A Marriage Crisis Assessment Tool: How to Save Your Marriage When Your Spouse Asks for a Separation or Divorce
© Debra Macleod / Marriage SOS™. All rights reserved. This Marriage Crisis Assessment Tool cannot be reproduced, whether in whole or in part, without the written consent of the author.
Although I’ve spent the last twenty years helping people keep their marriages intact, I actually began my professional life as a divorce mediator. That’s a job that gave me a unique perspective of marriages torn apart by everything from affairs to apathy. Indeed, many of the marriage-saving strategies I provide in my practice and in my programs are the products of reverse-engineering—of studying failed relationships and creating successful relationships from those components.
If your husband or wife has asked for a divorce or separation and you don’t want one, you would be wise to approach this crisis in a similar way—by breaking down the component parts of your marriage to see where the fault lines are, and then taking proper action ASAP. Because if you’re facing this kind of situation, it can feel like the ground you’re standing on is shaking, like an earthquake, threatening to tear down what you’ve spent years building up.
(And just an FYI—here, I’m talking about situations where a spouse has actually asked for a separation or divorce, as opposed to issuing what amounts to empty threats of divorce, perhaps out of frustration or as a way to end or control an argument.)
So let’s respond accordingly—by assessing the situation and responding properly and quickly. That’s the smartest way to approach any crisis. You don’t want to just descend into a flood of tears and plead, “Please don’t go, I’ll do anything! Why do you want to go? Tell me how I can make you stay!” Neither do you want to throw up your arms and say, “Fine, get out—I’ll file for divorce tomorrow!”
Freaking out in a crisis won’t help. Panicking in a crisis won’t help. Getting mad in a crisis won’t help. But thinking smart, and approaching things logically, can help.
The Marriage Crisis Assessment Tool - Marriage SOS™
To that end, I’ve compiled a four-step Marriage Crisis Assessment Tool to help you determine why this is happening and what you can do about it. It is fairly in depth, so expect to invest some time in this process and even come back to it as time goes on. If you’re looking for a hundred-word blog that will magically solve your problem, this isn’t it; however, if you’re looking for real guidance that can truly help, this tool provides it. Because despite what is happening, I do believe that you can reconnect with your spouse and save your marriage, and I’ll do my best to help you make that happen.
So let’s get to work.
Step One: Ten Crisis Categories
Step one in our Marriage Crisis Assessment Tool is to evaluate your marriage and identify the issues that are factoring into your spouse’s request for a separation or divorce. Accordingly, I’ve presented ten crisis categories that should encapsulate most problems.
Get a piece of paper and a pen and, as you read through them, make notes on the ones that you feel may be relevant. Although I’ve added some prompts under each heading, these aren’t exhaustive. Be sure to add information that is relevant to your unique situation.
1. YOUR EMOTIONAL INTIMACY
- is your marriage characterized by friendship and companionship?
- do you spend quality time together or do you lead separate lives?
- do you still show interest in each other, and support each other?
- do you feel “connected” as romantic and life partners?
- is there a good level of trust in your marriage: can you rely on each other?
2. YOUR SEXUAL INTIMACY
- how often do you have sex?
- do you have similar sex drives: who tends to initiate more?
- is your sex life satisfying for both of you?
3. YOUR FINANCIAL SITUATION
- are you financially comfortable?
- are you stressed about money?
- do you fight about money?
- is one of you more irresponsible with money than the other?
- what is your current financial situation vs. your dream financial situation?
4. YOUR FAMILY OR HOME LIFE SITUATION
- do your kids live at home? If so, are you on the same page about parenting or do you disagree?
- is one of you a more dominant parent? Does the other feel voiceless or marginalized?
- do you live in blended family situation? If so, are you struggling with that?
- do you struggle with stepchildren dynamics?
- if your children are no longer at home, do you feel the “empty nest” syndrome?
- are you a couple with no children? If so, is that factoring into things?
- do you have an equal or fair division of labor in the home (e.g. do you share housework)?
5. YOUR RESPECTIVE PERSONALITIES AND HABITS
- do one or both of you have negative personality traits (e.g. negativity, defensiveness, self-centeredness, impulsiveness, etc.) that are factoring into this situation?
- how do any negative personality traits affect the way you interact with each other?
- how do any negative personality traits affect the way you communicate with each other?
- are one or both of you “addicted” to technology or do you spend too much time on your phone?
6. YOUR SPOUSE’S COMPLAINTS
This point is more of an open-ended question: What complaints has your spouse made about you, or the marriage, in the past? Write down the ones that you feel are legitimate.
7. AN EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR ON YOUR PART
- did you have an affair on your spouse? It doesn’t matter if it was ten years or ten hours ago, if you haven’t re-established the trust, intimacy, respect and security of your marriage, it is still a major problem—as evidenced by your spouse’s desire for a separation or divorce
- are you currently involved with another person, perhaps believing you have feelings for that person, and your spouse is threatening to leave the marriage because of it?
8. AN EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR ON YOUR SPOUSE’S PART
- did your spouse have an affair on you in the past? How long ago?
- do you and your spouse still argue about this affair?
