Over the many years I have been entrusted to provide legal advice, care and guidance to families experiencing separation I have observed that end of a relationship is an emotional and traumatic time for all concerned. Whilst people cope with the stages of grief in very different ways I have seen first hand that mourning the loss of a relationship is one of the most difficult experiences people can go through.
My own observations over many years are backed up by the social science. According to psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe’s Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), a questionnaire to identify major life stressors, divorce is ranked among the top two of stressful life events, second only to the death of a spouse or partner. Other research undertaken indicates divorce is the most stressful life event other than the death of a child.
With such big changes brought about by a separation it is expected that you may feel anxious, overwhelmed and unsure about how to approach what feels like a totally foreign situation. So what are some simple things you can you do at an early stage to manage some of the stress experienced during a separation or divorce?
Here are my four top tips on how to look after yourself during a separation or divorce.
- Prioritise self-care
Regular readers of my blog will know how passionate I am about prioritising self-care. Whilst self-care is always important it is critical during times of high stress. So it is one of the most important activities to engage in during and after a separation when stress levels will, understandably, be at their peak.
It is important to BE KIND TO YOURSELF and keep in mind that mourning is a natural human response to loss. There is a wide array of emotional experiences you will feel in the early stages of a separation. These emotional responses will make it hard, if not impossible, to think clearly and objectively and make the best decisions for you and your family in the longer term.
Prioritising the basics – sleep, healthy eating and exercise – will help you cope better. You will enable yourself to make better decisions in the aftermath of separation that will have long-term impact on you, your family and your interactions with each other moving forward.
- Ask for help and develop a ‘ circle of care’
In our self-reliant culture we are often reluctant to ask for help when we need it. Developing ‘a circle of care’ of family, friends and trusted advisors to help you navigate through a difficult time, whether that is separation or another of life’s many challenges, is essential.
By enlisting your nearest and dearest as part of your ‘circle of care’ and asking for help, whether that help is practical or emotional, you are likely to deepen your connection and friendships. Be sure to let your friends know how they can best help you.
Making an early investment in developing a relationship with a trusted advisor such as a counsellor or psychologist to help you deal with the grief associated with the loss of a relationship or proactively helping you develop new skills to assist manage what you are experiencing is absolutely essential.
In my work, I encourage the people I assist to establish ‘a circle of care’ by making referrals to empathetic experts who are able to provide advice and support in important areas of their life, depending on their individual needs. Typically, this may include a counsellor or psychologist, an accountant, a financial planner, or a lawyer with experience in estate planning and structuring. However sometimes people also need practical assistance. Recently I arranged for referrals for a client to a support service to assist with management of day-to-day issues such as gathering and management documents to help my client feel less overwhelmed, which assisted to relieve some pressure.
Having this ‘circle of care’ helps with better long term decisions during a separation.
- Take care of your children
Be aware and education yourself about the impact of exposure to conflict on children. The social science research suggests that children are not impacted so much by separation of their parents but more so by exposure to conflict. Children who experience high levels of inter-parental conflict are at serious risk not only in terms of their own wellbeing, but also as to the perpetuation of these behaviours later in life.
Even worse, children who are placed in the middle of their parents’ dispute (by either parent) are more likely to be angry, stressed, depressed or anxious, and have poorer relationships with their parents than children who are not in this situation.
Clearly these are not desired outcomes. So avoid exposing your children to unecessary conflict or putting them in the middle of your dispute at all costs. Before you act first ask yourself – I am acting in the best interests of my child?
- Get independent legal advice (even if you are on good terms)
Knowledge is power. So if you have separated or are contemplating separation it is important to get independent legal advice early on (or even in contemplation of separating). Get this advice from a specialist family lawyer, preferably an Accredited Family Law Specialist, who is a lawyer who has attained additional recognition by the Law Society in the relevant State). And choose the right lawyer for you based on your individual needs and goals. It isn’t the case of one-size fits all.
Getting advice early is essential even if you are on good terms with your ex spouse because you will be better able to make informed decisions for you and your family once you have all of the relevant information on the table about where you stand. Seeking early advice may also avoid you making decisions, which you may regret later on, decisions you may not have made if you had had all the information.
It is essential that you are honest and open with your lawyer because their advice will be based solely on the background that you provide. I encourage those I assist to provide all information to me, no matter how self-conscious or embarrassed they may feel, by reassuring them that they are in a safe space and that I will listen. I explain that if I don’t have the full story that the risk for them is that my advice will not be as tailored to their individual circumstances, needs and goals. And that I am best able to help them if I know about what their former partner is likely to say about them or any problems they anticipate so I can help to address these as best as possible at an early stage.
Separation and divorce is one of the most difficult experiences you can go through. So don’t be hard on yourself or think you have to keep it all together all of the time. By taking early steps to BE KIND to yourself after separation you will be better able to manage the stress associated with separation in a way which will allow you to make the best possible decisions for you and your family.
If you have tips to share about how to survive separation or divorce, I would love to hear from you.