Women initiate more divorces than men do. The words “I’m leaving you” can be a complete shock, especially if you’ve been just coasting in your relationship. What should you do next? This depends on what you’re thinking.
She can’t leave me! I won’t let her.
If these are your first thoughts, you’re in a very dangerous spot, and your first step must be to find a psychologist or a legal advisor to keep you out of prison. If have no history of domestic violence, Dr. Steven Stosny at CompassionPower.com is a great choice. Otherwise, I suggest a Batterer Intervention & Prevention Program (call 1-800-799-SAFE  to find one near you). If you are not interested in dealing with your anger, please consult a lawyer or a legal clinic before you do anything at all to discourage your wife from leaving. None of the ways to force a woman to stay are legal.
If you also feel it’s time to end this marriage, you might want to look for a marriage mediator in your area. Lawyers may be tougher at protecting your share of the assets, but they often ramp up the anger level, which is not good for you or your children. Any difference in financial outcomes is likely to be too small to warrant a fight.
We both screwed up. We can fix it in counseling.
Unfortunately, you’re a bit too late for this. Not for counseling, just for this approach. Your wife has probably been thinking about your relationship for a long while. She’s probably tried identifying her mistakes and fixing them. She’s almost certainly offered you numerous hints that things are not working. And you missed them. If you make the needed emergency repairs now, there will be room down the road for discussing ways in which she might do better. But this is not the time to explain any of your mistakes as being the result of hers or to share with her that you have been unhappy, too, just not enough to leave. Your best shot now is to offer her a very different relationship. It’s also a very good time to ask questions before you offer changes, so you can offer the right ones.
I love her. It would break my heart if she left. I wish I knew sooner how she feels.
You are in a good spot. A painful one, for sure, but the most hopeful of all. You can make changes that will make a difference and could very possibly change her mind. Marriage education (check out Michelle Weiner-Davis, Gary Chapman, and John Gottman for starters) or marriage therapy can help. If she doesn’t agree to join you, go anyway. Learn things. If you ever mistreat her because of alcohol or drugs, sign up for AA or NA or a rehab program right away and don’t miss a session.
Give her space to feel her feelings and test your intentions, but don’t do anything that suggests you’re OK with losing her, like giving her money to make it easier to move out or turning down an invitation to talk. When you talk, before you respond to any accusation, ask gentle questions about it and how it affects her. Then respond with how you feel about how it affects her, even if she has the details all confused and misinterpreted. You’re building a better relationship, not a case for court.
Offer your kind words, your time and attention, your assistance with difficult chores, small gifts like flowers or a book if she likes them, a gentle touch, anything you believe she will appreciate. But don’t overdo it. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Repairing a marriage that’s been corroding for years cannot be done in a hurry. Just keep the door open to better times together.
When you apologize, always remember to do it by asking what you can do now to repair the relationship. Tell her you value the relationship, and you will continue to value it no matter what she chooses to do. Your time together will always be part of your personal life story. Don’t ruin that, even if you turn out to be too late to convince her to stay.
Lots of marriage survive this awful bump in the road. They are usually a lot stronger for getting through it together. I wish you much patience, kindness, and gratitude as you pass over it.