Often couples know their relationship is troubled. They argue, fuss, and fight over the most trivial concerns, and someone ends up sleeping on the sofa. Maybe they decide to go to therapy to work on their relationship. Or maybe they realize it’s time to call it quits. But sometimes, one party hits the eject button without benefit of telling his/her significant other. The “zombie spouse” is physically there, and continues to go through the motions of the relationship, but he or she emotionally vacates the marriage long before the attorneys are called.
There are many rationales for postponing the bad news. Perhaps you don’t want to disclose your unhappiness with your relationship because there are children involved, illness in the family, or it’s just too hard to admit a long-kept secret or mistake. The disgruntled party may justify the delay to get through the holidays, anniversary, birthdays, vacations, or other milestone events before dropping the bombshell on their unsuspecting spouse. But as hard as owning up to the truth may be, no matter the reason, withholding your true intentions makes it more difficult to amicably uncouple because the shock of the news will certainly bring about feelings of betrayal.
Consider this: When you’re a “zombie spouse” you’ve been thinking about what your life will be like post-split for weeks, months, or even years. You’ve considered where you’ll live, how you’ll adjust economically, and perhaps who might become your next partner. Your spouse, however, hasn’t had the benefit of this time to plan and prepare. From the moment you disclose your intention to leave, he or she has to “get up to speed.” While the truth may set you free, your spouse may feel trapped in resentment and grief.
If your intention is to honor the time you’ve had together and perhaps even cultivate a friendship down the road, consider these do’s and don’ts for initiating a divorce from Psychology Today blogger, Loren Soeiro, Ph.D., ABPP.
- Break up in person. It’s essential to be physically present to show that the relationship was important to you. Breakups by text may be common these days, but they hurt terribly and leave confusion in their wake.
- Avoid vagueness. Be clear and certain about your reasons for breaking up. For example, disclosing that you’re having an affair is far more honest than simply contending that you are “no longer attracted” to your spouse. Either disclosure will cause pain, but the former places the responsibility of your actions firmly on you. Truthfulness ultimately shows respect to your partner respect and provides closure.
- Take responsibility for your decision. Acknowledge that it’s what you want, rather than blaming it on circumstances, or on your partner. Take the initiative to talk with a family law attorney who can provide you with the steps both you and your partner will need to take to separate and divorce.
- Listen without defending yourself.Hear your partner out. Answer their questions as honestly as you can.
- Break off the relationship cleanly. Cut off contact for some time after the breakup to show respect for your partner’s feelings and to indicate that things have changed permanently. If children are involved and joint custody is the goal, set clear boundaries and keep them. If you intend to maintain a friendship with your ex, give yourself and your partner the time to process the loss of your previous relationship.
- Take time to acknowledge your loss. Just because you’re the one initiating the split (and have known it was coming) doesn’t mean you don’t need time to grieve the end of your relationship once it actually happens. If you’re already in love with someone else, avoid the temptation of jumping from one commitment to the next. Now is the time to give yourself physical and emotional space. Therapy is a great way to explore what went wrong in your past relationships so you can avoid those missteps in the future.
- Don’t break up in public. You’ll need to offer your partner the opportunity to experience an honest emotional reaction, and privacy will help with that. Most likely, you’ll also be questioned about your reasons for breaking up, and it will be easier for your partner to ask these questions if the event occurs in a safe and at least semi-private location.
- Don’t offer false hope.If you’re certain you need to break up, it’s better not to leave the relationship open-ended.
- Don’t immediately put your spouse in the friend zone. It may feel like a way to cushion the blow, but it actually causes uncertainty and runs the risk of generating more hurt feelings. The goal is to allow your partner to look back on the relationship as a good thing, not to change it into something less well-defined.
- Don’t devalue the other person. You’ve been important to each other, so try to show your partner your appreciation for his or her good qualities.
- Don’t try to be your ex’s therapist or emotion outlet. In time, you may be part of your ex’s support network but that’s not your role during the breakup.
- Don’t have breakup sex. It will only confuse the issue for both of you.
Most of all, try to demonstrate empathy for your partner. They will go through the stages of grief and you may be the target of their anger, resentment, and frustration. You should never subject yourself to physical or emotional abuse, but acknowledging wrong-doing and taking responsibility for your actions may help your former spouse/partner move forward, and help you to make a fresh start, too.