When Counseling Isn’t Enough: Coping When Your Spouse Still Wants Divorce
Ending a marriage is never easy. Even when both spouses agree it’s for the best, the logistics of separating lives once intertwined can be enormously painful and complex. But when one spouse wants divorce and the other still hopes to save the marriage, the emotional toll can be devastating.
This was the situation for Susan and David, married for over 20 years. When David first told me he wanted a divorce, I was blindsided,” Susan recalls. “As far as I knew, we were happy. We rarely fought, we had a nice home, great kids. I thought we were a model couple.”
David, however, had become disconnected from Susan and the marriage over time. “We were more like roommates than a married couple,” he explains. “I still cared for Susan, but I wasn’t in love with her anymore.” For David, divorce seemed the only way to move forward.
Susan, desperate to keep her family intact, convinced David to try marriage counseling. “I thought if we could unpack our issues with a therapist, it would rekindle the spark between us,” she says.
The Therapeutic Impasse
For months, Susan and David met with a counselor to air grievances and explore solutions. Yet while Susan emerged from each session feeling hopeful, David only felt more certain divorce was inevitable.
“Susan kept thinking the therapy was helping, that we were making breakthroughs and understanding each other better,” says David. “But I didn’t experience it that way. The more we talked, the clearer it became that too much damage had been done over too many years to repair.”
According to marriage therapist Dr. Michelle Jones, such impasses are common. “When one spouse is done with the relationship, counseling often can’t bring them back,” she explains. “Particularly if they’ve disengaged over a long period of time.”
In cases like Susan and David’s, Jones says counseling can help the couple gain closure, navigate logistics, and co-parent effectively after divorce. But changing the outcome usually isn’t possible. “Once someone has mentally and emotionally left the marriage, even the best therapist can’t force them to stay,” she notes.
This hard truth leaves the spouse intent on saving the marriage in a agonizing bind. They’re often left wondering: If counseling can’t make my partner want to stay married, what can?
Letting Go of The Fantasy
“Trying to keep a spouse who wants divorce in the marriage breeds false hope and dysfunction,” explains relationship coach Tessa Bailey. “As long as you hold onto the fantasy that counseling or anything else will suddenly make them want to stay, you can’t achieve acceptance.”
Bailey says letting go of the fantasy is an essential first step. “It allows you to stop wasting energy trying to control the uncontrollable.” This frees you to focus on your own healing and moving forward.
Emotionally, this means allowing yourself to grieve not just the coming loss of the relationship, but the loss of the future you envisioned. “It’s painful to surrender the dreams and hopes you had for a lasting marriage with this person,” says Bailey. “But only by mourning the fantasy can you make room for a new reality.”
Refocusing Your Energy
Once Susan accepted that David would not reconsider divorce, she had to refocus her efforts. “I had been so focused on trying to persuade David to stay that I wasn’t taking care of myself,” she says. “I realized I needed to put my physical and emotional health first.”
Bailey notes that exercise, nutrition, sleep, and self-care often fall by the wayside when fixated on a spouse who wants out. “Redirecting your energy to self-healing is so important,” she emphasizes. “Otherwise, you’ll burn yourself out trying to rescue someone who doesn’t want to be rescued.”
Bailey encourages her clients to re-engage with activities that nurture them, like hobbies, socializing, volunteering, etc. “Reclaiming parts of yourself beyond the marriage makes you stronger,” she says. “It also models for your spouse that you can and will thrive, with or without them.”
When one spouse wants divorce and the other does not, the latter may compromise their self-respect in desperate bids to hold the marriage together. “They become a doormat, letting their partner get away with unacceptable behavior just to avoid rocking the boat,” explains Bailey.
Susan admits she fell into this trap. “I was terrified that if I got angry about David seeing other people, he’d rush into divorce. So I acted like everything was fine even while I was breaking down inside.”
Bailey helps clients in Susan’s shoes to set firm boundaries. “Just because your partner wants out doesn’t mean you should tolerate cruelty, indifference, deception, or abuse,” she advises. “You have the right to expect decency.”
