When One Partner Is Out and The Other Is In

What To Do When Your Spouse Wants A Divorce And You Still Think There’s Hope

Anyone who’s been in a relationship for more than ten minutes knows that no two people will see eye-to-eye about everything. One’s wearing a sweater while the other is fanning herself. One puts ketchup on eggs while the other is horrified.

Fine, you say. There’s no need to agree. You can say tomato and I’ll say tomahto.

But what if your iStock_000008507563XSmalldifference is about something more serious than diction or condiments or setting the thermostat? What if one of you desperately wants to hold your marriage together while the other has met with an attorney and is now spending every spare moment looking at apartments on Craig’s list?

You can’t very well agree to disagree about this.

If you were to poll twenty-five couples therapists, at least twenty-four of us would say that couples with this “mixed-agenda” are the most challenging couples we see. While one has come into the therapy to design an exit strategy, the other is frantically hoping that couples therapy will pull them back from the brink.

To the spouse who wants out, working on the relationship is roughly equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. All that person can think of is “where’s the nearest lifeboat and how soon is it leaving?”

As a couples therapist it’s my job to support the goals and interests of both clients, to not side with the concerns of one at the expense of the other. I can no more advocate for one partner to stay married (or do couples therapy) when he or she is dead set against it, than advocate that the other one give up all hope for a reconciliation.

In order to be most effective, I have to, essentially, take both sides at once.

You Decide - Two-Way Street Sign

In order to do that, I’ve had to challenge most of the conventional wisdom that shapes the way both therapists and clients look at the “one out and one in” dilemma. And, I’ve had to rethink some basic theories of couples therapy that I learned in graduate school, as well.

We therapists are trained to be neutral. While I have no stake in whether a couple decides to stay married or not, neutral isn’t my best stance when dealing with divorce. I’ve learned that whatever position a client has taken, be it IN or OUT, I’m most effective when I ask them to fully explore why they’ve chosen that option.

Too often, divorce is put on the table long before a couple has exhausted all other alternatives. And sometimes people want to stay in a marriage that is ultimately unhealthy for them. Divorce will set in motion a series of painful events that will impact all involved— the couple as well as their children, family and friends. My goal is to help them make the soundest decision possible.

Therapists are also trained to be in a supportive role with their clients. Challenging them about their inconsistencies and their blind spots, asking them to scrutinize their choices is bound to make them uncomfortable. Yet that confrontation is precisely what they need in order to grow. And growth is always accompanied by discomfort. If I wanted to be at all helpful to my clients, I had to expand my definition of support and learn to tolerate more discomfort myself.

To get an accurate sense of conventional advice, I did a Google search for the question, “what if my husband wants a divorce and I don’t?” Here are some key points that I gathered from marriage and legal advice websites as well as advice message boards:

You really don’t want to be with someone who isn’t in love with you.

Come on, face the facts. There’s no way to stop your spouse from leaving you.

The counselor said that it takes two to make a marriage work and that since he doesn’t even want to try, I need to go to counseling to deal with the divorce.

If your husband says he wants a divorce, don’t say anything. Just listen. The next thing you should do is find yourself a good lawyer.

Most of this advice is designed to persuade the person who wants to fight for the marriage to, instead, get on board with the divorce.

But what if that person strongly believes that divorce isn’t the right choice? What if she thinks they have a lot to lose and she’s willing to work hard to fix things? What if he wants to slow the whole thing down, to take a few months to really assess whether divorce is the really their only option?

In cases like this, I’ll support the leaning-in client to go about the work of mending the marriage alone.glue

Though there’s no guarantee that taking a firm stand for your marriage will convince your divorce-bound spouse to change course, giving up is guaranteed to bring the divorce you don’t want.

As you’re well aware, your partner’s actions are beyond your control. So let’s focus on the one thing you can control: yourself.

1- Stop trying to convince your partner to stay. Make your position clear and then quietly stick to it.

2- Take a look at how you’ve been behaving in your marriage. Clarify what your standards are for a good and satisfying marriage and start living up to them, even if your spouse isn’t doing the same.

3- If he or she won’t go to therapy, go on your own. See if you can find a therapist who will support you in looking at what’s gone on in your marriage without trying to convince you to accept your divorce as inevitable.

