Patricia Evans – Counsellor and Couples Therapist
Fernhill Psychology and Counselling
Divorce and Separation – the emotional fallout
(What you need to think about to bring about a successful break up)
The concept of a successful break up can sound contradictory in a culture that despite a 50% divorce rate, still sees this act as a failure. Yet ‘failure is just another name for much of real life’ (Margaret Attwood) and society has changed immensely since the institution of marriage was created around the vows that are still spoken at most weddings today. Furthermore, many of us have moved far away, both culturally and geographically from that town, village or tribe which traditionally provided the support needed to keep this union lifelong. So, when the challenges of 21st century living bring us to a fork in the road we often need help to negotiate a final closure that can accept that our relationship has run its course but there is still an option to end the marriage with grace and mutual respect.
Feelings are real and they change
The key to moving on happily ever after is about how well we can acknowledge and process our feelings during this time. Couples should prepare for a rollercoaster of emotions that ebb and flow at unpredictable times from often unexpected triggers – and for some this can be traumatic. It is also unrealistic to expect you and your soon-to-be -ex-partner to be on the same page in this process, even if you both want this divorce – and many are very reluctant participants. Hence, breaking up can feel excruciatingly lonely – painfully individual and at times you will feel emotionally flooded, which can impair your ability to make some of the critical decisions that you will be facing. Now, conscientious self-care becomes crucial, and this should include the support of those you can trust to help you manage your emotions and identify which issues to focus on to make sure your communication with your spouse does not get stuck, allowing conflict to escalate. For this reason, it is often advisable to keep a written record of any carefully judged decisions that are made whilst you are both feeling more rational and clear-headed. Be gentle with yourself and each other when you feel conflicted and confused – after all you are paradoxically venturing into something together, specifically designed so you can be apart and alone. Consequently, you begin to feel elements of grief and grief is about loss.
In many ways going through a divorce is like experiencing a bereavement. No one has literally died but often you had so many hopes, dreams and expectations wrapped up in this marriage and now they no longer seem to exist. Your grief can encompass a whole range of other feelings such as shock and disbelief; numbness – you want to block it all out; anger; powerlessness and denial This can also be a time when ‘bargaining’ becomes prominent, as you struggle to let go and keep getting drawn back into thoughts of ‘if only….’ as you try to make changes and rewrite history in your head. Such an onslaught of emotions can feel overwhelming as you struggle to let go of what cannot be and accept your reality with dignity and integrity. For those who never wanted a divorce – and some may even feel coerced into the lawyer’s office, it will be a struggle to come to terms with the truth that ‘Til death us do part’ can no longer lead to the best version of self, for either partner. However, as you notice yourself experience the feelings that mark the stages of grief, please be aware this is not a linear process whereby you pass through each stage and then come out the other side, ‘over it’. Instead, this as a back-and-forth experience resembling moving around a wheel starting from the bottom. There will be days when you feel you are making progress and are almost at the top – and then the wheel turns and you fall back to the bottom, feeling back to square one. However, in turning your wheel has moved forward, and in so doing has carried you further down the road towards recovery.
Then, as if all this is not enough to contend with, you also have practical issues to work out such as finance, the division of the assets and most importantly for those who are parents, the custody and emotional well-being of the children. Many will struggle to cross into their children’s world to understand what they are going through whilst at the same time trying to make sense of their own feelings and responses. However, care of your children will not wait, as they are dependent on signals from their parents to determine their safety, security, and sense of confidence in the future. Also, even if you have done everything in your power to keep any stresses in your marriage well-hidden, children have strong emotional antennae and pick up on strong feelings in the home. Therefore, it is important to reframe your break-up as a Family Re-organisation where mother and father are still together as parents. If at all possible try to be together when you tell the children about the planned divorce as this shows them what ‘together’ looks like. Again, write down what you have agreed during the positive and clear-sighted conversations so you have something to refer back to if you later become emotionally flooded. Some families can benefit from therapy at this time. Other useful resources are ‘The Complete Guide to Divorced Parenting’ by UK Psychotherapist Christopher Mills, or ‘Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child’ by US relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman.
Throughout this process it is extremely important that you pay attention to your own self-care. Just as all Flight Safety Instructions advise us to fit our own oxygen mask before tending to others, conscientious self-care enables us to increase our capacity to heal and focus on any responsibilities we need to continue to attend to. This means you need to try to eat a healthy diet, avoiding excess in anything, especially alcohol; practice good sleep hygiene; take regular exercise, outdoors amidst nature if possible; be vigilant about what you take on that may cause any extra stress – remember you are using up a lot of emotional energy ending your relationship right now so you cannot expect yourself to be functioning with a full battery as usual. This is also a time when we need the support of our friends and family but choose wisely what you confide and to whom. It is always more helpful in the long run to create a narrative that is empowering rather than victimizing.
This brings you to the decision to go public with family and friends. It is important that you talk to your spouse about this and decide together – Who do we tell? What do we tell them? Try to agree on the content of the latter; and When will we tell people? Be prepared for this to trigger more emotions as you make your decision to divorce more real. It is always a good idea to restrict this communication to the facts and avoid any blaming or shaming. You are likely to be still feeling raw and vulnerable at this point so it is a good idea to avoid saying anything blurred by intense emotion that you may come to regret.
Honouring what you had
A marriage is the focal point of an entire life, shared history, memories, children, friends, family, celebrations, losses, homes, holidays, photographs. It is important that you avoid the tendency to trash all this and treat the relationship as a mistake and your past experiences together as a fraud, this would be cruel and short-sighted. When you decided to marry your spouse you believed in a future together – and those feelings were real – then. It is helpful to honour what was rather than undervalue it as a justification for moving on. Sometimes separating couples are reluctant to focus on the good things in their relationship in case this validates any wrong-doing or diminishes their resolve to proceed and divorce. Yet to degrade your own past and all the people you shared it with cannot be helpful. Ending a marriage need not damn it. We can recognize the good something once had – and yet choose this is not good for us now. When we chose her/him, those feelings were real. In her book ‘Conscious Uncoupling’, Katherine Woodward Thomas suggests a ritual to honour the riches and joys of a relationship, that also mourns the pain of its loss and marks its legacy. So just as we have marriage ceremonies to mark the beginning of a union, Thomas advocates a ritual for also marking the end and it is true that rituals facilitate transitions. Her suggestion is that couples write each other ‘Goodbye Letters’ that capture what they will miss, what they cherish and are grateful for, what they take responsibility for and are sorry for, and what they wish for each other. If you can bring yourself to do this, it can provide solace and go a long way to help healing this rupture.
In conclusion, ending a marriage is a serious decision that will cause pain and grief and so when making this decision please take care of your emotional needs, allow yourself to feel and keep talking to each other. I advocate that you find catharsis in a ritual that marks closure and if necessary find a therapist who can facilitate this. It is important that you exit your marriage with an empowering narrative that can find the good and if possible eventually, celebrate what you had to enable yourself and your spouse to move on in life providing a way to heal any scars and to be able to love again.
Fernhill Psychologists and Counsellors