Grazia (UK)

The heartbreak hotel

As ‘divorce season’ divides us, Emma Ledger, 32, checks into Britain’s first ‘ break-up retreat’ to learn how to have a successful split


annie is the first one to start crying. As she tells a room full of people the traumatic details of how her husband left her after just two months of marriage, it’s strange to think we’ve all known each other less than 10 minutes. Here at the Heartbreak Hotel, though, there’s no holding back.

Most of us know how painful splitting up with a partner can be, and it’s on the rise. There were 106,959 divorces in England and Wales last year – the highest figure since 2009. That’s not counting all the unmarried couples calling time on love, like me.

Last March, I broke up with Harry after almost eight years together. It was a mutual decision, but after he moved out of our shared North London flat I was overwhelme­d by feelings of failure and absence. I missed him. I missed us. I was surrounded by friends announcing weddings and pregnancie­s, but no longer knew what my future looked like. Starting again felt almost impossible.

The UK’S first ever Break-up Recovery Retreat was created by relationsh­ip expert Sara Davison, who promises to share the secrets of not just surviving a split, but feeling stronger and more able to have successful relationsh­ips. It sounded like it could help me, but I was also hugely sceptical. The retreat lasts two days and costs £599. Why would I part with that much cash for a stranger to tell me to stop sobbing and get on Tinder? I have friends for that.

The beautiful East Sussex hotel where the retreat takes place makes Downton Abbey look like a bedsit. But as I arrive for the first day I feel rising apprehensi­on about sharing my story. After taking my seat at desks arranged in a semi-circle, I spot a happy-emoji cushion and the kind of inspo quotes I’m allergic to (‘think good thoughts’) and wonder if this is all a mistake.

Thankfully, the 13 women in the group, who range from 30 to 55, seem intelligen­t and determined. We might be at different stages of our break-ups, but for all of us they’re unresolved. Recently separated Annie*, 31, admits, ‘I just want to be able to enjoy life again.’ Hearing people you don’t know describe familiar, raw emotions is incredibly intense and oddly intimate.

‘You can’t change what happens,’ says Sara. ‘But you can change how you deal with it.’ We learn coping strategies like naming and confrontin­g emotions we’re scared of, making a gratitude list, and shredding our baggage. Literally. We fill a piece of paper with our negative thoughts and feelings and shred it.

Sara explains constantly re-telling our ‘sad story’ is unhelpful, as we relive the emotions, which stops us from moving on. Kerry*, 40, whose husband left a year ago, says, ‘It’s been like a comfort blanket, but I’m bored of it – I need to build a new story.’ Sara encourages us to stop ‘social media self-harm’. She advises removing any digital trace of our ex, which means deleting photos and hiding or unfriendin­g mutual friends. By the end of day one I’ve explored issues that I’ve tried my best to ignore but I’ve let go of a lot of the pain.

On day two, we’re looking to the future, considerin­g relationsh­ip values and designing our ideal partner with five attributes they must have. It sounds obvious, but it makes me focus on what I want for myself.

Nothing we’ve done is groundbrea­king, but I think it’s the support, focus and shared vulnerabil­ity that has made me feel different. Now, instead of weeping there’s laughter and plan-making. Several people feel ready to join dating apps and we set up a Whatsapp support group. I’ve learned that the end of a relationsh­ip is not a tragedy, but a brilliant opportunit­y – and I’m excited.

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