Separation and Divorce…Picking up the pieces

The breakdown of any long-term intimate relationship is usually a highly significant life event. Almost always, a separation or divorce is highly destabilising and requires us to confront painful emotional experiences. Relationship breakdowns may also present difficult practical challenges. Frequently, there is an obligation to make compromises or difficult choices.  A relationship breakdown may have consequences which are complex, unanticipated and unwanted. Separation may have impacts on several aspects of our life including work and our health. Many other individuals may be indirectly affected by the separation. Recovering from the breakdown of any close relationship normally requires a combination of time, courage and strength.

Despite these difficulties, people do recover from the trauma of relationship breakdown and rebuild their lives. Often they discover that life is better and happier than ever. This recovery plan discusses several of the most important issues in relationship breakdowns and provides effective strategies for rebuilding and healing. The emphasis is mainly on important issues for partners who are directly affected by the separation. An upcoming article on our site will examine the specific needs of children who are experiencing the trauma of a family divorce or separation. We sincerely hope this article helps you find hope, strength, encouragement, peace and some positive energy at a time when you need it most. Our article will direct you towards other reputable sources of advice, assistance and support. Good luck…we hope you find better and happier days!

The Truth about Breaking Up

Almost everyone is familiar with the impacts of divorce and separation. Many nations around the world have reported an increase in the number of separations and divorces in the last few decades. Most people have had experience of a friend or family member who has suffered the trauma of divorce or the breakdown of a long-term intimate relationship. Although divorce remains stigmatized in many communities, there is growing acceptance that separations are a reality of life in modern society. Individuals involved in same-sex or de facto relationships are equally at risk of suffering a relationship breakdown. Faced with the trauma of a separation or divorce, there is an understandable inclination to blame our partner or even ourselves for the unfortunate event. We often lose sight of the bigger picture. Some people are simply not compatible and are not destined to remain together. Maintaining an intimate relationship over an extended period of time is really difficult. Our needs and those of our partner are constantly changing and evolving. Circumstances of work, family and health rarely remain constant. New challenges are always emerging. Some couples simply cannot cope. If your relationship has ended, do not simply accept that you have failed or are inadequate. Irrespective of the exact circumstances of your separation you can make a fresh start. Many people develop new relationships, discover new interests and experience renewed freedom and zest for life. Be positive and patient. These rewards may take some time and effort but they are certainly achievable. Hang in there!

Common emotional responses to separation or divorce

Involvement in an intimate relationship with a partner is highly personal and evokes intense emotions. It is hardly surprising therefore that feelings are equally strong when such a relationship ends. Even the partner who leaves or initiates the separation may experience emotional conflicts including guilty feelings, confusion and embarrassment. Usually, it is the partner who is left or feels abandoned who suffers the most distress. The emotional impact of a divorce or separation can be quite devastating and should never be underestimated. If you experience difficulty coping at this time you are most certainly not alone. It is understandable and even normal that you feel overwhelmed by emotions at certain times. Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t mean that you are inadequate, unworthy or weak. Your feelings are almost certainly normal. What matters most is how you respond to these feelings. Certain days can prove especially difficult. Many people who have experienced a separation or divorce find particular problems at times such as Christmas, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. Such events often trigger sensitive memories or provide practical problems. We will discuss some practical and effective ways to cope with these emotions throughout the course of this recovery plan. Being aware of our own emotional responses allows us to plan ahead.

Our individual responses to a relationship breakdown depend upon several things. The exact circumstances of the separation clearly play an important part in our reaction to the situation. For instance, if there has been infidelity or domestic violence then many people would feel angry, fearful or humiliated. Sometimes a separation proceeds fairly smoothly. Sometimes there are ongoing problems or disputes which seem to constantly push all the wrong emotional buttons. There may be emotionally-charged disputes over concerns like property or access to children. Our individual coping skills are severely tested through the process of separation or divorce. Some people seem to have a more resilient constitution and cope better than others. Another important factor which influences our recovery from a separation or divorce is the support that we receive from our family and friends. There is no unique set of circumstances and the experience of separation is individual. Clearly there are particular responses to a separation or divorce which promote healing, recovery and rebuilding. Throughout this article we will describe some of the most effective and positive ways that we can respond to a separation or divorce and ultimately heal the hurt. 

