Are You a Leaning In Spouse?

Your marriage was plugging along until recently.

Then came a conversation that changed everything.

You learned that your spouse is seriously considering divorcing you.

Your world has darkened. What’s going on and how do you salvage what you considered a good-enough marriage?

We’ve invented a term for your situation: a leaning-in spouse. And your spouse is leaning out.

Unfortunately our world is mostly filled with advice for the leaning-out spouse, not for the ones who don’t want a divorce!

Statistically, more leaning-in spouses are men, but if you’re a woman, it’s no less panic-inducing. The reason there are more leaning-in husbands is that 2/3rd of divorces are initiated by wives.

You are likely having some or ALL of the following emotions. You know that many of them aren’t helping the situation but you can’t shake them and they’re pulling you in different directions.

Common feelings for a "leaning in" spouse:

  • Anger – why wasn’t this brought up before, how dare you destroy our lives? etc.
  • Sadness – your spouse is pulling away from you and you are grieving the potential loss of a dream of a healthy, stable marriage and family
  • Confusion – you don’t get why the divorce is on the table, and you’re not getting a clear answer
  • Defensiveness – you’re hearing a lot of criticism and some of it feels untrue or exaggerated. And you’re not the only one with faults in this marriage!
  • Helpless frustration – you don’t what to do to save your marriage, and everything you try seems to backfire
  • Mood swings – After a good day or a good conversation you get really hopeful, as if the storm as passed. And then you crash when things turn ugly again.
  • Fear and anxiety – you are losing control of a vital area of your life—your marriage and family—and you are scared about the future.
  • Worries for your children – you can’t imagine putting your children through a divorce.
  • Insecurity – you may worry that you can’t make it financially after a divorce.
Your dilemma is that if you keep silent about how you are feeling, you become distant from your spouse. And if you open up with your feelings, your spouse gets defensive because he or she is the one who has propelled you into these awful feelings. You’re in a catch-22: damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

So we suggest something radical: starting not with expressing your own feelings but with trying to understand what might be going on with your spouse.

Here's what we know from research and clinical practice about what your spouse might be experiencing:

  • Your spouse has probably had doubts about the marriage for a number of years but didn’t want to brood on them or let them shake the marriage. Yes, years. Marital doubt is its own long, complex journey that you can read more about on our site. You may have had your own doubts that never rose to the level where you seriously considered divorce.
  • Finally surfacing serious doubts about the marriage can lead to a strange combination of relief (no more hiding) but also guilt, fear, and anger at you for reacting the way you do.
  • A less common scenario might be true in your situation: that your spouse, who otherwise was okay with the marriage, is responding to a critical event like an affair or a big deception—and then considering divorce as a panic reaction.
  • Either way, if your spouse has opened up about leaning towards divorce before making a final decision, this is a good thing. We know it’s hard to see any of this as a gift, but consider the alternative: finding out the day you are served divorce papers. Instead, your spouse has given you the opportunity to respond and propose ways to save the marriage.
  • And even if your spouse has announced that he/she definitely wants a divorce, research shows that this feeling may not be permanent, even after filing for divorce. Many people are up and down about what seems like a final decision.

Okay, once you are focusing on where your spouse is coming from, there’s one other perspective we can offer you here. 

(We can offer you a lot more beyond blog posts.) It’s some perspective on phases of the awful process you’re in.

  • Phase One:
    The shock of divorce being a possibility. (As we said, this may be combined with relief on your spouse’s side.)
  • Phase Two:
    Is on mostly on your shoulders: listening to what has led your spouse to leaning out of the marriage and take seriously how you have contributed to the problems. 
  • Phase Three:
    To assess, with your spouse, if there is still hope. For the majority of couples the answer is yes. (That’s what the research shows.) As we said, even if your spouse says it’s over, our research shows that this feeling may not be permanent, so don’t give up.
  • Phase Four:
    If your spouse is open to exploring alternatives to an immediate divorce, is seeking help together. Our online material is designed to get you to Phase Four or, best case scenario, get your marriage out of "brink" territory and on to its own healing path if you are able to create new conversations that lead to new insights and change.

In Person Help

Discernment Counseling is a specialized form of couples counseling designed for marriages where one spouse is leaning out of the marriage (and not sure about whether to work to save it), and the other spouse is leaning in. It’s a brief form of counseling that leads to a decision either to do serious marriage counseling, with divorce off the table, or to move towards divorce. We have trained Discernment Counselors around the country.

If your spouse is leaning towards a divorce that you don't want, you're like a stranger in a strange land.

We know it’s terribly hard.

And we know that it’s up to you to provide leadership now to save your marriage, despite how upset you are.

It’s time to bring your best self forward.