Life after Separation
Jill Burrett MSc MAPsS                                                         

Emotions can run very high when a relationship breaks down. Jill Burrett knows all about this.

She has been involved in relationship and separation counselling for over 25 years with the Family Court and private practice - Carrington Psychology - in Sydney CBD. 

A consulting psychologist, with a masters level in psychology, she is also the author of several books about Parenting & Separation, including "Dad's Place"

Jill discusses what to expect when separating and offers some ideas to help get through this period.

 Jill could you explain the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist. What does each do?

There is a lot of community confusion about roles and titles.

1. A psychologist is a psychology graduate with post graduate training and supervised practice - this entitles them to be considered for registration.

2. A psychiatrist is a medical practitioner - in the first instance - who chooses to specialise, much like a plastic surgeon or a bone doctor does, in that field of medicine - known as psychiatry.

3. They can prescribe drugs and admit people to hospital. This makes them different to psychologists although there is a fair degree of overlap.

On the whole psychologists are not quite concerned with mental illness as a psychiatrist, and many psychologists work in non-health fields.

What is the average length of time someone would come and see you?

They might come and see me

· once for a “brain storm” and some thoughts
· two or three times to take those issues further
· or they might see me six times for a course e.g. relationship enhancement

It’s negotiable, and my counselling is based on cognitive behaviour therapy principles.

What sort of issues do you get involved in when you are counselling from a separation & divorce perspective?

Feelings, everybody’s feelings and their parenting responsibilities. There aren’t always children - but separation is something on the whole people tend not to talk to one another about usefully.

We make commitments to long term relationships very conjointly. It’s a partnership. My belief is
· that it’s a better outcome long term if people can face what’s going on - even if there is no hope of a reconciliation or reworking of the relationship
· it should be disengaged from conjointly - if possible.

So we do a lot of separation counselling.

Jill what would that entail?

Arriving at an understanding and eventual acceptance of what has happened in the relationship to create the present situation

Learning ways to manage the associated emotions helpfully

Understanding the children’s positions and needs

Planning a wise and realistic future.

If children are involved - what sort of counselling do you do?

I don’t believe that children of separating parents necessarily have any problems that can’t be dealt with by the parents being truly child-focussed. They may not be happy about it but they will adjust with the right support.

I do see children occasionally - but counselling children because their parents are divorcing - is not usually necessary.

Jill could you tell us how separation affects people?

It is very different with everybody. What is the general pattern?
Usually, one person in the relationship has been tottering along - perhaps with their head little bit in the sand - passingly content. When partner announces they want to discuss the relationship - with a view to separating - it’s a bolt out of the blue.

The person - wanting to separate - has usually done a lot of silent preparation in their head.

At this point, the two people are in two different emotion positions.

To confront being left is very difficult.

It’s a good idea to get to a counsellor. In a lot of instances the person - who has one foot out of the door - doesn’t want to go. But separation counselling can be very valuable.

People get hurt and angry.

With most ordinary people

· the person who is leaving the relationship has just as hard a time - in their own way
· as the person who is left behind feeling hurt - but in a different kind of position
· people get very profoundly distressed by being abandoned

All human beings are like that. They are anxious about abandonment. If you didn’t think that this was ever going to happen to you - because you had a committed relationship - it rouses a great deal of emotional disequilibrium.

You mentioned abandonment and anger are, there other feelings? Relief, freedom?

Some people feel relief. If there is a separation decision - you mightn’t like it - but might be relieved that it’s a decision, at least something’s happening.

Often it follows a period of years of chronic dissatisfaction that is weighing people down more than they realize at the time they are left.

You may be very angry because you feel that - in order to get on with your life - you are forced to make a separation decision.

You are profoundly disappointed with your partner and uncertain about how your parenting priorities are going to be carried out in the future. This usually concerns the one being left. They very often feel inclined to hang on to some notion of - what’s left of the original family unit.

This doesn’t help get on with cooperative shared parenting.

Yes, being left means anger, protest, denial, outrage & resentment.

For the one leaving
· relief
· ambivalence
· guilt

and perhaps before too long - maybe some sense that - what was troubling them and they thought was the relationship, actually wasn’t.

It doesn’t necessarily make for a clear-cut situation - everything’s sorted now I’ve left my partner.

In general men - who leave relationship or who are left - take on new relationships much more quickly than women.

