Why does this happen and what can you do about it?
It is unusual for both spouses to arrive at the decision to divorce together. Usually, one spouse reaches the decision first. In this scenario, that person is you.
Even if a spouse doesn’t want the divorce, most come to accept that the divorce is inevitable if one spouse is determined to divorce. In most states, your spouse does not have to grant you divorce or agree to a divorce. In most states, if one person wants a divorce, there will be a divorce. You may want to check in about this with an attorney in your jurisdiction.
But sometimes the spouse’s resistance is simply not to agree to divorce. Perhaps your spouse has dug in his heels and is refusing to cooperate or even talk about divorce. Remember that in most jurisdictions, your spouse has no legal right to prevent a divorce.
Your resisting spouse may want to preserve the relationship and can be desperate in his or her efforts. They may be paralyzed by shame or fear. Sometimes it comes down to a power struggle between the two of you, or a battle for control.
I have seen resisting spouses do everything they can to thwart, control, or obstruct the legal process, and others who have participated in a passive-aggressive way. Perhaps he or she agrees to the required tasks, such as financial disclosures, but then doesn’t “get around to it.” Some even have threatened suicide to try to prevent the divorce.
These desperate emotions are understandable when one feels that the world is falling apart around them. While the resistance can irritate or infuriate you, it is helpful to hold some compassion for their suffering. Perhaps the resisting spouse will come to accept your decision over time. It may help to slow the legal process down and bring in a mental health professional to support your spouse through this crisis.
Some reluctant clients may be extremely cooperative and loving in the hopes that you will change your mind during the legal process. However, once it is clear that the divorce will go ahead, they can become enraged, punishing, stubborn, or vengeful. If your spouse is hoping that you’ll reconcile, it is important to explain that you are certain about the decision. (If you aren’t, you should stop the legal process and seek counseling to help gain clarity.)
Many of my clients anticipate resistance and so they try to gently raise the subject of divorce. Their intention is not to hurt the spouse but to end the marital relationship. Speaking with kindness is helpful, but you also need to be firm in your decision, without misleading your spouse. You may wrestle with guilt and anxiety and shame. Preparing to tell your spouse that you want to divorce is essential.