One of the most commonly reported emotional responses to a separation or divorce is to feel anger. The anger displayed after a breakdown in a long-term relationship can be intense and long-lasting.  Sometimes anger can have beneficial effects if it motivates or energises us to do positive things.  More commonly, our anger provides problems and may prolong our suffering. If this anger is not controlled it can have many unfortunate impacts on other aspects of our life and prevents us from rediscovering happiness. Anger which persists causes us to become frustrated, hostile or vindictive. Unresolved anger has undesirable impacts on our daily life, relationships and our health. Never allow the anger from a separation or divorce to ruin your life. Angry feelings resulting from a perception of injustice can become firmly established and intrude into other areas of our life. Perfect, painless, permanent and completely just solutions are a rarity in a separation or divorce. Life sometimes places us in situations which appear unfair. Regrettably this is simply a fact of life. Do not embark on a misguided journey to seek retribution which ultimately provides no reward and merely entrenches the angry feelings. Your life is too important to remain angry and frustrated. A much more effective and satisfying response is to live positively. You deserve happiness. Why not pursue a better, more interesting, fulfilling and happier life in your own right? Learn more about angry feelings and how they can be released. There are several effective ways of managing angry feelings that almost anyone can learn and apply. Many excellent books and web resources are available. A counselor or psychologist can help you if required.

In many cases people feel a sense of loss after a relationship breakdown. This feeling of loss may be profound. Coming to terms with this feeling of loss can be quite difficult and take months or even years. Certain people may even develop grief responses which can include things like shock and denial. Given sufficient time these intense feelings will normally resolve. If you suffer persisting emotional distress and find difficulty coping then have the courage and commonsense to seek professional assistance or counseling. Do not simply despair or suffer in silence. Excellent help is available and may be closer than you think. Psychologists, sympathetic doctors or trained counselors can help you turn the corner. Some specific strategies to heal the deep hurt and profound sense of loss are described throughout this article. You will be guided towards other more specific sources of support and information. Supportive relatives and friends can also prove a great help when you need them most.

It is tempting to blame your partner or even yourself when a long-term relationship finally ends. Blaming is quite unhelpful and provides little satisfaction. Responsibility is often complex and incomplete in any case. Blaming yourself simply entrenches guilty feelings and lowers self esteem. Blaming your former partner is often counterproductive and only ferments anger, frustration and resentment which may be difficult to relieve. Remaining angry and spiteful harms you as much as your former partner and serves little useful purpose. You do not have to like your partner but you may need to deal with them on occasions. Do not play the blame game. It is a game where everyone loses! Better to learn from your experience and concentrate all your energies creating of a better, happier and more functional life. This approach is much more rewarding than ruminating about the errors of the past.

The breakdown of a long-term relationship can seriously damage our self-esteem. Just how much our sense of self-worth is affected depends upon several things which include the exact circumstances of the breakdown, our resilience, support from family and friends and our previously experiences in life. Rebuilding self-esteem is one of the most critical personal challenges following a separation or divorce. Several of the recovery strategies described throughout this article are targeted specifically at improving self-esteem. It is highly worthwhile to learn more about raising your self-esteem. Several excellent books are available from libraries and bookstores concerning self-esteem. There are also many reputable sources of information online about this critical issue. Learn more

When people suffer a relationship breakdown, there is a natural inclination to fixate on a sense of failure. Concentrating on our perceived failure is often misleading and merely obscures the bigger picture. Relationships do break down. Some couples simply are not meant to remain together. Despite the best endeavours of both partners things simply do not work out. Other relationships are blighted by domestic violence, gambling, substance addiction, abuse or infidelity and cannot survive. Perceptions of failure need to viewed in a reasonable perspective. A sense of failure after a relationship breakdown is often highly exaggerated and distorted. Learn from the experience of the relationship but do not dwell on your perceived failures or those of your former partner.

