Sep­a­rat­ing par­ents need to look af­ter them­selves too

For many, sep­a­ra­tion can be a dev­as­tat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Here are eight ways to move on

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sheila Way­man

Sep­a­rat­ing cou­ples are rightly told to put their chil­dren first and to do all they can to min­imise the neg­a­tive im­pact the re­la­tion­ship break­down will have on them.

But self-care is vi­tal too. Par­ents owe it to both their chil­dren and them­selves to avoid be­com­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal wrecks at a time when ev­ery­body has to ad­just to the new fam­ily cir­cum­stances.

“The kids don’t want to see you down,” says one fa­ther who has been through it. He be­lieves sep­a­ra­tion is a “dev­as­tat­ing emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence” for both sides. “It’s one of lone­li­ness, frus­tra­tion, des­per­a­tion and you are try­ing to deal with the sit­u­a­tion it­self while mak­ing sure you are okay and your kids are okay.”

It’s a mis­take to think it’s nec­es­sar­ily eas­ier for the one who ini­ti­ates the sep­a­ra­tion, says psy­chother­a­pist and cou­ple coun­sel­lor Lisa O’Hara. The only dif­fer­ence is that he or she may have been con­tem­plat­ing it for a while, so is likely to be a bit fur­ther along the cop­ing path than the part­ner for whom it may have come as a com­plete sur­prise.

“Of­ten, the per­son who has wanted a sep­a­ra­tion and ini­ti­ated the end of [the re­lat ion­ship] is left with huge grief as well. They of­ten feel like there is some­thing wrong with them, or that they don’t have a li­cence to grieve. They will say things like, ‘I shouldn’t be feel­ing like this’. It is im­por­tant they ac­knowl­edge this is a loss for them, even if they wanted it.”

No mat­ter how it hap­pened, the end of a mar­riage or long-term re­la­tion­ship is one of life’s big­gest losses. Even if it has been a rel­a­tively short re­la­tion­ship, it can mean the wip­ing out of a fu­ture you thought you had to­gether. Sep­a­ra­tion is akin to death in terms of the feel­ing of be­reave­ment but has the added com­pli­ca­tion of won­der­ing about what the other per­son is up to, says O’Hara, author of, When a Re­la­tion­ship Ends, and who will be speak­ing about the ex­pe­ri­ence of sep­a­ra­tion at the monthly se­ries Shrinks in the City on Novem­ber 14th in the Cen­tral Ho­tel, Dublin. (De­tails at­i­nars­dublin).

The more the cou­ple can sep­a­rate out from each other the bet­ter, but if they have chil­dren, they will be tied to­gether as par­ents for the rest of their lives.

“Some­times, peo­ple get very lost in sep­a­ra­tion,” says Geral­dine Kelly, di­rec­tor of chil­dren and par­ent­ing ser­vices at One Fam­ily, which runs two cour­ses for sep­a­rated par­ents that fo­cus on self-care and per­sonal growth. “We try to get peo­ple to fo­cus on the pos­i­tives rather than dwell on the neg­a­tives.”

If they have been caught up in a long bat­tle over ac­cess to chil­dren and split­ting the fi­nances, they may have not re­ally been look­ing at what’s go­ing in their life, she says. When all that’s fin­ished, they are left won­der­ing, “what do I do now?”.

So, what are the step­ping stones to mov­ing on af­ter sep­a­ra­tion? Here are eight:

1 Work out your cop­ing strate­gies

Some peo­ple are intuitive cop­ers – they like to talk about it and might cry a lot, says O’Hara. “They feel their feel­ings in glo­ri­ous tech­ni­colour. Other peo­ple’s emo­tions are more in pas­tels” – they may not want to talk but will think about it a lot or make them­selves busy by throw­ing them­selves into work or, per­haps, play­ing more golf.

There isn’t a right or wrong way to cope but it helps to recog­nise what works best for you. See what trig­gers your stress, then catch it early and man­age it, says Kelly. Peo­ple use dif­fer­ent tac­tics to do that, from the very pop­u­lar jour­nalling, or writ­ing down things they’re grate­ful for ev­ery day, to ic­ing cakes and tak­ing up mar­tial arts.

2 Look for sup­port

Don’t be ashamed to talk to fam­ily and friends about what’s go­ing on. How­ever, you may need to de­velop new sup­port net­works and/or seek pro­fes­sional help.

Start­ing new ac­tiv­i­ties by join­ing a jog­ging group, book club or choir, can widen your so­cial cir­cle. Con­tact­ing sup­port or­gan­i­sa­tions, such as One Fam­ily, will help you find peo­ple go­ing through the same thing, as well as giv­ing you ac­cess to oneon-one coun­selling.