This is quite interesting. Moving on quickly, leaving the past behind. Not thinking about it too much because that’s confronting. It’s a bit of a masculine thing.

Is that healthy?

Not necessarily, but we all tend to do what makes sense to us at the time.

Do men who repartner quickly go into relationships that are likely to survive? Or are they just passing rebound situations?

It’s very true to say that people who leave relationship have often got an actual or prospective relationship in mind. It’s a bit scary out there on your own.

The relationship you leave your partner for isn’t necessarily the one you end up with.

Experiencing a connection with a person often seems to help people find out that what they have got in their current relationship isn’t enough for them.

You said before that sometimes - after they have left the marriage - that maybe it wasn’t the marriage that was really the problem.

I think that’s the fifty million dollar question! If there are children people often to stay in marriages, feeling more or less dissatisfied with life for quite a long time asking themselves:

“Is what I’m feeling my marriage’s fault or my fault”

Sometimes, the only way people can find that out - is to try life without the marriage. They may discover that what troubled them - or they thought troubled them - about the marriage, will in fact crop up in subsequent relationships too.

When a separation has just occurred - how can the couple get through the first few weeks?

Talk as much as possible. Even if they feel it’s emotional and difficult or they are going over the same ground.

There is no such thing as too much talking. This is the talking responsibility for

· where you are as a couple.
· where you both find yourselves - regardless of the whether the two positions are quite different

I advise people not to talk to too many relations. They can muddy the water with well intended good will.

Family have a vested interest in protecting their child from hurt by the in-law. I think they can complicate things. I discourage that one on the whole.

Would that be the same with close friends?

You may be just bursting with distress and can’t talk to your partner about your feelings.

Maybe they won’t listen to you or won’t give you the time of day. They may find talking about it far too difficult.

Try and take responsibility for what is happening to you - within the relationship - with the help of trusted friends. If you don’t want to air your dirty linen to friends - because once you do there is no undoing it - use counsellors who are impartial and confidential.

Would they see their General Practioner for referral to a reputable counsellor?

Yes, or their solicitor. Soon, there will be 65 Family Relationships Centres in NSW and these are going to be your first port of call for separation advice.

You can find counsellors through

· General Practioners
· Community health centres
· Relationships Australia
· Unifam
· Centrecare
· The Australian Psychological Society.

The person who is being told of their partner’s intention to separate maybe devastated - but they may also be relieved.

They may have a set of values or a particular temperament that says “I’m not happy here but I can’t and don’t know how to do anything about it”.

When their partner does - they’re actually quite relieved.

Some of us don’t want to be the one, who broke up the marriage.

We don’t want to be the leaver. We might feel hurt that we aren’t wanted any more.

But we might also be downright relieved - because it lets us off the hook for doing anything about the relationship.

So in the first instance.

· talk to each other as much as you can, however upsetting it is
· above all allow the other the opportunity to hold the floor in this discussion
· and just listen.

We all talk more that we should be listening in our dealings with people!

· do a lot of uninterrupted listening
· take turns
· so that you just hear each other.
· tell the tale of how it’s been in the relationship for you - really & honestly -possibly for the first time

If you go to counselling together, wouldn’t that help you to listen to each other?

Yes, and counselling together doesn’t just mean “we’re going to see if we can have a reconciliation”.

I urge people to think of joint counselling as

· an opportunity to find out what’s really going on
· how things have developed for the couple - for the relationship - to have gotten where it is today.

What can you get out of participating in counselling?

A dignified and amicable separation with plenty of mutual respect rather than bitterness!

Guidance about joint separated parenting.

Should you try to raise issues about the future and not just the past?

Yes, Once the couple can come to an understanding of what’s gone on in the relationship - up to today and how they feel about it - then there is a possibility of some blue sky here.

Not so much about reconciliation or revitalization or getting each other to fall in love like when we first met, but
· where do we want go from here?
· what sort of relationship do we want with each other now ?

Even if they do separate?

What sort of emotions are both parties likely to experience throughout the first year?

The biggest emotional hurdle - early in the separation - is whether there is another person on the scene, a new partner.

That’s rival stuff with anxieties about how children are going to take to the situation. It’s particularly challenging to feel replaced when you’re "licking your wounds" about being left.

Disorganised parenting is very often a characteristic of the first year.

