In my couples counselling practice, I meet many clients (‘Leavers’) who feel they have let their partner know they are unhappy in their relationship,  but for whatever reason, he or she (the ‘Left’) simply didn’t take the complaints seriously.

When the ‘Leaver’ has finally had enough and is literally walking out the door, the Left can finally hear very clearly, but the news that their partner is done with the relationship can come as an enormous shock.

From the Leavers perspective, they had told their partner a few times that they were unhappy and it was “obvious” that they would leave if things didn’t change. From the Left’s perspective, things in the relationship ‘weren’t all that bad’. They are stunned and angry. They wants to be given a “second” chance and he wants to stall the process as long as possible in the hopes that Leaver will realise the mistake they are making.

The Leaver is rushing while the Left is dragging his feet. How is this dynamic going to end up?

Because I have seen this happen so often, I can tell you that it will likely end up with a highly contentious divorce in which each person sees the other as purposely trying to hurt them.

The Leaver will see the Left as being obstructionist and they Left will see the Leaver as cold-hearted.

If each person could set aside the story they have going of how the other is trying to hurt them and try harder to understand the other person’s perspective, they might have a shot at minimising the negativity.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but here are some dos and don’ts if you find yourself in this situation:

Leaver Dos

  1. Understand that he/she really didn’t hear you – regardless of how much you think you have tried to tell your spouse that you were unhappy and wanted out of the marriage, if your spouse is shocked when you tell them you’re leaving, understand that they really didn’t hear you!
  2. Be clear and make sure that your spouse hears you now – if you have one last glimmer of hope that the marriage can work before truly exiting, be as clear as possible with your spouse that you are serious about leaving and make sure they hear you loud and clear. Some people comprehend better when they are told important information; some comprehend better when things are written down. Communicate in both these ways to your spouse to increase the chances that they will hear you.
  3. Be patient – if you can understand that your spouse is not as far along the timeline (grief) process as you are and that they need more time to integrate what is going on, you will likely have a better experience.
  4. Get outside help if needed – a neutral third party can do wonders in helping you both understand the other person’s perspective more clearly and can help minimise the damage you and your spouse may do to one another

Leaver Don’ts

  1. Don’t push – the worst thing you can do (for you and your spouse) is to try to force them to cooperate in a process that they are not ready for.
  2. Don’t assume that your spouse is trying to hurt you – while malice may be one possibility, there are other reasons why your spouse may be dragging their feet. If you can see that they are truly hurting, you may ease up a bit which can do wonders in creating a better dynamic.


Left Dos

  1. Get as much support as possible – you will need more support now perhaps than your spouse and this is no time to be proud. Seek help in the way of family, friends or talk to a counsellor.
  2. Believe the Leaver– if they say they tried to tell you but you didn’t listen, believe them. Think back on all the talks you’ve had and try to see them from a different perspective.
  3. Accept the reality – chances are that you will be separating or getting a divorce, regardless of how unfair it is or how blindsided you feel. Accepting and liking are two different things. You don’t have to like this reality but the more you fight the fact that it is happening, the more you are actually creating a much worse experience for you, your spouse and your children. (This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fight for your marriage, but when it’s clear that there is no chance of reconciliation, it’s important to move on.)

Left Don’ts

  1. Don’t punish your spouse – when you act spitefully or try to hurt your spouse the way you’ve been hurt, you prolong the pain and make everything more difficult. You’re entitled to feel angry but channel it properly – exercise, journal, scream into pillows or talk about it.
  2. Don’t assume your life is over – more often than not, the person who has been left by their spouse goes on to have a better life than they could have imagined (and better than the spouse who left them). Some suspect that that this is so because the Left has more to work through, therefore does more work which, in return, has a reward of resolving past hurts and going on to have healthier relationships.