How to cope when your marriage or long-term relationship ends

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Many people seem to think the divorce rate is higher in mining relationships. I’ve got to say I’ve never seen evidence of this in research. But, given that about one in three Australian marriages ends in divorce, it’s likely that at least a few of you will be divorced, separated or thinking about leaving your partner.

The end of a marriage or long-term relationship is heart breaking, and one of the toughest challenges many people will ever face.

Of course most of us start our marriage (or de facto relationship) with a lot of love in our hearts and high hopes for the future. As time goes by, day-to-day life brings stresses like the mortgage, bills, pets, kids, nappies, sleepless nights, work, family and household chores … and this is all considered ‘normal’! Throw in a few unexpected events like a serious illness in the family, job loss, bad accident or infidelity, and it’s little wonder that about a third of marriages end.

Apparently, divorce rates peak at about eight years these days. Common reasons for ending a marriage are ‘falling out of love’, poor communication, ‘drifting apart’, different interests and expectations and one or the other person ‘changing’. Other reasons are infidelity, drug or alcohol problems and financial pressures.

Whatever the reason, the break-up of a marriage or long-term relationship is very stressful and an intensely emotional time, even if you’re the one who wants out. Take this old friend of mine who has just left her husband: the first time I saw her she was celebrating the end the marriage with a big grin, a glass of bubbly and excited plans for her future; the next time I saw her she told me she’d burst into tears in the supermarket and left without any shopping. Apparently, it had suddenly dawned on her that she didn’t know how to shop for herself and her ‘part-time’ kids. This friend’s emotional rollercoaster is to be expected, and we can expect that her ex-husband is on a rollercoaster of his own.

A whole range of emotions and symptoms are reported by recently separated men and women, including:

  • grief about the loss of the relationship
  • sadness about the loss of the family home and other valued possessions or belongings (including pets)
  • shock
  • confusion
  • hurt
  • anger and bitterness about what has happened
  • loneliness
  • fear about the future
  • worry about how the children and/or your ex-partner will cope
  • desperation or panic about the thought of not seeing the children
  • physical pain or symptoms like headaches, dizziness or nausea
  • relief that a decision has been made
  • hope about how things might be in the future

If you’re facing the end of a marriage or long-term relationship, it’s important to know that you’re not alone and support is available. It’s a tough time and here are some tips that might help you cope:

  • Remember that it's very normal to be devastated at the end of a marriage, even if you're the one who initiated the split. Relationships are very important to all of us, and ending one is very rarely a straightforward exercise.
  • Accept that while a level of uncertainty is inevitable at first, you can start to gather information about your rights and choices pretty much straight away. Contact support lines and government agencies for information. Sometimes people are so fearful of what they will be told when they do seek advice (for example that they won't be able to see their kids regularly) that they do nothing except think 'what ifs' and get themselves into a state of total anguish. In my experience this anguish is usually totally unnecessary, as most fears are unfounded and can be overcome with good research and information.
  • If you're too distressed to seek out information or support, ask a trusted friend or family member to help you make the calls and gather the information you need.
  • There are no 'right' or 'wrong' reasons to end a relationship and you won't have the support of everyone you know. Choose a few supportive friends to chat to, and consider talking to a counsellor or psychologist if you want your confidentiality guaranteed.
  • Keep up with your normal activities as much as possible.
  • Look after yourself physically. It's really boring, but eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep are all important parts of coping. (Having said that, it's very normal for appetite and sleep to be affected in the first month or so of grief of any kind - try to eat anyway, rest and go easy on yourself until some sense of normality returns to your body.)

And now a word on the kids.

I can’t tell you how many times separating parents have told me that the kids either “don’t know what’s going on” or “don’t care”. I don’t think this is ever true. What I think is that the parents are understandably busy with their own emotions and kids have very different ways of showing grief. In reality, kids have a whole mix of emotions about the separation of their parents, from grief and panic to relief. Some parents just get too overwhelmed when they’re forced to consider the emotions of their children. Here are the tips I give to parents in this situation:
  • Tell your kids as clearly as possible what the split will mean for them practically. Most kids are very practical and worry about things like who will take them to school, where the dog will live and whether or not friends can still come over. This is not to downplay their strong emotions, but if you can't handle the strong feelings then at least tell them the information they want to know about the practical stuff.
  • Ask close friends and family members to keep an eye on the kids, and ask them to offer support where needed. I also suggest that mum or dad call football or netball coaches and teachers so there are a few people out there looking out for your children.
  • With babies and young children, keep routines as consistent as possible.

Click here for information on children and separation from Relationships Australia and here for info on divorce and finances.

Booklets on separation are also available on the Beyond Blue website, and here are some other numbers that may help:

And finally, please note that ending a relationship that is abusive or violent requires special planning and support. For help call the Domestic Violence Helpline in your state.
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