The ending of a marriage or long-term relationship is usually a devastating time for everyone involved, even the emotionally strong. What’s the best way of dealing with the inevitable pain? Professional counsellors LORNA VAN BESOUW and MARK CONNELLY share survival strategies with SHIRLEY FAIRALL (sorry guys, someone had to be first so we made it the ladies – scroll down to find advice for men…)
FOR WOMEN, by registered counsellor Lorna van Besouw
‘Most people think it’s a cliché when a woman in her 40s or 50s is unexpectedly abandoned by her husband, often for a younger woman. Sadly it’s all too real. By this age, if she has children, they have either left or are getting ready to leave. For some, the husband has been the dominant character in the marriage, moulding their lifestyle. She may not even know the state of their joint finances or how to pay the bills.
Suddenly, she has no personal identity. For most of her adult life she’s been someone’s wife and someone’s mother. Now who is she? Her confidence disappears because one of the things for which it is so often the woman who is responsible – making a home for the family – is no longer wanted. She may have little confidence for the things she needs to do now, such as earning money or paying all her bills.
Her companion is gone and she’s alone, possibly for the first time ever. The existence of another, often younger. woman makes her feel rejected and jaded. She’s embarrassed – she feels as if she has a huge ‘F’ for failure emblazoned on her forehead. What now?
Registered counsellor Lorna van Besouw: ‘Many women lose their confidence and sense of purpose after divorce’
Focusing on something hopeful re-establishes a sense of purpose for an ex-wife or ex-partner, says Lorna
It’s a huge question to answer. If this is you, here are the top five things you can do for yourself.
1. FIND A GOOD LISTENER
Thoughts and feelings get knotted up as they spin endlessly around our heads. Verbalising them is the first step to unravelling the knots. You may have a friend who can give you the same gift you’ll get from a counsellor – deep, insightful, non-judgemental listening – but it’s a big ask from someone untrained and inexperienced. You may be better off seeking a professional counsellor who can accurately reflect what you’re feeling.
2. DRAW CLOSER TO YOUR SECURE RELATIONSHIPS
I know, you thought your marriage was a secure relationship! Hopefully, your original family will be a place of comfort and support when you’re at your most vulnerable: parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles are usually there for you. (It’s not advisable to ask for support from adult children at this stage as they’ll probably be struggling with the situation themselves.)
This is also a time when you need your dearest friends, but what we see all too often is that some important friends will feel torn. Couple friends may default on the side of the husband because a woman on her own can be seen as socially threatening or awkward, while the husband is still part of a couple, just with a different partner. Stick with the friends you know you can trust.
3. NOW’S NOT THE TIME TO HEAP ALL THE BLAME ON YOURSELF
Don’t allow anyone – and especially not yourself – to put all the blame for the breakdown on you. A husband who deserts a wife at this stage of their lives usually has issues. Maybe he feels insecure about his age, maybe he needs to blame someone else for all the things he hasn’t achieved yet, maybe he wants to prove he can attract someone younger to boost his own ego. He must accept responsibility for this – it’s not your responsibility.
That said, two people create relationships and both are responsible for what happens within them. No doubt you’re not perfect and no doubt you have contributed to the breakdown. The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is write an honest list of the things you feel you need to take responsibility for and that you can work on, then write a second list of things that are just not your stuff. Keep the first and walk away from the second!
4. FOCUS ON HOPE AND PURPOSE
Under normal circumstances, what gives you hope and purpose? Knowing the answer to this question is essential to moving forward. It may be nature, a hobby, fitness, charity, studying or connecting with church again or for the first time – the point is to focus on something hopeful to find purpose and reclaim your identity.
5. ESTABLISH YOUR SKILLS
Most of us could do with improving our skills. Take a course in something practical with a view to finding a job or starting a business. If you have a job, study to elevate yourself; enlist your boss’s help and support and that way you’ll start to earn recognition that can help restore your confidence.’
AND HERE ARE 8 WAYS TO PROTECT YOURSELF NOW FROM FUTURE MELTDOWN IN THE CASE OF BREAK-UP…
LORNA: ‘Nobody wants their partner to leave them, but we can’t control other people’s behaviour. There are ways to ensure that if it ever happens to you it doesn’t completely devastate your life.
- Always nurture your own supportive circle of family and friends
- Keep your own interests alive
- Have some sort of independent means and, if you have a job, keep it
- Keep upping your skills so you can easily become (more) financially independent if you have to
- If you’re not already financially savvy, get there quickly: understand your joint finances, know how to pay the bills, and know how to create and stick to a realistic budget
- Don’t neglect yourself: keep your self-respect in terms of your appearance
- Take care of your health and exercise regularly, even if that means nothing more than a daily walk
- Make sure your spiritual values are firmly in place. For me, following Jesus Christ is my life motivator and my source of peace. What is yours?’
