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A short guide to navigating a shock separation or marriage breakdown

Depressed fair skinned woman standing by the window and looking outside

You’ve just found out your partner or spouse is leaving. Or, worse, they’ve already left! Sure, things weren’t perfect, but as you hit the milestone of midlife you looked forward to having the time to reconnect & re-energise your relationship after the years of busy-ness. Instead, you’ve been sprung with a shock separation or marriage breakdown and been left reeling.

You’re feeling betrayed and probably don’t even quite know what to think or how to grasp what’s going on. Understandably, you might feel like lashing out or at least want your pain to be acknowledged by the others in this story.

So, what’s the first thing you should do?

It may seem counterintuitive, but the very first thing you should do is nothing. Yes, nothing.

It’s highly likely you’re in shock. That means you’re in survival mode; even if you want to, you’re not making logical or rational choices about what to do. You’re also on the back foot, or at the very least, your partner is a number of steps ahead of you on the path and is ready to move on (or already has).

So allow yourself the time and space you need to catch your breath. Don’t be rushed, either by your own emotions or by what your partner is demanding from you. In fact, one of the few things you can control in a situation like this is how you react.

Know, too, that the way a separation starts sets the tone. So while your partner may have chosen a highly-charged route to separation, you don’t have to continue down a slippery slope towards a potentially high-conflict divorce.

So for now, just ask for – and take – some time for yourself, and your children (if you have them). Sit with the sadness. Wallow in ‘why me?’ and self-pity. Or rage against the injustice of it all!

There’s even a chance that a part of you is actually relieved? That you’re not going mad thinking that something wasn’t quite right, didn’t add up, or that now you no longer have to work so hard to salvage a broken relationship?

Here we share a short guide to navigating a shock separation or marriage breakdown:

1. Slow, deep self care

Focus on yourself and your own healing. Yes of course, your kids as well, but firstly you. It’s the oxygen mask analogy; your kids will need you, and you can only be there for and support them, hold a safe space for them if you look after yourself first.

What do you need? How do you need to take care of & nurture you?

You may want to curl up under the bedclothes for days on end, and while I acknowledge & honour this is a valid response, there’s going to come a time when you need to emerge from your self-imposed exile.

Keep it simple:

  • Move your body. Whether it’s slow-flow yoga, running hard and fast, or a swim. Whatever it is, keep your body moving
  • Make simple, easy, healthy food choices (mostly! Take away feeds your self care at times too!)
  • Ease up on the ‘shoulds’ for your children and allow yourself some leeway. No kid ever died from a week of eggs on toast or cereal for dinner if that’s what it takes
  • Be wary of mindless numbing strategies, especially too much alcohol. Yes, allow yourself to break some of your usual rules, but don’t numb too much. Acknowlege numbing behaviour and allow them, but don’t slide right down the hole with them

Once the immediate shock and pain settle a little, it’s time to really focus on things you love and which bring you joy. Hone in on healthy ways you can lose yourself for a while or that help you tap back into happiness, like:

  • Reading
  • Journaling
  • Listening to music or seeing a live gig
  • Time with friends or family
  • Movies or theatre
  • Time in nature
  • Meditation and mindfulness practice
  • Cooking
  • Gardening
  • Sewing, painting, or other creative activities

What were the things you loved to do before this relationship? What’s been missing?

All of these activities will help you re-centre and reconnect with your Self, calm your mind, and soothe your reactivity, and guide you gently forward & towards healing.

2. Choose your words, slowly and wisely

Social media can be stressful at the best of times. So take a break. Unfollow or unfriend – even if it’s just for now. Avoid stalking your partner or a new partner of their online, or comment publicly on any of their posts.

Don’t announce things you are likely to regret later about your marriage, your relationship, or your situation online. Avoid wasting time on spying on or blaming a new partner, if there is one, searching for meaning, or making comparisons. It won’t move you towards healing.

Don’t bad mouth your partner or spouse to your children. Allow them to best opportunity to love and like him, even though you may resent him for his choices. Keep any information you share with them ‘age and stage’ appropriate; it’s not their story, and they aren’t feeling the emotional betrayal that you are. Your children deserve to have an ongoing relationship with their other parent, even if it needs a little time and healing too.

As enticing as it might be, don’t react from fear, anger, or a desire to seek revenge or inflict further pain. How you choose to react, respond, and behave is for you, not for your ex-partner.

Hold firmly to your life values, your core values, and behave in alignment with them.

Take your time, even if your ex- is pushing for resolution of property or parenting matters. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed or pushed to make massive decisions.

3. Ask for (and accept) help

Gather a small, tight support squad of trusted individuals. Choose wisely who you share with, but do build that small support squad around you so you are deeply held and supported, and can safely share, or even safely fall apart a little (or a lot).

There’s also no need to tell everyone, all at once. Regardless, perhaps consider some ready-made response to reply to any ‘OMG’ reactors, because they will emerge, and they will say things you never expected.

Put in place as many practical, tangible supports as you can afford – help with cleaning, meal delivery, or gardening, or share school pick-ups or drop-offs. Book a massage or find a good counsellor or psychologist (many of these can be bulk-billed).

If you need lasagne delivered by friends for a month, ask for it! If you need someone to walk the dog or pick your kids up from soccer, ask.

Your friends and family will want to help. Let them.

4. Access your finances

If you’re not across them already, now is the time to get full and frank visibility of and access to your finances; yours, theirs, any joint accounts, as well as anything in the kids’ names.

  • For every bank account, credit card, loan, superannuation account, insurance policy, you should know exactly what’s coming in and where it’s landing. Clarify what’s going out and where it’s going
  • List all of your assets and liabilities (what you own and what you owe)
  • Gain some clarity on what you need to live a reasonable life. Understand the difference between wants and needs and know how much you need as well as appreciating how much you want. Note: they may not be the same, so be clear on the ‘need’ first.

Globally, what you want to achieve as soon as possible is a clear picture of your family’s financial situation, so there can be no nasty surprises down the track.

5. Seek legal education over legal advice

If and when you’re ready, seek legal advice but avoid making any rash decisions.

Don’t race out and engage a lawyer who will start shooting off inflammatory emails to your ex, no matter how tempting that might seem or feel. As mentioned above, this is a time to go slowly, educate yourself, and make decisions wisely. Acting out of anger, vengeance, fear, or hostility is a fast track to heartbreak, and realistically a divorce process that can be as costly and damaging emotionally as it is financially.

Educate yourself about family law. What are your options? Who’s out there that can best support you? Who seems like they ‘get’ you and shares your values? Choose a family law expert who is supportive of the kindest, most collaborative pathway through.

7. Practice gratitude

Do your best to find small things to be grateful for each day, even if it’s as simple as a warm cup of tea or 5 minutes of sun on your face.

Being forced to navigate a shock separation or marriage breakdown is a really rough deal, but one day, it’s possible you may just thank your ex-spouse for setting the wheels in motion. In fact, this challenging experience could just be your ticket to the life, love, and possibly new relationship you’re worthy of and that you most deserve.

So, go gently.  Soothe your heart and soul. Heal your wounds. Build your support network. Take your time. Educate and empower yourself. And know that you don’t have to do it alone.

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Championing the voices of midlife women by nurturing connections and leading conversations around the midlife experience.

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