Depending on the state of your relationship, Christmas can either highlight just how happy you are or be a stark reminder that something needs to change. One glass of bubbly too many and it all comes pouring out – you feel taken for granted, you haven’t had sex in months and you argue constantly.
For many couples experiencing issues in their relationships, the beginning of a New Year provides an opportunity to assess their lives, including issues which have come to the surface over Christmas. No surprises then that January is Relate’s busiest time - in 2015, we received a 20 per cent increase in calls compared to the average month, and this a trend we see each year.
While at Relate we see many couples who work through their issues and continue to have a fulfilling relationship together, there’s no doubt that separating is sometimes in everyone's best interests.
In fact, a recent survey by family lawyers, Resolution, found that 82 per cent of young people said that, despite their feelings at the time, they felt it was ultimately better that their parents divorced rather than stayed together unhappily. Such a decision should never be taken lightly, but the question we hear from so many couples who’ve decided to take that step is "now what?"
Sit down and talk
It’s funny how we plan so comprehensively for our weddings, but we don’t plan for separation. Yet 42 per cent of marriages break down, and a significant proportion of cohabiting couples with children also separate. Many couples are totally unprepared for what they’re about to encounter. Not only is it a heart-breaking experience which requires emotional support, but if you’re married, in a civil partnership, cohabiting, homeowners, parents or have a joint bank account, another layer of complexity is often added.
What doesn’t help is that there’s no one clear place for people to go in order to access all the information and support they might need. To add to this, different organisations who they may need to enlist the services of such as solicitors, mediation, relationship counselling and Citizen’s Advice often aren’t working together, making the whole system a nightmare to navigate. These were the findings of a new report, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, launched by Relate and welcomed by Ministers from the Department of Work and Pensions and Ministry of Justice.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, and there are plenty of steps that separating couples can take to avoid making their break up unnecessarily painful.
First of all, it’s best to talk together about how you want your separation to be. Talking together calmly will give you both a chance to hear each other. You’re both moving on to new lives and there’s little merit in storing up resentment. You’ll only be taking it into the next relationship.
Counselling can often help people during this tricky period when sorting out practical things can feel as exhausting as all the emotional stuff. It can provide a space for you to think, feel and move on so that you and any children come out the other end of the process having experienced as little trauma as possible. Mediation may also be a useful way of sorting out financial issues and living arrangements if initial attempts to reach agreement have failed. Likewise, signing up for a Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP) course will give you lots of advice and support about how to best help your children and take steps forward. Your kids need to be able to love you both during this difficult time and understanding how to help them to do this could be a really positive start. This is especially true if the relationship between you and your partner has been acrimonious and perhaps filled with mutual blaming.
Share the news
Once you’ve decided how you want to approach things, you need to share the news. It’s likely that friends and family will have known something’s not right. Often when they find out you’re separating there can be a tendency to take sides. This is understandable, but in most cases ultimately very unhelpful, as it’s likely to make things more difficult for everyone, especially any children involved.
Try to encourage everyone, including friends, to see your separation as a positive step that you and your soon-to-be-ex are making so that everyone can be happier. Keep communication between you and them open but establish boundaries. You don’t have to share everything and it can help if you and your ex can agree on what you are telling people. That way can you avoid rumours spreading while keeping everyone in the loop.
Helping children cope
Of course, breaking the news to the kids is often painful. At the time, children aren’t usually able to see parental separation as a positive experience. At Relate we often see children and young people who know that their parents are desperately unhappy but this doesn’t stop them from yearning that they stay together.
It’s best to be "straightforwardly sensitive". A bit of a contradiction in terms, but it means that you tell them clearly (and preferably together) that you are separating and that they’ve in no way caused it to happen. Be prepared for all kinds of reaction, from tears to anger and even immediate acceptance. But try not to take things at face value. It can be tempting if your child isn’t reacting much to the news to assume they’ve "taken it well". They probably haven’t, but just don’t know how to express what they’re feeling. It’s important to let a child know sincerely that they can speak with you about the situation at any time.
Nothing is more unhelpful to a child than to find out that Dad has unexpectedly moved out while they were at school or asleep, so taking care to sensitively introduce the idea that someone is now leaving home is so important. It’s the same with pets too. Children can also be terribly distressed about the future welfare of a much loved dog; keeping them up to date on all the practical arrangements including those relating to animals helps them start to make sense of this new phase in their lives.
And don’t underestimate the loss you’ll feel too. You didn’t invest time, energy and love in your ex for nothing. Celebrate the good bits, learn from any of the bad ones and then move on with the rest of your life.
Ammanda Major is a trained Relate counsellor. The Relate website contains useful information about separation and divorce including details of how to access counselling and mediation.
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