Separation from your spouse, whether it is after two years or 20 years of marriage, is an experience that is often deeply painful. It tends to bring up feelings of self-doubt, confusion and a loss of self-identity. It is not uncommon for my clients to wonder aloud, “I don’t know who I am anymore!”, “I feel like a failure”, “I feel so lost and confused…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do and where to go from here!”. It is a loss of a partnership that was familiar, even though it might have been toxic and painful.
At this juncture, it is important to stay present and be mindful of your own internal emotional process, and thereby be able to perceive and intuit the appropriate resources and support that are available to you. I’d like to offer some useful suggestions and marital separation advice for couples that are thinking of parting, or for those that are newly single after being in a tumultuous relationship.
1. You are mourning a loss
The first thing I tell my clients who are separating from their spouse is that they are in mourning – they are grieving the death of their relationship; the loss of their marriage. Just as with a death of a loved one, partners in a relationship often go through the 5 stages of grief, namely- shock, denial, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance of what is, and looking forward to what could be. It helps to be mindful of this process and be gentle on yourself. Allow yourself to grieve and experience the range of emotions that go with mourning the loss of a relationship, whether it was your choice to leave the marriage or a mutual decision.
2. Take stock of the good
Often times when a relationship turns sour, partners tend to only remember the recent arguments, intense conflicts, the hurt and pain that have left a bad taste in their minds. A helpful way to find closure in your relationship when you have decided to part ways, is to take stock of the good times and the not-so-good times in your lives together. This exercise helps to create a more realistic narrative of your relationship, and perhaps gives you insight about your own relationship pattern, the dynamic of your conflict, and where you often get emotionally stuck in your relationships.
3. Leave the kids out of it
Things can get tricky when the marital separation involves children and custody arrangements. Remind yourself everyday that this separation is about you and your spouse, and this doesn’t change how you both relate to the kids. Sometimes, parents start to feel insecure about their capability and worthiness as a parent, and this anxiety takes the form of bashing the other parent in front of the kids. It is very important that you frequently reassure the kids that they are loved by both of you and that this separation is not their fault in any way. Kids need to feel safe and secure and given the reassurance that they will be taken care of in spite of the custody changes with their parents. Children thrive when they have clear structures and boundaries, and when the environment is one of mutual respect and that models good behavior.
4. Stay single for a while
When you are newly single for the first time in your life after many years, it is natural to feel lost and insecure. Often, clients that have recently separated from their partners report feeling shame, embarrassment, anger, insecurity and confusion as to what they should be doing now. The media doesn’t help either with their constant portrayal of what is desirable (successful, beautiful and in a relationship) and what’s undesirable (poor, unattractive and single). My suggestion is to turn off mindless media and entertainment and to turn inwards – perhaps keeping a daily journal habit, allotting time for quiet reflection and tuning into your thoughts, feelings and needs. When you quickly jump into a new relationship, as a quick fix to the pain of being single, it generally opens up a Pandora’s box of new problems. Besides, you miss out on the valuable opportunity to sit back and take stock of your life, assess the positives and negatives and areas of personal growth.
5. Turn to positive resources
In order to help you tolerate the immediate distress of singlehood, it is important to surround yourself with friends and family that are positive and supportive influences. Make an effort to reach out to your friends and make specific requests of what might be helpful for you. Sometimes, friends feel uncomfortable and hesitant to suggest activities or may not know how best to comfort you. But, they often want to be there for you, but are afraid that they might say or do the wrong thing. Some specific activities that you could suggest doing with your friends that would be therapeutic are – going for a hike, dinner or movie; planning a potluck at home; going to an exercise class together.
6. Take it one day at a time
Remember to stay in the present and take it one day at a time. It is natural for the mind to be drawn into despairing thoughts like, “this is how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life!”. Some things that you can do to take care of yourself and be present each day is by starting a daily meditation practice to center yourself, making a habit to exercise everyday, as it is a natural stress reliever, joining a support group for recently separated individuals, and seeking professional assistance in the form of psychotherapy to help process your emotional distress.
So, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you are not alone in this struggle. Take a good stock of all that’s in your control, stay present and mindful, and utilize the positive resources available to you to help make sense of your pain and suffering.