Therapist’s Conundrum: Wife Wants Out, Husband Refuses to Divorce

I am a therapist and am seeing a couple where the woman wants out but the man just refuses to accept the marriage is over. Any suggestions? He also has some mild limited cognitive abilities secondary to a brain trauma. - Confused Colleague
Dear Confused Colleague,

I understand your dilemma. She wants to leave; he can’t understand that she is leaving and can’t let go. This is a painful situation for couples. It leaves both in anguish; she feeling responsible for hurting her mate, he in disbelief as if he’s living a nightmare and he can’t wake up.

Here is what I recommend:

  1. Be present and help the couple to become aware of the difficulty of this situation. Create an awareness that helps them understand that there are no bad guys in this situation and there is a lot of pain. There is likely a reservoir of some compatibility between the two that could include kindness and caring. This is what you focus on as you remind the couple that they can be good to each other even as they separate.
  2. I often see one or both of the people in the couple individually to work on certain issues that come up during counseling. I would see the man individually. During the sessions I would work on helping him identify his support network outside the marriage. This could include work, extended family or friends. I would investigate how he functions without his wife. Get him to identify his hobbies, vocations, sports, exercise, clubs and interests.
  3. I would prepare the husband to talk with his wife again about her leaving. I would have a session where each says what they need to say. If ending the marriage is the preferred outcome I would help move the separation along gently with a soft questioning of what the wife intends to do. This must be done with love and care, delivered with the utmost of respect. No judgment, no opinion, no expression other than total positive regard during this session. Allow time for the couple to grieve together during the session. No need to involve yourself when this occurs.
  4. I would continue to see the man as he begins to refocus on helping himself during the transition.

All the best,

Linda Nusbaum, MA, MFT, is a license psychotherapist with a private practice in Long Beach, California. Her specialty is working with couples in all stages of their relationships. In her former career, Linda was an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Jess

    June 19th, 2012 at 3:15 PM

    that just makes me sad, we have to deal with so much in life and then to know that you need to leave a loved one with some damaged cognitive ability. How does one do that and still survive themselves? how does a normal function person not drift into serious doubts and concerns? I do not even want to even try to put myself in your shoes. God be with you and all that you do and undertake in handling this set of patients. please keep us informed of how it goes and the direction that you have taken.

  • Linda Miller-deBerard, LCSW

    August 6th, 2013 at 9:35 PM

    Dear Confused Colleague, It’s always a difficult (but common) situation for one person to decide to end the relationship when the other person has not worked through the stages of grief or gotten to acceptance. Keep in mind the client that wants to leave can most likely begin the divorce process regardless of how her husband feels. I am a therapist and a divorce mediator. I strongly recommend that your couple find an early mediation process that will give the husband guidance and time to accept the wife’s decision in a way that is most healthy for both of them.

  • candy

    July 7th, 2014 at 7:48 AM

    I went to a councilor and told my husband it was over. He refused to accept it and the councilor advised him to continue therapy so he could come to terms with the relationship ending. He discontinued all his therapy even for his depression which is based on his medical issues although he claims lack of sex as the issue. He still refuses to believe it’s over even though we now live in separate bedrooms. He is constantly violating my privacy and grabbing my rear or touching me even though I tell him no it’s over. I am now volunteering to get work history after being a stay at home mom. It will take at least 6 months before a job will even look at me. I have no idea what to do any more he’s out now picking up a Viagra prescription despite his heart issues and I fear he will force sex on me.

  • Vijay Verma

    November 4th, 2014 at 9:21 AM

    If the man refuses to divorce his wife, you can’t do anything about the same. You just need to ask the wife to stay on with the marriage whether she likes it or not. You may ask the wife to stay separately if she desires. But if the man has decided not to sign on the divorce papers, nothing can force him to do so.

  • Kathleen

    February 24th, 2015 at 10:32 PM

    I have read everything above and I’m disgusted at the advice you’ve received. There is a possibility that your female client is at the end of her rope, but why can’t your male client say, no, we entered into an agreement to spend our lives together. If he is cognitive disabilities he may no have found the words his life partner needs to hear, that is why people seek out professionals. The sheer fact that the wife didn’t just walk out on her husband and that’s she’s going to counseling, shows that she cares. Just because a person looks at Divorce doesn’t mean they have to. My complaint is that if you take the course of action to “help them split” you would be bias and your own goal in mind, then keeping the man as a patient? That sounds unprofessional to keep him as a client because he is grieving. Why can’t you let them bring to you what they need to and organically see what happens. As a counsellor you duty is not to seperated or bring them together, you suppose to listen to what comes up for them and if you need advice, call a mentor or colleague, airing your patients trusted communications with you is deplorable. If you need the Internet to do your job, may I suggest that you return to school!

  • Nina

    June 10th, 2015 at 2:31 PM

    Same boat here. My husband cheated on me 3 years ago with a woman and was in a year long relationship with her. I am now wanting to separate and my husband refuses to see the light. Everything is in my name so I can’t walk out without my credit being affected. He has never lived on his own or paid his own bills, I did everything! So he is holding on for convenience. He still tries to have sex all the time, talks about taking me out on dates, even though I stress several times a day that I am leaving when the lease is up. He hacked my emails and follows me all around the house. It’s downright pathetic!! I feel like I am suffocating and although he feels that he needs to give me this attention now, he’s way too late. We have children to complicate matters more, he now blames me for breaking up the family but not acknowledging his role in it. I don’t know how to get this through to Him That I Am done!

  • Jane

    July 11th, 2015 at 8:12 PM

    Marriage is now disposable like garbage.

  • kim

    July 30th, 2016 at 12:13 AM

    Sometimes things just cant be fixed. Mine screwed around with 6 in the past 2 years and refuses to sign the papers. I had no idea there was a problem.There were absolutely no clues . we did things always laughing and smiling etc .

  • Bradley

    December 23rd, 2015 at 7:06 PM

    Hate this. still in love n she ain’t

  • Bradley

    December 23rd, 2015 at 7:07 PM

    How can I save my marriage for my financial stats.

  • Bradley

    December 23rd, 2015 at 7:11 PM

    Come together stand as family

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