While this is one question that has no easy answer, it is one that I am asked all the time. It will be easier if you are already living in separate homes, or at least living separate lives. But if you think that your spouse doesn't have any idea that its coming or may not want to get divorced, that makes it all the more difficult.
People sometimes tell me that their spouse has no idea that a divorce is even being contemplated. I think that is true less often than people think. While the "D" word may have never reached your lips, if you think that your spouse really is clueless that you are thinking of divorce - ask yourself if you might have been dropping little hints, albeit subconsciously. Remember, your husband or wife is, presumably, someone that knows you pretty well even if things haven't been all roses lately. Tension in the home has probably escalated and something in the marriage is just not quite the same. The clues are there, the question is whether or not your spouse has picked up on them or not. Often times, people will see what they want to see and ignore tell tale signs of an unhappy spouse. If you are worried that your spouse may be caught off guard, you can be kind while still doing the right thing. While no one said it would be easy (most things in life that are worth it are hard)- Just tell them. Its only fair- fair to your spouse and fair to you.
I can't tell you how your spouse will react. You are much better able to predict that than I, but I can tell you that common reactions are these:
1) Shock and Disbelief
2) Blaming You
3) Blaming Themselves
5) Anger with or without violence
If your spouse is prone to violence, then you might consider just letting them find out through the legal system (by getting served) if you are no longer living together, unless you think that might be worse. You may also consider having a friend or neutral person come with you. That being said, you don't necessarily have to tell them in person and while I am not a big fan of breaking the news by phone or email, or worse yet- text, an honest phone conversation might be the way to go if a face to face is likely to lead to extreme reactions or violence.
I think the hardest scenario must be telling a spouse who does not want the divorce and who then breaks down in tears and begs you not to do this. It is bound to make you feel guilty and I would be without a heart if I tried to say that it is wrong for anyone to react with tears- people don't always choose how they will react and it is normal to be distraught if you are on the receiving end of a divorce that you don't want. If I had to do it, I would be kind but firm. You have the right to get out of a marriage that isn't working for you. After the initial reaction, do not be his or her shoulder to cry on as it may give them false hope and will only make you feel worse or guilt you into staying in a marriage that no longer works. That is not a good solution for anyone.
Finally, be sensible about your choice of place and timing. Its not a bad idea to go in and talk with an attorney first, to help you understand your rights before you find yourself in a conversation you weren't ready to have.
Don't mention it while you are out to dinner or in front of the kids. Ideally, if you are doing it face to face- do it in private when the other person has time to absorb it - not five minutes before they need to leave to work. Above all, I do think that being kind when you do it is the best way to do it, regardless of what has happened. It could set the tone for the duration of the process and lead to a more amicable divorce and a better overall outcome for you.
For more information on divorce in Illinois- from what steps to take to how to shop for a lawyer- claim your free copy of my book "Defending the Ending", and your free Illinois Divorce Guide or set up a consultation.