Surviving a Split

Coping with a separation is challenging on many levels. Glenn Graves of Body With Soul helps ease the way with expert advice

A great percentage of my work as a counsellor is with women who are going through the early or late stages of separation from their long-time partner. Whether these women are Asian or Western, the predicament can be extremely challenging when they are trying to balance the practical side of surviving day to day with the emotional train wreck that surrounds them.

It's often the case that these women are just finding out that their husbands have had an affair. Others are finding out that their husbands have had multiple affairs over the entire marriage, and that his apparent detachment or withdrawal from emotional intimacy is because he actually doesn't know how to be intimate. Whether he is a sex addict or suffering from low self-esteem or attachment issues that disallow him to trust in intimate relationships, the problem is still mind-numbing for the spouse. Her first dilemma is to try and understand which part of her marriage was real. The second challenge is to decipher the new verbiage, to decide how much of it she can trust.

In the middle of this is the day-to-day (minute-to-minute) responsibility that comes with being a mother. In the scenarios described above, it's likely that she has been doing the bulk of the childrearing and household management and so she would feel the full weight of the burden of "What do I do next, for us all?"

If this is resonating with you, and you have family and friends within reach, you need to tap into them now. If you don't have family and just a handful of new friends, find the balance between sharing and getting advice so as to not overburden your few resources. Getting counselling, legal advice and calling your family will help. Holding onto a brave front is a common response but it's not likely to be sustainable. If that's the plan, at least get the counselling and legal advice as well.

Think of yourself as the drill sergeant, whose task is to arm the new soldier (you) for their first battle. They are going to need physical stamina, strength, a cool head, wisdom and good backup support. At no point can their fear overtake them, so build their resources well.

When looking at maintaining physical stamina, sleeping and eating are usually the first things to suffer. If you are not sleeping well, then try meditation, yoga, exercise, proper diet, and counselling to manage the racing thoughts. Make sure you are eating three healthy meals a day. If you are having loss of appetite, eat smaller portions throughout the day.

Keeping a cool head is helpful in the long run. There are plenty of books that will help a woman know that what she is feeling is normal. After the Affair by Janice Abrahms Spring is one. A cool head will make your partner realise they are dealing with a rational soldier and not an emotionally vulnerable new recruit who can easily be manipulated again. Many men will use the "hot-headed wife" response as an excuse to continue acting out or to justify their past actions. Having a third party present for the discussions can keep them "real" so that the old manipulative ways are not as easy to use any more and both parties can begin an honest dialogue.

Wisdom comes in two forms: The first is having wisdom about the choices you have made. Yes you can have regrets and wonder why you accepted the unhealthy dynamic all these years but that is less important at these early stages of separation than making healthy decisions and setting new and solid boundaries. The second and more immediate aspect of wisdom comes from getting informed on your emotional rights, for example, the right to self-respect, as well as your legal rights such as whether you can leave the country with your children. Knowing your rights will give you the chance to make a solid game plan and help you respond, rather than react.

Back up comes in the form of friends, mentors, family, therapy, meditation or exercising your spirituality. The backup helps you go through this process and more importantly usually allows you to process all of the confusing and ever changing thoughts and emotions, out loud.

The kind of questions I hear the most in my practice are as follows:

 

What am I supposed to do now? My friends are getting tired of my complaints and my lack of action in following their advice. It's like I'm frozen in time. This is the part where I mentioned to not wear out your resources. Share and listen but don't unload it all on your friends and family. Manage your anxiety, so you don't debilitate your resources. You need their support but in the end only you can make that final decision.

How do I handle my current co-parenting needs? And who is going to fix the light bulbs? Why do I miss him? This can be especially scary when this all came as a complete surprise. The person whom you have relied upon and once considered your best friend and partner has changed to such an extent that you feel you don't even know him anymore. Having a third party focusing the dialogue on honesty and openness and change is the most likely method of getting those necessary assurances and safety so that you can give a clear-headed response.

How do I forgive myself? What's wrong with me? Stuck in the regret of having made a bad decision. Disbelief/denial. These are actually stages of grieving. Regardless of what happens to the relationship, you will need to grieve the loss of your ideal of the marriage, life and man you once knew as it will never be the same as it was. This doesn't mean that a marriage cannot be rebuilt. In fact, rebuilding is part of a later stage of grieving, so let yourself grieve the losses first. While it may be many counsellors' philosophy to hold on to hope in a rebuilding of the relationship, as long as the client has hope, your focus should still be on your own stabilisation at this point.

What and when do I tell the kids? Children like to know what's going on. What to expect? I recommend telling them what to expect, with each major transition, i.e. Daddy's moving to another house. He will still be seeing you on Saturdays after soccer but he won't be home as much during school nights. When you know the relationship is over, it's best if you can both tell the child what to expect and assure them that the love for them has not changed. It is helpful to even create a calendar they can see and be consistent with it.

When do I begin looking for a new partner? Garth Brooks sang, "Learning to live again is killing me" and it's for this reason, that from a psychological and emotional perspective I always encourage my clients to hold off on rushing into something new until they have figured out what went wrong in the last relationship. Just because he left or betrayed you doesn't mean that there was not a breakdown in the dynamic between you both, which means you may have some issues to work through. This might be especially the case with women who are completely "surprised" by their husband's affair and when they felt they were "best friends and there was no chance of this happening". Then I have them question the real intimacy in that relationship. What was the intimacy based on? Were they talking openly and deeply? Were they still making love? Were they still aware of subtle changes in their partner's life? How did they miss all that? From that point on, their individual work is about grieving and looking inward for change.

Don't rush towards rebound. Take your time to get through the wreckage piece by piece. Give yourself time to accept and grieve. With each exhale you are moving closer to a new life and new possibilities.