- is your spouse currently involved with another person and refusing to end the affair?
9. AN OVERLY CLOSE FRIENDSHIP ON YOUR SPOUSE’S PART
- has your spouse struck up a worrisome friendship with another woman or man—perhaps an old flame, a new friend, or a co-worker?
- do you and your spouse argue about this friendship?
- has your spouse taken steps to limit / end the friendship or reassure you it is not a threat to your marriage?
10. A MIDLIFE CRISIS ON YOUR SPOUSE’S PART
While both men and women experience the so-called midlife crisis, they often do so in different ways. If you’re a man who is worried that your wife is having a midlife crisis of some kind, I refer you back to point #6. Think about what past complaints your wife made about you and/or the marriage—it’s likely that she’s been expressing them ( or suppressing them, as the case may be) for years.
If you’re a woman who is worried that your husband is having a midlife crisis, it is likely that points #8 and #9 are also at play, as male midlife crises are often accompanied by midlife infidelity.
Now that you’ve identified the points that you feel may be relevant to your situation, spend some time thinking about each in turn. Write down your thoughts and any insights you may have.
For example, let’s say that you identify sexual intimacy as being a problem in your marriage. Write down when things started to cool off in the bedroom, and why. Don’t just think “we have issues in the bedroom” and leave it at that. Dig deeper to discover when those issues started and why. Do that with every point that may be relevant.
And again, be sure to add information that is or may be relevant to your unique situation. These points can act as catalysts, and can prompt you to actively think and discover the reasons you’re facing the crisis you are.
Right now, that’s the only focus. In subsequent steps, you’ll learn how to apply this information.
Step Two: Establishing Your Spouse’s Motivation
Speaking generally, a spouse who asks for a separation or divorce does so from a place that is either sincere or strategic. That is, their motivation is driven either by authentic, legitimate complaints about the marriage, or is it driven by more self-serving ulterior motives.
Yes, there may be some overlap—but being aware of your spouse’s primary motivation, and knowing whether it is authentic or not, is vital information that can help you decide how to proceed.
Below, I’ve placed the crisis categories from step one into two general groups: authentic motivation and ulterior motivation.
Group One: Authentic Motivation
If you have identified issues that fall within categories 1 to 7, it is likely that your spouse’s request for a separation or divorce comes from a sincere place. A dissatisfaction with the marriage is their primary motivating force.
They may be frustrated with a lack of emotional intimacy, or feel hopeless that sexual intimacy will return. They may be frustrated about your financial situation, home life, or the way that you interact as a couple—including feeling resentful toward those unpleasant personality traits on your part that they’ve lived with over the years. Perhaps they’ve expressed these complaints to you in the past, though to no avail. If there has been infidelity on your part in the past, they may feel that they just can’t get past it, perhaps (but not always) because you have failed to be fully accountable since then.
Group Two: Ulterior Motivation
If you have identified issues that fall within categories 8 to 10, it is likely that your spouse’s request for a separation or divorce comes from a more strategic place—this may include a desire to establish the space and freedom to pursue or continue some kind of extramarital relationship.
Yes, some degree of marital dissatisfaction may factor into this scenario, but the primary motivating force is the desire to be with someone else and/or establish the liberty to live a more “single” lifestyle.
Step Three: How to Respond
In the previous step, you determined to the best of your ability whether your spouse’s request for a separation or divorce comes from an authentic place—such as longstanding dissatisfaction with you or the marriage for legitimate albeit painful reasons—or whether it comes from a more self-serving place.
For example, a husband may want a separation as a true lead-up to divorce if he’s had enough of living in a sexless or loveless marriage; however, another husband may want a separation as a way to indulge in an affair, while still keeping the marriage intact as a safety net.
A wife may ask for separation after the kids have left home, as she now has the opportunity to take some time and reflect on how poorly her husband has treated her over the years; however, another wife may ask for a separation so she has the freedom to deepen a relationship with a male friend.
And again, there may be some overlap. People don’t tend to fall into extramarital relationships if their marriage is rock-solid (although affairs can certainly happen in otherwise strong marriages, due in large part to texting and other forms of personal technology). The goal here isn’t to assign blame or get angry. It’s to assess your situation and see what you’re dealing with, so that you can respond properly—that is, in the way that is most likely to save your marriage.
So let’s look at the two general ways of responding.
Response #1: Authentic Motivation
If you feel that your spouse’s request for a separation or divorce comes from a sincere place and is motivated by legitimate complaints they have about you and the marriage, I recommend that you avoid certain actions or reactions. These include begging them to stay, asking them nonstop why they’re leaving, or questioning them about what you can do to make them stay. You should also avoid getting nasty, saying hurtful things, or filing for divorce first just to show them up.
Instead, remember that your spouse’s complaints about the marriage are legitimate and they are entitled to them (even if you have your own legitimate complaints, which you likely do).
Circle back to the ten marriage crisis categories in step one. Now that you know which ones are factoring into your spouse’s request for a separation or divorce, you can approach your spouse—when the timing is right—and address the issue in a straightforward way, acknowledging how it has impacted your spouse.