· we may be upset and uncertain
· don’t know what the future is going to hold
· in turmoil about perhaps changing our separation decision - because life without the children day to day - is too hard
· or the longed-for new relationship falls flat
· the person left, and still wanting the marriage, may be held back wanting a restoration of the relationship. (This is very debilitating to live through.)

Jill, I have noticed many different behaviours being displayed by both men and women in the first year. Letting off steam and sometimes a desperate need to reattach.

I think that there are just as many people who do nothing except become immobilised by being abandoned. They batten down the hatches and get on with their parenting responsibilities and their job and are fairly stuck and don’t feel like going out partying for a long time.

There are others who almost seem to be distracting themselves by
· new wardrobes
· new images
· new hobbies
· new social group

Women tend to want to go solo for awhile to rediscover themselves as single and that might involve doing all sorts of new and different things.

Men tend to want to reinvent themselves as a separate person. Feeling new relationships and making themselves feel like “I can be a stud after all” after years of perhaps dull monogamy.

It may be that once people get their heads around being separated think

· I’m going to get on with all the things that I didn’t realize I had it in me to want to do
· I was so busy getting on with marriage and family life, all of a sudden I’m free
· and when the kids are over with the other parent, I can go out partying,
· I can take up scuba diving
· or go blonde change my hair or whatever it is.

It may look perhaps a bit prolific - but why not - it’s about getting on with life.

Could it be a little about having control over themselves - finally getting control back in to their life?

We talk a lot about a controlling relationship but to a certain degree - all controlling relationships have a controller and a victim.

The victim is perhaps allowing themselves to be controlled - because early on in the relationship - this pattern was willingly set.

Being single and enjoying not having to consult anyone can be quite liberating.

How long can it take for someone to move on? It’s pretty daunting situation with amazing emotions involved.

It depends on your support systems. The level of emotional independence you as a person had before and during the marriage.

If you’re pretty together and emotionally autonomous - and you’ve got good support systems - it won’t take you so long.

Someone who might have partnered at eighteen - or before they had much adult, independent life under their belt - may take longer.

I think it’s realistic to look at eighteen months. People have recovered when
· they can see their former partner in the street accidentally, not cross the road to avoid them
· feel quite happy to say “hello” briefly and not feel anxious or upset or alarmed

What about someone who doesn’t have a lot of support systems and is struggling with this situation on their own?

This may mean they take longer to “recover”.

Is it different for men as opposed to women?

Hard to say. I think men have real problems with abandonment. It’s partly an ego thing,
“I can’t bear the thought of not being in control here and my wife has left me” not
“OK my wife has left me - what have I done wrong”.
“How dare she!” is quite a masculine and primitive kind of reaction.

If something besets a women, they are more likely to say “what did I do” and blame themselves.

Is there any other ways they can help the process along?

· Counselling
· Reading
· Talking
· Thinking
· cultivating new interests
· ringing up a friend that you know you have neglected for ten years

Getting on with life.

Separation is a major life crisis. Death and divorce are the two major ones but they are not unusual. They do not necessarily result in nevious breakdowns or a need for medication.

Your duty to support your children keeps you strong.

Do you get involved in helping parents write parenting plans?

Yes, particularly if they come to me for mediation.

I believe it’s a good psychological sign of responsible parenting intentions - even if there aren’t major issues in dispute.

Parenting issues should include

· statement of ongoing joint responsibility
· how time is shared between households
· where the children will spend school holidays and special days
· a schedule to review the plan

What advice would you give to separating parents?

The children need their parents to be confident and optimistic about how the separation is going to work out, acknowledging that everyone is going to have adjustments to make.

Surprisingly often, people will let out snide remarks about the other parent in front of the children - that’s a NO NO.

You decimate half a child when you denigrate half of their genetic and emotional inheritance.

Be positive about the child’s relationship with the other parent, however the shared parenting arrangements are working out.

Children of separated parents who do best and are least affected by it, are those who are given emotional freedom to have full-on shared parenting arrangements.

Have a long hard look - however angry, bitter, blaming or accusing you feel after years of being a loyal spouse - at what it could have been about you, that may have contributed to this happening.

Use your separation as an opportunity for personal growth and a challenge to develop your parenting in new and useful ways.

Jill thank you for your time.

Jill Burrett's practice is Carrington Psychology located opposite Wynward Station in Sydney CBD