Common traps after a separation or divorce

Many people know of close friends or relatives who have had problems coping with the aftermath of a divorce or separation. Most people who experience the breakdown of a long-term relationship will have serious doubts in the months following the separation. Authorities working in this field have pinpointed several common patterns of behaviour displayed by people who are suffering problems after a relationship breakdown.  Some of these problematic behaviour patterns include social withdrawal, rebounding into another relationship too soon, gambling, excessive alcohol or drug usage, returning to the former partner and lingering resentment over the relationship breakdown. The problems with most of these behavioural responses are clear. A significant percentage of reconciliations prove unsuccessful and reuniting may simply prolong the distress for both partners as well as the children. Any successful reconciliation requires effort, strong commitment, understanding, forgiveness and acceptance. Counseling or other expert advice should be considered to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

How to Kick-start your Recovery

A divorce or separation from a long-term partner is a major life event which has many impacts. There are difficult emotional issues as well as practical problems such as legal battles and financial stresses. Where possible, reputable legal and financial advice should be obtained to resolve issues and provide the best possible foundation for the future. This article primarily concentrates on how to approach the challenge of healing our emotional wounds. Recovering from such an emotionally traumatic experience often requires some time and patience. Every individual breakdown is unique and personal. In some situations and in certain cultures rebuilding after a separation can be especially difficult. How might we begin to pick up the pieces? What works? Anecdotal experience throughout the ages and formal scientific studies in this area have shown that certain responses and attitudes are more helpful in rebuilding a happy and functional life. A critical first step is often to re-evaluate our beliefs, thoughts and actions. Frequently, we need to learn to think and act in a different and more effective way. Let’s look at several of the most vital issues.

Emotional Release

Getting over the breakdown normally requires a period of time. A grief process is at work during the immediate aftermath of a separation or divorce. Understanding the reality that the initial months are likely to be difficult is important. Individual people have different ways of coping during this period. Don’t do things that make the situation even worse. If you remain calm, patient, and clear out those negative feelings you might be better off in the longer term. Impulsive decisions made during these first uncertain months often have regrettable consequences. Inappropriate choices can harm our health and well-being and simply serve to increase our distress during this difficult time. Things almost always get better if you remain committed to the dream of a brighter future. Common mistakes made in the first few months include the following.

Punishing yourself never helps! Communicate feelings with close friends or family. If that is impractical or not possible consider seeing a counselor to clear out those negative emotions. Rushing into a new relationship on the rebound often does not work out. It is more important to find the right partner, not just any partner. Damaging your health or getting into financial problems must always be avoided.


Expectations can work against us in several ways. We often need to contend with unreal expectations of other individuals. Our legitimate needs, rights and feelings need to be understood and respected by others. Even more importantly, we must have reasonable and realistic personal expectations. Many people discover that recovering from a divorce or separation is more difficult than they first thought. It can take time. Finding a suitable new partner may take some time. There are often other changes to living circumstances or financial arrangements which require readjustment. Almost certainly, you will have a few bad days. What matters is how you respond to these difficult moments. If you remain firmly committed to making positive choices you will eventually get through. Do not get dispirited or disheartened because high expectations have not been met. In reality, life is imperfect. At the other end of the scale, expectations can be too low. Some people remain firmly anchored in suffering from their separation because they believe that their life is over. They become withdrawn, angry frustrated and vindictive. Life is not finished. Many separated or divorced people meet new partners, have children and have wonderful new experiences. They discover happiness and success that they never believed possible. You can do it too. Attitude is everything!


There is an understandable temptation to put all our energies into finding a new long-term partner. Sometimes we neglect important friendships which protect, enrich and sustain us in difficult times. In some cases these important friendships may have been damaged by our previous relationship. Friendships are important in several critical ways. Good friends make us feel valued and important boosting our self-esteem. We can have fun and forget our troubles for a while. They can provide a support network on difficult days. Friends also provide opportunities in several areas of our life. A significant proportion of future long-term romantic relationships develop from networks of friends. Join a club or learn something like a language, craft or musical instrument. Find interesting new friends and reconnect with long-lost ones.


Relationship breakdowns can be devastating to our sense of self worth. The dysfunctional relationship itself may have previously eroded our self-esteem. This is especially true if there has been a history of violence, abuse or infidelity. Rebuilding often requires us to regain our pride, dignity and self-esteem. Just because your relationship has failed does not mean that you are unworthy or undeserving of a happy future. You deserve all the rewards of life every bit as much as anyone else. Some simple steps might help you to improve your self-esteem at this difficult time.