3 Deal with your anger

There is noth­ing wrong with anger, it’s a nec­es­sary en­ergy for change, says O’Hara. But it’s the way you ex­press it that can be the prob­lem. Talk­ing about your an­noy­ance to oth­ers should help, as will us­ing ex­er­cise to work through it.

“When it be­comes mal­adap­tive or prob­lem­atic is when we start en­gag­ing in be­hav­iour like vi­o­lence or drink­ing,” she says. Be­hav­iour that is hurt­ing some­one else or our­selves. Peo­ple who are not good at ex­press­ing feel­ings are at a higher risk of de­vel­op­ing an ad­dic­tion.

“They’re cop­ing by try­ing not to feel pain. It’s a strat­egy and that be­comes a prob­lem.”

4 Ac­knowl­edge ‘an­cil­lary’ losses

Your so­cial cir­cle may shrink in the wake of sep­a­ra­tion as friends feel they can’t – or don’t want to – stay in touch with both of you. The sup­port of in-laws is likely to dis­ap­pear too be­cause it is very dif­fi­cult for them to stay neu­tral.

The loss of these per­sonal con­nec­tions is not any­body’s fault, says O’Hara. “It’s not re­al­is­tic to be able to hold on to all of them” – but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel a strong sense of be­trayal.

Time with chil­dren and fi­nan­cial free­dom may be other sig­nif­i­cant losses that you need to come to terms with.

5 Fo­cus on your strengths

It’s re­ally im­por­tant to look at your strengths, which will get you past where you are now, says Kelly. Sep­a­ra­tion can shat­ter peo­ple’s con­fi­dence and make them doubt them­selves in many as­pects of life, in­clud­ing cop­ing with the chil­dren.

When they were feel­ing par­tic­u­larly frag­ile, they may have needed other peo­ple to help them in their par­ent­ing. But now it’s time to take the reins back, she sug­gests, say­ing to ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers,

“Ac­tu­ally I’m okay and I can make the de­ci­sions here my­self and thank you for your ad­vice”. And those fam­ily mem­bers need to back off and al­low this to hap­pen.

“It is a mat­ter of say­ing ‘what do I want out of life?’ and not blam­ing other peo­ple if you can’t get it,” con­tin­ues Kelly, who sug­gests that so­lu­tion-fo­cused coun­selling might be more valu­able than dwelling on your past. Set goals for where you want to be one year from now.

Ac­cept and be con­fi­dent in your new fam­ily form – chil­dren need to be proud of their fam­ily. “You ab­so­lutely are a fam­ily,” she says, ex­plain­ing that One Fam­ily is press­ing for con­sti­tu­tional change next year, un­der which all sorts of fam­i­lies would be recog­nised, not just the mar­ried fam­ily.

6 Give it time

No mat­ter how a sep­a­ra­tion has played out, get­ting over it is never fast enough, says O’Hara. Af­ter a pe­riod of full-on emo­tion, you start to get on with life and when you find your­self laugh­ing on a night out, you are in “restora­tive mode”. How­ever, the sight of the back of some­body’s head or spot­ting some­thing about your ex on so­cial me­dia can throw you right back into the loss again.

“You os­cil­late be­tween one and the other and that is re­ally healthy cop­ing,” she

says. If there is an ab­sence of grief en­tirely, or too much emo­tion­ally fo­cused cop­ing, that is when it can be­come prob­lem­atic.

About 90 per cent of peo­ple os­cil­late on the path to re­cov­ery, but for about 10 per cent the grief be­comes de­railed and they prob­a­bly need pro­fes­sional help to move on, she says.

Re­cov­er­ing from sep­a­ra­tion is a slow process, agrees Kelly. “For lots of peo­ple, when they start mak­ing the changes, they be­come hap­pier and this trig­gers lots of things for their chil­dren. They see the chil­dren are do­ing a lot bet­ter and this is what mo­ti­vates them to keep go­ing.”

7 Learn from the break­down

Re­flect on what went wrong in a re­la­tion­ship, the part you played and learn from that. Peo­ple tend to be very good at blam­ing their part­ner but it took two peo­ple to form that re­la­tion­ship and it takes two to break it, says Kelly. Some­thing was putting pressure on the re­la­tion­ship and was not dealt with.

Hon­est ret­ro­spec­tion will en­able you to form new, pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships. “That is very im­por­tant for chil­dren,” she says. They need to see that while their par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship didn’t work out, oth­ers can.