For example, if you’ve identified your overspending and your current financial situation as a problem, you might say something like, “I know you’ve been putting up with my overspending for years, and you’ve had it. I promise that I am going to start working on that in a serious way by creating a budget and sticking to it. I hope you will reconsider your position and give me a chance to prove that I can change. I understand why you feel the way you do, and I don’t blame you.”
Or perhaps you’ve identified your untrustworthiness as a problem. In that case, you might say something like, “I understand you’ve been putting up with my secrecy and lack of transparency for years, and that you don’t trust me. I don’t blame you. I promise that I am going to keep my phone unlocked and share my passwords, and be more respectful of your feelings. I want to prove that I am committed to you and our marriage, and that you’re all that matters to me. I hope you will reconsider your position and give me a chance to prove that I can change.”
The idea here is to make your spouse feel heard, and to show them that you “get it”—that you “get” why they are so fed up, and that you can understand where they are coming from. The idea is to show some humility and a willingness to acknowledge your part in the marriage breakdown.
Yet it’s essential to do more than just acknowledge your spouse’s feelings or your role in the problem. You also need to go a step further by stating a plan of action that you are taking to fix the problematic behavior. If you need some practical guidance to “renew” your marriage in this kind of real and demonstrable way, I offer an ideal online resource.
Once you’ve done that, you wait. You stick to your plan—of budgeting, or being transparent or more respectful, or whatever your specific plan is—and prove to your spouse that you can change.
How long will it take for your spouse to change their mind? It may take a day, it may take six months. It may not happen at all, and they may persist in their request for a separation or divorce.
What I know for certain, however, is that showing impatience or saying something like, “What’s the point? You’re not going to change your mind anyway!” will sink any chance you have of saving a marriage that is already on stormy seas. So stick to the plan and accept that it takes as long as it takes.
Response #2: Ulterior Motivation
If you believe that your spouse’s request for a separation or divorce may have ulterior motives—such as a desire for more freedom or the liberty to engage in an extramarital relationship—but you nonetheless wish to see whether the marriage can be saved, your focus will be on addressing the underlying marriage crisis.
That is, you will focus on gaining insight and usable strategies to help you properly manage an affair, inappropriate friendship, or midlife episode. After all, that’s the root cause of the problem.
Accordingly, you need to learn how to smartly handle your spouse’s behavior, manipulations, and choices, so that they realize they must prioritize you and the marriage. Your goal is to protect the marriage, as much as possible, from any damage your spouse may be doing.
This may require getting some outside or expert help, such as consulting with a lawyer to ensure that your interests are protected. A person (man or woman) who wants a separation to indulge in an affair, for example, is not always the most trustworthy or reliable when it comes to the assets you have spent years building together. A word to wise will be sufficient here.
Getting specialized guidance to properly manage the marriage crisis is also a must. Whether it’s an affair, an overly close friendship, or a midlife crisis, Marriage SOS™ online crash courses can help you figure out what’s happening, and what to do about it, as clearly and quickly as possible. They are specifically designed for individual spouses whose partner has these kinds of ulterior motives. The sooner the marriage crisis can end, the sooner these requests or threats of separation and divorce will stop.
Step Four: How to Proceed When Your Spouse Persists
In a perfect world, once you acknowledge your spouse’s feelings or perspectives—for crisis categories 1 to 7—your spouse will soften their stance and agree to work with you to repair the marriage. If that happens, I strongly advise that you follow through on your promises to change or improve yourself. Too many broken or empty promises lead straight to divorce.
Similarly, once you learn how to properly and assertively manage your spouse’s more self-focused behavior—if they’re engaging in an affair or other marriage-sinking behavior, as in crisis categories 8 to 10—your spouse will end that behavior and once again prioritize you and the marriage.
But what if this doesn’t happen right away? What if your spouse persists in their desire to seek a separation or divorce, even to the point of moving out of the house?
Well, don’t panic. As I said earlier, I used to work in divorce mediation and divorce isn’t typically a fast experience or process (much will depend on how complicated your situation is, and what jurisdiction you are in). There will be opportunities for your spouse to re-think things in the coming weeks or even months.
All you can do—and it is enough—is to stay the course. Continue to work on yourself and fulfill the promises you’ve made to change. Continue to handle your spouse’s unfaithful, untrustworthy, or self-focused behavior in the proper ways.
Time has a funny way of changing things. A situation that seems hopeless, or a spouse that seems unreachable or intractable, may suddenly change. Your spouse may change their mind, their emotions, and their priorities. As the separation or divorce looms, they may rethink and reconsider their stance. Like you, they have invested much in the marriage and once things cool down a bit, they may decide to give it another chance.
So while there are no guarantees, there are certainly better and worse ways of handling a spouse’s request for a separation or divorce. This Marriage Crisis Assessment Tool is one of the better ways, and I hope it will help you handle things in the way that is best for you in the long term.
Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is the founder of MARRIAGE SOS™, a proven and no-nonsense way to save a sinking marriage. She has served as an expert resource for major media around the world, from The New York Times and Entrepreneur to ELLE and Men’s Health.
Visit her homepage to see all Marriage SOS™ Online Crash Courses or book a phone consult.