A Positive Attitude

Make positive thoughts and actions a daily habit. After a divorce or separation there is always a strong temptation to become negative and defeatist. Everyone who has suffered from the breakdown of a long-term intimate relationship experiences moments of regret, self-doubt, self pity and negative thoughts. Some negative thinking is both normal and understandable. Perhaps it is even healthy because it stops us doing irresponsible, hasty or impulsive things which we later regret. Unchallenged negative thinking rarely provides satisfactory answers or effective coping strategies. Positive thoughts and actions are more likely to produce results and rewarding solutions. A positive attitude has several benefits.

Maintaining a positive outlook is certainly difficult after a separation or divorce. We need to be courageous and committed. Remaining in an ocean of doubt, uncertainty, self-pity and self-recrimination however is no recipe for recovery and healing. Learning to think in a different and more positive way might just be the thing to help us turn the corner after a relationship breakdown.

Physical health

Many people suffer from serious health problems after a separation or divorce. Often this is due to the stress of the breakup. On other occasions it is simply a result of oversight or neglect. Remain vigilant about your physical health at this difficult time. Get your doctor to keep a close eye on your health. Tell your doctor about your situation. Sometimes a short vacation might be a good idea to clear the head and give some time to think things through. The last thing you need is serious health problems at a time when your spirits are already low. Eat sensibly and get regular exercise. Learn to laugh a little too!

Avoid destructive behaviours

Many people indulge in self-destructive actions after a relationship breakdown to release pent up feelings. Unresolved emotions drive people to gamble, be promiscuous, break the law or abuse drugs, tobacco or alcohol. Other people completely lose confidence and respond by becoming withdrawn. Some individuals become angry, frustrated or even violent. None of these responses help. Escaping rarely works and often just adds to the suffering and distress. The most critical considerations are feeling better about the person inside and dealing effectively with key feelings and issues. Live positively and boldly and start planning a better tomorrow. Seeking support makes far more sense than a misguided attempt to drown your sorrows in a sea of indulgent actions.

Living for Today and Tomorrow

No one has the ability to change the past. We can however think about previous events in a more positive and constructive way. We can learn lessons and rid ourselves of a burden of negative emotions like guilt, shame and anger. Frequently we have to learn to let go of the past and move on. We can use the events of the past to strengthen our commitment to a better tomorrow. Separation or divorce need not condemn us to a life of eternal misery. A critical part of the healing process is to wipe the slate clean. Often we need to forgive or forget to consolidate our own recovery. Leaving the past behind has several important practical benefits. Each new relationship must be judged on its own merits and not simply compared to the previous one. Our new relationship is more likely to succeed if we focus on the present and the future rather than anxieties about past events. A new relationship should be viewed for its own intrinsic value rather than just a replacement for our loss. A commitment to make a bold, fresh start also helps boost our self-esteem because it frees us from some of the hurt of the past. Finally, our relationship with the kids will benefit if we can learn to live for the present moment rather than ruminating about the mistakes and frustrations of the past. You will feel better and the kids will too!


Recovery from a separation or divorce sometimes is easier if we use all the resources at our disposal. Many people require professional help from counselors or psychologists to complete the healing process. This is not an acceptance that we have failed. A separation or divorce is a significant life event and its impact should never be underestimated. There is no obligation to suffer alone! It is often helpful to seek an independent perspective and speak with someone who has specialized knowledge about individual challenges, plans and strategies. Counseling might be particularly useful if there has been abuse, domestic violence or infidelity in a previous relationship. There may also be ongoing disputes over things like access to children or property settlement. A skilled mediator can often assist with resolving these ongoing issues. An experienced counselor could help in many ways.

The role of a professional counselor does not finish when our former relationship comes to an end. Their ability to help and guide us may be even more important after a breakup.

Learning More

In recent decades there has been a huge increase in awareness of the special emotional and practical needs of people who have experienced a separation or divorce. Resources are available which simply did not exist a few years ago. There are social groups and support networks. A number of authoritative, reputable books have been published which offer encouragement as well as excellent practical advice. A brief scan of the internet using your favorite search engine reveals that there is an absolute mass of information and support available online. Use these resources. Take the numerous opportunities to learn more. A selection of useful resources is listed at the end of this article to get you started.

