by Philippa Johnson, Family Mediators Association
People don’t make the decision to end a long-term relationship lightly, especially when children are involved. Divorce and separation are two of the most painful life events anyone ever goes through. They can lead people to question everything they thought they knew about themselves and their lives. They are overwhelming. It can feel like being caught in a storm, with the rain pouring down, thunder crashing around you and lightning breaking the sky open; you don’t know which way to turn.
You are probably exhausted; your life may seem out of control and the prospect of calm and safety a very long way away. Most people feel confused and, at the same time, full of strong emotions. The grief, sadness, pain and often anger that you may feel about the past will be mixed up with the anxiety and even panic that you may be feeling about the family’s future, most especially what the future will look like for your children. You will definitely be stressed by the uncertainty and the strength of the emotions. Stress is known to be damaging to your health, both mental and physical.
So what should you do?
A good first step is to get some information about your situation. As with most things in life these days, you will probably start with the internet, where the basics can be found for free, provided you are looking in the right place. Do be careful though – there is lots of misinformation out there, as well as lots of information that isn’t relevant to England and Wales.
The UK government website www.gov.uk has some clear, straightforward information on it. If you are living in England and Wales, here is a good place to start. If you have children you may be interested in what the NSPCC has to say about separation and divorce. Other independent organisations with good websites containing useful information include: the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Relate, the charity Gingerbread, and the charity Family Lives.
All these websites mention the benefits of trying to sort your situation out by reaching agreements between yourselves. That may seem a dreadful idea at the moment, while you are still caught up in the storm. It is certainly a very difficult thing to do alone. But with good professional help, most people are eventually able to work things out between themselves, without involving the courts. The evidence shows that in lots of different ways this is better for everyone in the family, especially the children.
So, where can you find good professional help? Talking to a family mediator is a good place to start. Family mediators work with families to help them to make decisions together: they offer an impartial and confidential service to people who are choosing to try to make decisions together, rather than asking someone else to make the decision for them. It can be very helpful to get some legal advice early as well, if you can afford it – family mediators never give advice about your particular situation although they will give you lots of information about the law and about research into what works for children.
What else should you do?
We recommend finding someone who can help you work through all the strong emotions you are feeling. Friends can be a wonderful source of support. Talking things through with a professional therapist can be even better, as they have lots of experience working with people in crisis and will be able to suggest strategies that have worked in the past for other people.
Some of the most important things you can do, according to the professionals, include:
Giving yourself permission to take time for yourself – just like on an aeroplane, you can’t help anyone else until you have helped yourself!
Focusing as much as possible on the future and what will improve things – that doesn’t mean ignoring any anger and guilt you feel; it does mean working towards forgiveness and leaving blame behind as much as possible.
The key thing is that you don’t have to do this alone – whatever your situation is, there are people who can help make the process of separation better for everyone involved.