Understanding the stages of separation

As family, relationship and child therapists, we work with people at different milestones in the jouney through grief, daily. When someone is stuck at a particularly tricky phase, they can be difficult to converse with as they are dealing with contradictory forces of protectiveness, grief, insecurity, desperation and perhaps logic. They also have the nagging awareness that time is seldom on their side when they have to make arrangements for their children that will have life-changing implications.

Comparisons are often made to people suffering a bereavement and the associated stages of grief. This is apt, in terms of intensity, to some extent, especially where children are involved. However, being separated from living children includes the added complication that, unlike a bereavement, there is no closure. Both parents should be working together to create a shared alternative to the life they had planned, after all, not saying farewell to their children in phases. But, of course, there are some who choose to abandon their children or a lot more who are sadly forced out of their children’s lives in stages by the concerted efforts of a malicious party, which is the case when parental alienation is one parent’s strategy.

Nothing about separating is easy. But there is much that parents can do to improve their chances of a more effective breakup, which is very much in the best interests of their children and, if we’re honest, themselves.

A good starting place is to be aware of the stages of separation and to adapt behaviour for each stage. It is certainly a useful reference model or check to ensure that the relationship with any third-party support is as effective as it needs to be.

Stage 1:

  • Holding on
  • Recognizing that your relationship is in trouble, but willing to do what you can to fix it.
  • Often happens for one partner first without the other’s knowledge.
  • Often begins suddenly for the second partner, when they are informed by the other.
  • Disbelief that the relationship could be in jeopardy by the second party.
  • Anger, resentment, sadness

Stage 2:

  • Letting Go
  • Decision has been made to let go
  • Often blaming the other partner
  • Mourning the loss of the relationship
  • Anger, hostility
  • State is often characterized by emotional dysregulation
  • Huge emotional roller coaster

Stage 3:

  • Trying Out
  • Often akin to a new adolescence
  • Often reckless behaviours, including drugs and alcohol
  • New relationships
  • Often a new focus on fitness and health
  • Period often marked by self-centeredness
  • Thoughts of leaving job, travelling, doing things on a bucket list

Stage 4:

  • Settling Down
  • Acceptance of the new normal
  • Emotions go from extremely raw to more blunted
  • Being in the same room with the ex-partner leads to less / no vitriol

Understanding that this is a human / psychological process, which more than half the population goes through, may help each person better understand themselves and their ex-partner.

Parents do not typically go through these stages at the same time, and this contributes to more emotional and often financial challenges (i.e. when one parent is “trying out” while the other parent is “holding on”) and may not be ready to talk about long-term plans.

Parents who are going through the stages of separation while trying to co-parent have a very difficult task to accomplish.  By gaining awareness of the stages, they can better navigate through them and focus on the pressing need of successfully co-parenting their children.

Third-party support can be invaluable to help the separating couple/family unit and individuals work through the phases at a pace that will result in the best outcomes. But introducing adversarial approaches before the parties have properly adjusted will almost certainly set the adjustment process back significantly and can often cause damage that has life-changing implications.

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