4- Avoid the well-meaning but possibly undermining advice from friends and family. Friends are often the first people we turn to for emotional support and they quite often come through. But let’s say your best friend has just been through the divorce from hell and she’s just now starting to eat more than one bite of a sandwich and sleep through the night. Or she got married four months ago and is on a honeymoon high. Maybe your best friend has strong religious convictions or came from a divorced family himself. Then again, maybe your friend never liked your wife in the first place and your bad news of divorce is good news to him.

My caution is this: the advice that you get from your friends might be more about them than it is about you.

Apply the same caution to advice from your family who may want to protect you from getting hurt if you go out on a limb for your marriage. The truth is, you’re going to feel pain either way.

There are couples therapists who are trained to do what’s called “Discernment Therapy” which is a process that will support your two-feet-in stance while helping your partner explore a third option. Most people think that agreeing to do therapy means they’re agreeing to stay married. The third option is to simply explore what it would take to even THINK ABOUT working on the marriage— a step that is often needed and too rarely offered.

The go-it-alone path will be difficult and often lonely sea and lowering cloudsand will require great courage. Friends may say you’re crazy, or that you’re clinging to false hope; or worse, that you’re hanging your heart on your sleeve for someone who doesn’t deserve your loyalty. You may come to wonder whether they’re right.

It can be hard to hold a belief that gets little support. Even your own therapist might try to convince you to move toward acceptance before you are ready.

I’ve seen many couples step back from divorce because one partner alone has been willing to champion the cause of resurrecting the marriage. Again, there’s no guarantee, but what I’ve seen is that the spouse who held fast to his or her conviction to give saving the marriage a go is able to say, in the end, “I gave it my all.”

No matter the outcome, that’s a satisfying feeling.

Here’s a true story written by a woman who took this approach to her marriage (published in the Modern Love column in the New York Times)

35 thoughts on “When One Partner Is Out and The Other Is In

  1. Love this NY Times article. Keep up the good work. I read your every blog entry and appreciate your perspective and your developing voice. Well done! Lucie


  2. This is some really good information about couples therapy. I had no idea that the therapists are trained to help with helping the situation not get uncomfortable. That does seem like a good thing to be aware of when you are scared to go to therapy. I know that I would be super scared of things getting heated and uncomfortable.


    • Hi Ivy,
      I’m not quite sure if I’m accurately understanding you. I think you’re commenting on what I said about the need for discomfort and that this would make youmagraid to go into therapy.

      If we’re going to help people grow, we therapists have to help people tolerate some discomfort. I work hard to interrupt people when they’re being cruel or disrespectful, aiming to make the therapy room as safe a space as possible. But talking about difficult feelings and helping people take risks is key.

      Does this make sense?

      I would hope not to discourage someone from seeking help.

      Thanks for your comment.



  3. My wife left in October and i have been trying and trying to make things work, i admit i have been desperate. If i stop pushing now, is it too late? if i step back is there a chance she will notice me again or have i pushed too far already? HELP! i want to stay with the love of my life!


    • Sometimes a two-feet-out spouse cannot be persuaded to put even a single toe back in. Before you give up all hope, maybe she’d be willing to see a therapist together to talk about why she left.

      The question for you to ask is not “will you come back and try?” but, “What would make it more likley that you would be willing to get help together?”

      A willingness to talk about troubles is not the same as agreeing to stay married. Often, a spouse who has left can’t imagine a path back into the marriage because the marriage – as it was – wasn’t working. A willingness to engage in a discussion is a first step.



  4. I came across this article when looking at ways to save our marriage when my husband is completely done. He is currently only staying for financial reasons. And plans on leaving in the next month.We have only been to marriage counseling once. Though he has agreed to go because he believes it will be the only way we can get divorced peacefully. As he said he is interested in what she has to say and “doesnt want to get screwed out of everything.” We had issues prior and after he was in a stressful situation he decided he was done with the marriage. He doesnt want to do it anymore. That he has reached deep and doesnt feel anything for me anymore. He has stopped speaking to me, and only comes home every other night to get clothes then is gone again. I have asked him to try to be open but he says he has already flipped it off and there is no changing it back. He no longer is interested and just wants out of the marriage. We have two children together and this is our 10 year anniversary. I am all in. I have asked for forgiveness and changed the issues he seen with me. But he still has no interest in staying. This article gives me hope. Others say i shouldnt have hope as he is unwilling to work on the marriage. But i believe deep down he had a breakdown and the only way he could handle it was to break off from the emotional downward spiral of our marriage. I may be wrong. He may never want to reconcile. But is it wrong to not want to give up? I truly believe we could work through our issues and be happy. I have to give it my all. To try every possible route. But I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. You cannot make someone stay who doesnt want to.