“You want chil­dren to be­lieve that good re­la­tion­ships are out there, so when they grow up they are not go­ing to be turned off re­la­tion­ships but see them as some­thing pos­i­tive and good.”

Sep­a­rated cou­ples usu­ally start par­ent­ing bet­ter once they have de­vel­oped their per­sonal lives, whether that is just mak­ing new friends or start­ing an­other in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship, she adds.

“We al­ways say when you hear a per­son talk about the other par­ent as the other par­ent and not as their ‘ex’, they have re­ally started to move for­ward.”

8 Con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity of a new re­la­tion­ship

Hu­mans are hard-wired for con­nec­tion but the like­li­hood and speed of en­ter­ing an­other re­la­tion­ship af­ter sep­a­ra­tion de­pends on the in­di­vid­ual.

“Some peo­ple are so deeply hurt, they just know it is not pos­si­ble for them,” says O’Hara. “Other peo­ple need it – they pre­fer to be in re­la­tion­ships than out­side them.” To avoid pain, they will find an­other re­la­tion­ship pretty quickly.

But be aware of your mo­ti­va­tions for start­ing a new re­la­tion­ship, she cau­tions. Are you do­ing it out of fear of be­ing alone or is there some­thing about this per­son that makes you re­ally feel that con­nec­tion? Are you happy to be on your own or, are you never on your own, in which case what is that about?

Geral­dine Kelly, di­rec­tor of chil­dren and par­ent­ing ser­vices at One Fam­ily: “We try to get peo­ple to fo­cus on the pos­i­tives rather than dwell on the neg­a­tives.”

The big­gest loss for Steve af­ter sep­a­ra­tion two years ago is not the re­la­tion­ship but be­ing un­able to be around his chil­dren all the time.“The re­al­ity is I am a week­end fa­ther and I have to come to ac­cept that – it’s a hard pill to swal­low. I feel I am miss­ing out on a lot of my kids’ lives.”Yet, he de­scribes him­self as “lucky” that he has his two chil­dren ev­ery week­end, af­ter his mar­riage broke up. He had to go to court to fight for that ac­cess, hav­ing ini­tially been given only ev­ery sec­ond week­end. It was a “fi­nan­cially drain­ing” process that took over a year.“Men can be re­ally bru­talised by the court sys­tem,” he says. “You are go­ing into court and try­ing to prove to a judge that you are a hands-on fa­ther. The re­al­ity is, you are dis­crim­i­nated from the mo­ment you walk in.“I don’t mean to say that in a sex­ist or bit­ter way – that is just the re­al­ity of the court sys­tem. If you’re a woman you will get more ac­cess to the kids.”Although Steve feels he had no choice but to go to court, he doesn’t rec­om­mend it. He ad­vises friends go­ing through sep­a­ra­tion not to fight over the kids.For one thing, he be­lieves go­ing to court “de­stroys any chance of you and your ex hav­ing any re­la­tion­ship in the fu­ture”. He likens their co-par­ent­ing to a “busi­ness re­la­tion­ship”; they com­mu­ni­cate through emails and rarely talk.“It’s like work­ing with some­body you don’t get on well with. You both have a com­mon goal – to make sure the kids are okay – and there are never any ar­gu­ments. It’s all about the kids and shield­ing them from what­ever else is hap­pen­ing around them.” pre­ferred to spend time at home af­ter long days at work.For 18 months af­ter the break­down of their re­la­tion­ship, he and his wife re­mained in the same house, Fin­tan in one bed­room and her with their sons in the rest of the house.Al­ways a bit of a worka­holic, he threw him­self even more into work, leav­ing home at 7am and re­turn­ing 12 hours later, when she would go out im­me­di­ately.In­form­ing your em­ployer about the dif­fi­cul­ties you’re go­ing through is a “no-brainer”, he sug­gests, and his was ex­tremely sup­port­ive in giv­ing him time off an­dal­low­ingflex­i­bil­it­yaround­coun­selling ap­point­ments.The stand-off in the house ended when he got a text at work to say she was mov­ing out and tak­ing the chil­dren with her. While theya­greedac­ces­sar­range­ments­fairly early on, the fi­nan­cial as­pects took a lot longer to thrash out be­tween solic­i­tors.

Lisa O’Hara, psy­chother­a­pist and cou­ple coun­sel­lor: “Of­ten, the per­son who has wanted a sep­a­ra­tion and ini­ti­ated the end of [the re­la­tion­ship] is left with huge grief as well.”

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