Supporting the Children after a Relationship Breakdown

Looking after your own needs is hard enough. One of the most difficult challenges of any separation is helping the kids through the traumatic experience. Children at different ages usually respond to the separation in different ways. At this moment when parents themselves feel anxious, uncertain, confused and vulnerable there is a need to provide support to others who have their whole world turned upside down. Grandparents are often traumatized by divorce and separation as well. Each individual relationship breakdown presents its own unique challenges. There are however some fairly well-established ways to minimize the impact of the separation on the children. Certain behaviours from parents have been found to be consistently helpful in promoting adjustment and coping. Some of the most effective and critical strategies to help children through the experience are listed below.

Essential messages from parents – there are several critical messages which must be constantly reinforced. These include

Do not argue in front of the children – if there are problems, make another time to speak when the children are elsewhere. In difficult cases, consider using a mediator.

Pay particular attention to children’s self-esteem – if they feel confident and worthy, they are more likely to cope.

Be truthful – being dishonest simply undermines trust and promotes more anxiety.

Make time to listen

Do not denigrate their other parent – often this is interpreted as personal criticism

Recognize the importance of your children’s needs – kids needs are high priority

Attempt to minimize practical disruptions – familiar surroundings and school are helpful

Dealing with your former partner

Feelings toward a former partner are often intense. Maintaining an uncooperative and acrimonious relationship is however rarely helpful. Such a relationship often hurts you and your children every bit as much as your former partner. You will be much better off concentrating energies becoming happy and successful in your own life. Developing a positive relationship with your own kids also promotes recovery and readjustment. By all means remain assertive about your own rights but remaining angry and belligerent helps no one. You do not have to like your former partner but you may be required to maintain a practical working relationship. Many former partners do create mature, cooperative and supportive relationships once the dust has settled. Communication is important here and may prevent misunderstandings. If there are unresolved disputes, do not argue in front of the kids. Make a private appointment. In difficult circumstances consider involving a mediator.

Resources for Rebuilding and Recovery after Separation or Divorce

There is now a considerable amount of resources about separation and divorce available to provide support, hope and inspiration for the future. Advice and support may often be much closer than you think. There are many excellent books which have been written by experts in the field. Try searching your local library or book seller for some of the titles listed below. If these books are unavailable then they will be available from your favorite online bookstore. The suggested books are not listed in any particular order of preference.

1) Moving On: Breaking up without Breaking Down, Suzie Hayman, Vermilion (2001)
2) After the Affair, Janis Abrahms Spring, Harper Collins (1997)
3) How Can I Forgive You? Janis Abrahms Spring, (2004)
4) Surviving Separation and Divorce, Loriann Hoff Obertin, Adams Media, (2000)
5) Rebuilding: When your Relationship Ends, B Fisher and R E Fisher, Rebuilding Books,        3rd Edition
6) Helping Children Cope with Divorce, Edward Teyber, John Wiley and Sons, (2001)
7) It’s My Life Now: Starting over after an Abusive Relationship or Domestic Violence, Meg       Kennedy 
8) Dugan et al, (2000). Divorce and New Beginnings, Genevieve Clapp, John Wiley and             Sons, (2000)
9) The Divorce Recovery Sourcebook, Dawn Bradley et al, (1998)
10) Breaking Up Without Cracking Up: Reducing the pain of Separation and Divorce,                Christopher Compston
11) The New Creative Divorce: how to create a happier, more rewarding life during, and              after, your divorce, Mel Krantzler
12) Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way, Gary Neuman, Random            House, (1998)
13) The Single Parent Family: Living happily in a changing world, Marge Kennedy and Janet       Spencer King, Crown Trade Paperbacks, (1994)
14) So Now You’re On Your Own, Lyn Henley, Harper Collins, (1994)
15) Surviving Solo, Meredith Cameron, Wrightbooks, (2004)
16) Parenting After Separation, Jill Burrett, Finch Books, (2002)

Support Groups
Support Groups are now appearing in many countries to help people cope with the trauma of separation and divorce. You may be able to find a group close to where you live. Contacts for support groups can often be made online.

Web Resources
The internet provides a gateway to a vast amount of useful information and support for individuals who have experienced a separation or divorce. A selection of some useful and reputable sites is listed below to get you started. Good luck and happy searching! (Divorce Magazine) (many links to useful contacts in several countries) (Citizen’s Advice Bureau)

There are also many excellent sites for kids and teens. These include

Wishing you all the best from all at Rediscover Hope

By Dr Andrew Rylatt (Medical Doctor)
11th April 2005

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