Separating parents need to look after themselves, as well as their children

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

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. Photograph: iStock

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 it 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 at

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."

Geraldine Kelly, director of children and parenting services at One Family.

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 seven:

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 one-on-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.

Psychotherapist and couple’s counsellor Lisa O’Hara says 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

“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.”

Dating again

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?

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