Many times our instincts fail us. Many times our tongues fail us. And when you combine those two with a lack of experience, we’re usually in for a world of hurt. Such is the case when a spouse says they’re done with the marriage and leaving. It’s likely the first time in your life that this has happened to you and so you have no experience to guide you but, rather, you’re probably going to rely on your instincts and your tongue.
It’s also likely that your spouse has been planning his/her “escape” for months or even years and has thought through possible objections from you, things you might do or say to persuade him otherwise, and doesn’t feel the same level of shock to the news that you will. So you’re even more set up to say or do the wrong things. So below, I’ll provide you with a list of some of the most common wrong things that are said (and done) to spouses who are trying to leave.
5. Yelling. Some people have confessed to me that they yelled a lot as their spouse left. And the odds are, your spouse will leave faster and avoid communication with you in the process. In their mind, this is a way of refusing to let you hurt them any further. Even if you don’t feel your past actions have been hurtful, the reality is that your spouse has responded with pain. And yelling is one of the things they likely will not tolerate any longer. Do not yell and do not be suckered into a yelling match.
4. “Okay, I’ll fulfill your need.” Maybe that need is sexual fulfillment and/or physical demonstrations of affection such as hugging. Maybe it’s conversation where you are both on equal footing and giving value to the thoughts and opinions of the other. Whatever it is, many people are surprised by the reaction of their spouse when the promise to fulfill those needs is made as the spouse is trying to leave. The reaction, like most of the others on this list, is often anger, which comes from deep hurt. To your spouse it appears that you are only willing to fulfill their needs because of this extreme measure. Their response might be, “Now?! It takes me leaving for you to see this is important to me?!” At this point, they’ll start packing faster. It’s too late for promises.
3. “But You Said You Would Never Leave Me.” Many hurting individuals have shared with me their frustration because a spouse broke such a promise. Unfortunately, they shared that frustration with their spouse before they shared it with me because I would have told them to keep that complaint to themselves. This is a statement that incites anger. Often times, rage. Why? Because they feel that you have broken some vows to them as well. Maybe they feel you mistreated them. Maybe you had an affair. Maybe they feel you let their needs go unmet, dismissing their pleas for fulfillment. The bottom line is that at this point they don’t feel they owe you and, like it or not, don’t care about the marriage contract they have with you. Prolonged pain can do this to someone. They might have cared before but that feeling has been warn down and silenced within them. You aren’t going to guilt them to stay or come back and if you do, it won’t be for long. What you will do is cause more anger and hurt in your spouse. He or she will simply drive faster out of the driveway.
2. Crying. Based on stories told to me by hundreds of couples, the spouse being left will often cry. Crying is often a reaction to intense pain and I don’t mean to sound harsh, but it usually only messes things up. You see, your spouse has probably cried about this as well. He or she has at least felt pain and frustration. So when he sees you cry his first gut reaction is to feel sorry for you. But it might surprise you to know that it might only take a matter of seconds for that feeling to turn to anger. Why? Because he has likely felt that you have ignored his pain and so he falls back on those memories as resolve to leave. Even if your spouse is a good person and truly doesn’t want to hurt you, their own feelings of ignored hurt can cause them to be angry at you and at themselves for being concerned about your hurt. Not to mention that crying, sobbing and begging are anything but attractive. Your spouse could also feel that your crying is an effort to manipulate them into staying, again furthering their resolve to get far away from you. I know if will likely be difficult, but do your best not to cry. There may be a time when your spouse is at an emotional place where they can see you cry (and might even cry with you), but this is probably not it. Do your best to remain calm. Calm people make better decisions and seem more credible. They are also more inviting for a conversation than someone in an emotional state.
1. “Nothing Is Wrong.” This is, by far, the worst response you could say to a spouse who wants to leave. It can be worded several different ways such as, “It’s all in your head,” “Everything is fine,” “Your needs are being met,” or “You don’t need that to be happy.” Not only does such a statement completely discount the feelings and frustrations of your spouse, it also drives a nail into the coffin of any hopes they had of change because in their mind, if you aren’t even willing to acknowledge a problem (and their pain), you won’t make genuine efforts to fix it. Furthermore, this double edged sword puts them on the opposite side of the table from you in that now they feel they have to argue with you about a problem existing instead of working with you to possibly repair it. You make the departing spouse feel even more alone and separate from you. In essence, you help your spouse pack the suitcase.
What To Say and Do If Your Spouse Wants To Leave
Your spouse has likely already given you an explanation of why they are leaving. They did it long before bags were packed or the announcement was made. At least they have tried. But it’s likely your spouse will tell you again why they are leaving. It might not be as detailed, especially if you interrupt with one of the items in the list above. But they will likely give you a short version or summary of why. Some people don’t have this opportunity of being home when the spouse leaves because the spouse leaves before they get back home. Often times a spouse will leave while the other is at work or at a planned appointment. If you are there while they are leaving, consider some of these words and actions. This will also help if you weren’t there when your spouse left.
1. Hear Them Out. Do not make excuses for what they feel is your lack of fulfilling them or for your actions (adultery, dishonesty, poor communication, lack of affection, etc.). Don’t interject, explain yourself or deny their hurt. It’s not the time for any of that (if there ever is a time).
2. When Your Spouse Is Finished, Tell Him/Her That You Understand. Tell your spouse that you understand why they want to leave. Then tell them that you are sorry that you made them feel that the situation was hopeless and that you are willing to work and do whatever it takes to change. Your spouse might stay or might still leave. Your objective at this point is not necessarily to get them to stay (though the situation would be better if they do stay). Your objective is to leave room in the mind of your spouse for the possibility of your marriage being saved. Your spouse may still respond in anger or doubt. Within reason, allow your spouse to continue to vent. When you respond remember the wise words of the Bible, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” Keep your answers reasonable and soft while still showing proper concern for the situation and regret that your actions have contributed to the situation.
3. If Your Spouse Still Leaves, there are two possibilities.
- Your spouse leaves but still wants to try to work it out.
- Your spouse leaves and does not want to try to work it out.
In either of those cases, help is available. Our Marriage Helper 911 Workshop helps marriages even when just one spouse (or neither) want to save the marriage. Our success rate is unusually high in that we save 3 of 4 marriages even if an affair has taken place or if one of the two don’t want to save the marriage. There are also marriage counselors out there who can help, just be sure that the counselor knows that the goal is to save your marriage. Our workshop can help turn your marriage around so that both spouses are willing to attempt counseling. And we can help even if your spouse doesn’t want to save your marriage. We have strategies that we can instruct you to use to get your spouse to participate in our workshop even if he/she doesn’t want to save your marriage. It’s not manipulative or dishonest and you can call us at (866) 903-0990 to learn more about how to do that.
If your spouse is trying to leave, first, do no further harm. Keep a level head. Then seek help.
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We also offer the Save My Marriage course for those who might not be able to attend the 911 weekend.