By insisting her spouse treat her with respect, Bailey says the reluctant party reclaims their dignity. “You’re sending the message that you’re worthy of consideration, whether this relationship continues or not.”
A New Vision
Grieving the end of a marriage can make it hard to envision a rewarding life post-divorce. But according to Bailey, cultivating this vision is paramount. “You need a clear sense of purpose, meaning, and possibility to carry you through this transition.”
To help clients articulate their aspirations, Bailey has them imagine their ideal future. “I have them describe in great detail how they’d live if anything were possible. The goal is to help them see divorce as a passage to new adventures and growth.”
Susan initially found this exercise excruciating. “Envisioning a fun, fulfilling future without David seemed so disloyal,” she admits. However, once she embraced the process, her outlook improved.
“I remembered all my dreams that got buried in couplehood and motherhood,” Susan reflects. “Studying photography, traveling the world, mentoring teen girls…remembering what lights me up inside gave me hope.”
When one spouse wants divorce and the other does not, the latter may feel overwhelmed by logistics like finances, childcare, housing, etc. Accustomed to relying on their partner, the prospect of managing alone can seem daunting.
“But building self-reliance is crucial,” urges Bailey. “You need to know you can steer your own ship, even if it feels wobbly at first.”
To boost clients’ confidence, Bailey has them inventory their skills and resources. “Make a list of what you bring to the table – education, work experience, intelligence, creativity, etc. Get clear on your financial situation, support network, and options.”
The goal is to help the reluctant spouse recognize their competence and ability to handle what comes. “You want to be able to say, ‘I’ve got this,'” notes Bailey. “That empowers you to move forward.”
Embracing a New Narrative
When reeling from a partner’s rejection, it’s easy to internalize an identity as unlovable or unworthy. But Bailey stresses the importance of rejecting this narrative.
“Your spouse wanting divorce doesn’t define your value,” she emphasizes. “You need to write a new story of self-love, strength, and resilience.”
Bailey has clients cultivate empowering mantras like:
- This relationship ending is not my fault.
- I am worthy of love and belonging.
- I have so much to offer the right partner.
- I am strong enough to get through this.
- My best life is still ahead of me.
“Keep reminding yourself of these truths,” Bailey advises. “They’ll drown out the negative voices in your head.”
A New Mindset
For the spouse intent on preserving the marriage, their desperate mindset can unwittingly sabotage this goal. “You have to shift your mentality,” says Bailey. “Stop clinging to your spouse like a lifeline. Start moving forward with purpose and self-respect.”
This shift communicates confidence and poise even amid heartbreak. “It often makes the leaving partner see you in a new light,” notes Bailey. “They realize you don’t need them – you’ll be fine regardless.”
Ironically, Bailey finds this mindset shift can sometimes create space for reconciliation.
“When you stop desperately clinging to your spouse, they may rethink their decision,” she explains. “By showing self-sufficiency and calm, you become more appealing.”
However, Bailey cautions against faking strength solely to lure your spouse back. “Focus on your own healing,” she advises. “If your partner has a change of heart, they’ll let you know.”
Divorce Isn’t Death
When a spouse wants divorce, it can feel like losing them completely. But in cases where you must co-parent, connections often continue.
“Look for opportunities to be cordial and collaborative,” advises Bailey. “Shared milestones like graduations, weddings, grandchildren can still be celebrated together.”
Susan admits she once viewed divorce as the death of all connection with David. “Now we have dinner as a family every Sunday, go to our kids’ school events together. It’s not the future I originally wanted, but it’s so much better than I ever imagined.”
Ending a marriage against your wishes can be a painful reckoning. But with support, self-care, and resilience, you can navigate this passage to find hope again.
“There is light ahead,” promises Bailey. “You start to recognize your inner strength. Embrace new possibilities. And realize you will not just survive, but thrive.”
So take comfort: the story does not end here. Your next chapter awaits…and it can be even more beautiful than what came before.