Divorce: Who Leaves, Who is Left?

Usually divorcing spouses start at two very different places when they come to end of their marriage. One is ready to leave; the other is still in love. Rare indeed is the marital breakup where both the husband and wife decide to end it at the same time and place.

In deciding to divorce, there usually are two divorce roles, one spouse leaves, and the other, is left; the divorce initiator and the divorce non-initiator; the leaver and the leavee.

Sometimes there are situations where both partners want a divorce with equal intensity and decide on it at the same time though this is uncommon. Calling the action an uncontested divorce suggests agreement by the spouses, and it often obscures any disagreement they may have had about actually ending the marriage.

These divorce roles — the leaver and the leavee — are very different and challenge each spouse, but before it ends, both the person who initiates and the party who left behind often go through remarkably similar emotions.

The divorce initiator is the one who asks for the divorce. Typically, he or she thinks about it for as long as several years, though sometimes it may have been even longer than that.

Because divorce initiators have spent significant time considering the pros and cons, they have done a lot of processing at their own pace. They have worked over the marriage. Their regrets are often in the past. They may be thinking of timing — the best timing so announcement of the divorce doesn’t spoil a kid’s birthday, a wedding or maybe the holiday. The initiator spouse has contemplated how the divorce will affect the children. They have thought about the impact of the action on their lifestyle, both financially and socially.

Guilt and fear run through these questions and ruminations, and divorce initiators feel them. That’s why their decision to divorce can take years. While they may not show these emotions to their spouses, the divorce initiator eventually admits these feelings to a therapist, counselor, or other trusted individual.

Divorce initiators are not open to reconsidering continuing the marriage because they have decided. As part of their process, they have disengaged emotionally, which is, in part; why they are able proceed with their decision to divorce. They often appear unfeeling, cold and distant to their partner during exchanges about ending the marriage.

Sometimes there may be sobbing, though it is usually about loss of the relationship, not about being emotionally available or wanting to make the marriage work. This confuses the partner and often leads him or her to believe there may be hope, when there is not. Divorce initiators are ready to go and want to get started. Now that they have decided to divorce, they want to implement it. For the divorce initiator, the angle of repose is critical, and the announcement is the first stone to start the avalanche – the filing, the selection of lawyers, telling the families and friends.

The divorce non-initiator starts in a completely different place. He or she knew (or was at least aware) that the marriage wasn’t perfect, but is nowhere near ready to start moving on a divorce. Very often the person who is left is completely blindsided by his or her partner’s plans to end the marriage.

Hearing a partner say he or she wants a divorce is usually devastating news. Speechless, numb, angry, vengeful, hurt — all are common reactions for the non-initiator.

The divorce non-initiator is where the divorce initiator was at their beginning of processing their thoughts about divorce. The non-initiator is thinking, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! What is happening here? My world is being turned upside down and I have nothing to say about it.”

Rather than having unpressured time to weigh the pros and cons at his or her own pace, the non-divorce initiator often feels ambushed. Caught by surprise, hurt because the spouse shows little emotion, powerless in the face of an unwanted outcome, the leavee often struggles for control or revenge.

While the initiator feels guilt and fear, the non-initiator usually feels betrayed, panic and abandoned. The spouse who is left needs to find their feet again before doing anything. He or she often suggests marriage counseling. At this point the initiator may be feeling guilty and agree. This sets up hope for the non-initiator that the marriage may be saved though the initiator’s cooperation in going is usually to calm their partner down, not to save the marriage.

And that’s what gets the ball rolling to make divorce so contentious: each wants a vastly different outcome. The leavee struggles to save a marriage that the leaver has already abandoned. So each is in a very different place with little tolerance, patience or empathy for the other.

The initiator owes it to his or her partner to slow down and reassure the other spouse that he or she will have the time needed to adjust to the end of the marriage. The other spouse must get back on his or her feet, get support, and learn everything about how divorce works. He or she needs to get stabilized before any important decisions can be made.

A couple can come to agreement about the terms and conditions of custody and visitation and the division of assets and liabilities when each is at the same emotional temperature, that is, when each accepts that the marriage is over and must end.

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