QUESTION: What is the best way to call it quits without hurting my spouse?
Don: Since you are thinking about ending your marriage, it is likely that you have already “called it quits” by withdrawing emotionally from your relationship. You tuned-out, and this has already hurt your wife, deeply.
John and Julie Gottman discovered that there are four things that poison a marriage: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt (Resentment), and Stonewalling (tuning out.) According to their research, the number one complaint that men have about women is that they are critical. The number one complaint women have about men is that they tune-out or stonewall or shut down emotionally—leaving before you actually leave. Criticism and stonewalling work against each other. The person criticizing will say, “I am just trying to get your attention.” The person stonewalling will say, “I am trying to calm things down so you can stop and hear me.” Over time, if this dynamic is left unchecked, the couple moves into a mental/emotional divorce. Their interactions become factual, organized more around the children, finances, or projects, rather than emotional connection. They begin to lead parallel lives. Actual divorce is often the result. It sounds like this is where you are headed.
I suggest returning to counseling with a therapist trained in the Gottman Marriage Therapy. You can find therapists to help you at this website: http://www.gottmanreferralnetwork.com. They are trained to help you face the reality of your situation, to assess whether you really want a divorce, and to help you process that with the least harm and the most understanding. If you are not ready, get some individual therapy to help you emotionally prepare for the divorce conversation and the ensuing divorce process. Both would probably be best. It may cost some money, but an even greater cost would be in not tending to the emotional process of ending a marriage. Ending well requires skilled help and patience.
Also, if your wife is really trying now in noticeable ways, be prepared for your adult children to pressure you into trying again. Though they are adults, ending your marriage will hurt them. Why? Divorce hurts. It just does. You can make it hurt more or less, but it hurts everyone. And, how you have been living with your wife has hurt you, too.
In summary, you have already hurt your wife, and the divorce will hurt her more. Do it with skilled help if you do choose divorce. This will help you, as well as your family, face one of the most difficult situations adults and children face with mindfulness and compassion.
Don Elium, MA MFT
925 256 8282
Walnut Creek, CA 94596