  5. I liked that you pointed out that even if your spouse won’t go to therapy you should still go. My cousin has been having a problem with her husband at the moment. So it is good to know that a couples therapy can help even if you don’t go together.


  6. True. Going to what is going to be divorce. My second one. Its really embarrassing to go through second divorce, when all my family and friends are still married. Wife does not know if she wants to stay in the marriage, but has told me she like being independent and no longer loves me. Yes she loves me in the sense of loving me as the father of our 2 kids, but not in a lover, husband way. In couple therapy now, but she is just closed off, and if the therapist does not have the “magic key” of falling in love, then she is done, and I am done.

    Real truth in the article. When one partner is already checked out, then its over. You cannot make a person stay, no matter what you do. Sometimes, you just have to face the truth and realize it is over. I am starting to realize it, knew it for a while, and hoped that my wife will change, but she is not going to. No attempts, or no motivations what so ever. I know she thinks she is better off alone, and I am getting ready or prepare to move forwards. .


    • True, therapists don’t have a magic key to make people fall in love. Sometimes, though, as partners we can begin to behave in ways that make the other think twice about leaving us. Things like becoming a better listener, or being more respectful, or curious, warmer, or more patient.

      No guarantees, but worth the effort even if only to make life better between two co-parents.



  7. me and my partner of 10 years fell into pursuer (me) distancer dynamic we tried therapy but he went there out of respect for me we do not argue we agreed that we both neglected the relationship but he does not love me anymore and i feel like at the moment i really haven’t got anything for him to offer. i feel like there is a mountain between us. i bought a book getting back together as he left me and moving out. he still wants to stay friends so will see him in a future with our friends at some point. Is it still worth for me trying and following the book threw than it looks like he has no feelings left? i asked us to keep an open mind and he agreed but he told me he is working towards to rebuild his life not to get back together. what should i do? should i let go for now or for good…?


    • The only thing you can do, if your heart is still in the marriage, is to make it clear to your husband that you have a different vision for what’s possible. Be warm, be kind, reach out now and again and see what happens. You can’t make him love you or want to be married to you. If he’s two feet out and doesn’t step back in, yes, it would be time to let go.

      Wishing you the best,


      • Hi,
        I left him a note before I went away saying that I am letting go for now and that after we healed and some time has passed maybe there and than will be a chance for us and I said that I haven’t lost hope for us and in the end I said goodbye for now. He also wrote me a letter that he hopes that i processed what has happen and that i should concentrate on myself and move forward as he need it too and in the end he wrote he wont see me for a while and goodbye for now and good luck. How long should I give a month or 2? Or shall I wait until he comes forward? Where were more to both letters but I felt like a reference to mine was goodbye for now. I did say I am going to stay open minded for relationship in the future he did not wrote anything to that. But he started writing with that he did not know what to say than he saw me last and still doesn’t know. Than he started feeling this they he wasn’t 100 percent how he felt. Do you think in sort of situation couple months apart would help?

        Many thanks!


  8. What I suggest is trust your instincts. Give both of you some time. Then, one day, if you want, reach out in a small way. A card. A text. Even as simple as “thinking of you.” Again, there are no guarantees in this. Think of it as an experiment to see what happens when you’re apart and if there’s enough there to bring you together again.



  9. How long do I fight for? May partner of 7 years and father of my 2 kinds left 4 months ago. I immediately pulled back and got some good results. For the last 2 months we’ve been getting along well and having fun as a family, but he has recently gotten active on dating apps. We weren’t legally married, so there’ll be no formal divorce. How will I know when I’ve lost the fight for good?


    • Good question, for which there is no easy answer.
      You can keep having a good time as a family and keep spending time together in that way for as long as you want.
      It may be that he sees the good things in your relationship and wants to stay together and possibly work on the problem areas. It also may be that he dates some and meets someone with whom he wants to be in a relationship and that will be a clear ending.
      The thing for you is to decide whether you wanna wait and see or whether at some point you’re done waiting.
      As I said, difficult question.
      Hope this helps.