FOR MEN, by counselling psychologist Mark Connelly
‘Men are often just as devastated as women when a relationship ends but how they deal with it can seem foreign to women. Generally they go one of two ways: they either distance themselves from their ex-partner, friends, family, and usual life, or they go in the opposite direction, partying hard, drinking, going out with lots of other people or quickly getting into a new relationship.
Partying behaviour can make it seem that the relationship was never important to them. This is not necessarily true and it may be valuable to recognise that a new relationship and socialising is a man’s way of not dealing with the emotions of the break-up. Relationships provide validation, and when men don’t have that anymore they look for it in other things. It’s part of the process of finding themselves again.
Women may talk more or seek professional help, whereas men are often not socialised to talk about emotions and will look for other ways to heal. Of course, these are generalisations but the underlying emotion is the same, men and women just express it differently.
Psychologist Mark Connelly: don’t allow false guilt in, but do try to redeem any hurt you caused
A break-up is an emotional rollercoaster for most people. We all go through the same stress curve: shock and denial in the beginning, then anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Recognising these emotions gives us clarity for managing change.
PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR MEN
- Take it easy on extreme activities that involve alcohol, drugs or intense partying that help you avoid feelings. You don’t want to get into negative habits that can take over your life and have further consequences.
- Be equally wary of the opposite scenario. Social contact is important so don’t hole up! Plan your time. Go out with friends, accept their invitations, invite them to your house. Time alone is important but don’t spend too many long hours home alone.
- Give yourself permission to feel emotional. This doesn’t mean that you have to cry in public, but you are allowed to cry and express your frustrations! Anger, sadness and guilt are very normal responses to a break-up.
- Speaking of guilt… recognise the difference between real and false guilt. It’s real when you know that what you did or said caused hurt. The only way to relieve your guilt is to take some sort of redeeming action, like acknowledging what you did and apologising. False guilt comes from others, often ex-partners, and you don’t need to own that.
- Check your thinking. The end of a relationship can leave you feeling that you’re never going to meet anybody else which, when you’re more rational, is as ridiculous as it sounds. Rest assured, there is good stuff ahead. This is your moment to build your life, improve yourself and expand your horizons.
- This is a good time to deal with concerns about your relationships. Think through the things you could or should have done and come to terms with them. This is how you ensure you don’t repeat relationship mistakes.
- We all move between feeling bad and then feeling better. We need to do both so we don’t get immersed in either denial or self-pity. If you do get stuck in denial, self-pity, anger or depression, you need to seek help to move on.
- Consider the possibility that spirituality is an essential component of your life.’
IF YOU’VE EXPERIENCED DIVORCE OR SEPARATION, Common Ground Church in Cape Town is running a Divorce and Separation Recovery Course, set on guiding men and women who are experiencing the pain and devastation of a separation – whether it’s recent or from years ago. The course starts 17 October 2018. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further info or to sign up
KEEN TO STRENGTHEN YOUR MARRIAGE BEFORE IT STARTS? Consider the Marriage Preparation Course run regularly by Christ Church, Kenilworth, Cape Town. No need to be a church member
BOTH THESE COUNSELLORS RECOMMEND INVESTIGATING YOUR SPIRITUALITY: If you’d like to ‘brush up’ your Christianity or encounter it for the first time, consider Alpha, a contemporary course run around the world by churches of all denominations
SO WHAT CAN YOU TAKE FROM YOUR BREAK-UP? WHETHER YOU’RE A MAN OR A WOMAN, HERE’S LORNA’S ADVICE FOR YOUR NEXT RELATIONSHIP…
AND FINALLY… IF YOU’RE A WOMAN IN AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP, HERE’S A WORD FROM LORNA
‘Male partners who are controlling and domineering often become abusive, either physically, emotionally or verbally. My first – and most important – piece of advice is this: the first time he abuses you physically, take decisive action – call the police, lay a charge, tell friends and family, or leave. Do whatever it takes to send the message that you will not submit to such behaviour. He’ll cry, promise it’ll never happen again, be very loving and contrite… and in 99.9% of cases he’ll do it again, especially if you cover up and keep quiet.
Please believe me: your partner is very unlikely to be in the 0.1% who won’t do it again and you will find yourself justifying and accepting a cycle of abuse which will only escalate. I know it’s not easy to leave, but it is a lot easier before the abuse becomes routine and you lose your self-esteem.
Two key things:
- It is not your fault and you do not deserve it
- You are not alone! Seek help and you will find it’