      • The problem is he almost chooses the path of least resistance. All the problems we had are fixable. He was upset for over a year, but didn’t tell me, so I couldn’t fix anything. He kissed a coworker and I handled it badly. Instead of trying to fix things, he took the easier approach (for him) and left. When we’re together (with the kids, or when they’re in bed) we’re good together, we always have been. I’m scared he won’t come back because it will take work, and I cannot be happy without him. Because without him, I am a single mother of 2 young kids, and I can’t be happy with that lifestyle.


  10. I made the decision to leave my husband of 11 years after 10 years of trying to fix things and everything getting worse with every passing year. I gave him 3 chances during this time and he failed miserably every time. I’m now completely checked out and believe that this toxic relationship is way worse for our two young children than separating. He has everything to lose and I only have the occasional fear of this affecting our kids in a negative way. I have not loved him for the past 6-7 years. I left 3 months ago but he is not letting go and keeps pushing. He says he will change but even during this time I have not seen a single positive change. How can I get him to let go as I am at a point where I can say with certainty that things will not work out between us.


  11. Well balanced counsel. I have been married to someone for 9 years that has never admitted to contributing any problems in our relationship. I have made many mistakes, and have always been motivated to change because I never intentionally wanted hurt her or my children. I have initiated couples therapy with her twice, and both times she dropped out as soon as her behavior was challenged. We plan to separate with the intent to divorce in May. Unfortunately, it is not a happy ending for me, or our children. But I can be at peace with them, “I gave it my all.”


  12. I like how you mention that frequently divorce is on the table before all of the options have been explored. My brother has been having difficulties in his marriage recently and I think that it is too often an easy solution by divorce. I think that he and his wife should at least see a marriage and family therapist for the kid’s sake.


  13. I’m so happy I came across this article as it gives me that little glimmer of hope. I have been in a relationship with the father of my son for over 6 years. We have definitely had our ups and downs. With the latest down came the words that it was over. In that moment I felt I came alive. That I had something to fight for, to put my energy into and it was something that meant something to me. He had had enough, and I agreed I had had enough of the relationship we were currently in. I wanted it to change. I needed to change and I’m on my way. I scheduled therapy sessions, I bought all the self help books, I took a deep look into myself. Its been four months since he spoke those words and we still live together. He’s sending me so many mixed signals, its hard. I feel we communicate a lot better now than we did. He wants to move out, but he doesn’t think he can afford to financially and I’m hanging on to the hope that we can still make it work. I feel it deep in my soul that if we can get through this our connection will be so much deeper then ever before. I’m not in denial about him wanting to leave, I like how you said there is a 3rd option and explore what it would take to even THINK ABOUT working on the relationship. That is something I haven’t thought about. He is willing to go to therapy with me (But I only think it is because he wants us to end it peacefully and me not hate him). We went to therapy one time and the therapist basically told me to listen to him. If he wants out then he wants out?! I think I can manage this work load alone and do what it takes to save us. At what point do I stop working on it? When is it too much? Do I let him have the house and I leave as I have somewhere to go and he does not? Relationships are so complicated 🙂 Anyway, thank you for your article as it has struck a cord and I’m keeping up with the good fight!


    • Hi
      I’m so glad my post was helpful to you. Definitely don’t give up on the work you’re doing on yourself as a partner. The ways that we grow will always help us be better relaters.

      I’m sorry to hear that the therapist you went to didn’t help you and him explore the third option. I don’t know where you live. Do a search in your area for therapists trained in discernment therapy. Thee. Ignatia be someone. The purpose there is to help the leaning out partner envision a better, healthier life with their partner. It’s hard for so many people to hang in there and work on their marriage when the marriage feels awful. All they can think of is that they’re committing to a future as bad as the present.

      Wishing you the best.



  14. Your marriage is in question and you’re facing a real dilemma. You may be the one who is deciding should you stay or should you go. If your husband asked for a divorce, you are likely experiencing a lot of different emotions. Take a step back and breathe. It might not feel like it right now, but you are going to be okay. The first thing you should do is start taking really good care of yourself. This may seem like a strange recommendation, but when difficult things happen in our lives, it’s easy to put self-care on the back burner. This is when we need it the most! You have done a great job by taking a step forward to save the relationship.


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