Relationship breakdowns

Managing your mental health during separation or divorce

When someone close to you dies, it’s generally accepted that there are five stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. For some people the emotional stages of a relationship breakdown are the same.

Divorce can be one of the most stressful things that can happen to any person. So, not only can mental health play a part in driving couples apart, but divorce can make the effects even worse.

Separation and the five stages of grief

  • Stage 1: Shock and Denial

    You may refuse to acknowledge that something has occurred or is happening.

  • Stage 2: Anger

    Anger can manifest itself in different ways. You may feel anger towards yourself, your partner, someone else or the world in general.

  • Stage 3: Bargaining

    You may try and negotiate with each other in the hope of reconciling or improving your relationship with one another.

  • Stage 4: Depression or sadness

    You may start to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty. Feeling these emotions shows that you have started to accept the situation. During this stage you may find that you are quieter, more withdrawn or you may cry a lot and not want to see friends or family. You may also have trouble sleeping, have a lack of appetite or other physical symptoms.

  • Stage 5: Acceptance

    In this last stage you are likely to have come to terms with your situation and will be making plans to move on with your life.

Tips to support you with separation grief

Taking time out to reflect on how you are feeling and making your wellbeing a priority can help you cope with the pressures a separation can bring and enable you to move on with your life more easily. Understanding how you are feeling will also enable you to consider how you might be behaving towards your ex or children and the emotion behind some of your decision making.

Being under pressure is a normal part of life, but during a separation that pressure may escalate to become stress because your normal life has changed. If your stress becomes overwhelming you may start to feel irritable, impatient, anxious, afraid, lonely or depressed. You may find your mind racing and that you’re unable to switch off, you may be tired, uninterested in life, worried about your health, and in the worst case you may have suicidal feelings.

Stress can manifest itself in behaviour which you might recognise in yourself or others, such as difficulty making decisions, constant worrying, snapping at people, an inability to concentrate, eating too much or too little, smoking or drinking more than usual, restlessness or being tearful / crying.

If you recognise any of these physical symptoms, you may be suffering from stress: shallow breathing or hyperventilation; panic attacks; muscle tension; blurred vision or sore eyes; problems getting to sleep, staying asleep or having nightmares; constant tiredness; grinding your teeth or biting your nails; chest pains; high blood pressure; indigestion or heartburn; feeling sick, dizzy or fainting.

Anxiety and divorce

Divorce and depression and anxiety can go hand in hand. It is likely that you will experience some form of anxiety and/or depression during your divorce.

It is important to watch out for signs of anxiety, whether you are simply considering divorce, or going through the process. This is not to be confused with simply feeling uneasy, in the same way depression should not be confused with feeling sad. Many people do not understand how anxiety can affect people and can therefore be unsympathetic to those who suffer from it.

Tips that can help you to reduce stress

Working out what triggers your feelings will help you to be ready for when you are likely to feel most stressed and will help you look at ways of reducing the pressure on you. This might involve practical solutions as well as mindfulness. For example, you may find preparing lists or setting yourself tasks to complete each day will help you feel in control or you may find changing your routine helps.

Talking to friends and family and making an effort to go out. Don’t be afraid to cut loose people who have a negative impact on you. At work you can talk to your line manager / HR manager and let them know what is going on in your personal life, it will help them to understand why you might not be your usual self.

You could try making some lifestyle changes and develop interests and take up new hobbies. Eat healthily, be physically active and make sure you get enough sleep. Give yourself time to relax and take a break.

Your GP will be able to help you access support and treatments.

Relationship or family counselling: Attending counselling as a couple or family to help you find the way forward.

Life coaching: Providing support and guidance to help you achieve your goals.

For anyone going through a separation, remember you don’t need to suffer on your own – don’t be afraid to reach out to your family and friends or seek help from an organisation that can offer counselling or mental health support. Getting advice from a family lawyer will also help you understand your options and help you prepare for the next chapter in your life.

Managing a relationship breakdown

Noticing early warning signs of relationship breakdown can help a couple resolve conflicts. Early warning signs include:

  • you don’t do things together as much as before
  • you have the same arguments again and again about the same issues
  • you feel dissatisfied and unhappy
  • you have sex less often, not at all, or it isn’t what it used to be
  • one partner spends increasing time on interests and activities outside the relationship
  • there is a loss of warmth and friendliness in the relationship, one or both of you speak of no longer being in love
  • you feel tired and less able to meet responsibilities at work and at home
  • your arguments about the children continue
  • one of you has an addiction that is affecting the relationship
  • you or your partner have had intimate relationships outside of your relationship
  • one of you is abusive, degrading, controlling and dominating, indicating family violence.

These behaviours can be signs of a relationship breakdown, and may trigger the start of a lonely and worrying time.

How you cope over during this challenging time will depend on your ability to manage your own thoughts and actions, and to recognise when things are out of hand.

Expect some ups and downs when you and your partner separate. At times, you may feel excited about your new life, and free. But you will probably have very sad feelings too and a sense of loss. You may even feel scared.

It’s understandable if you experience negative emotions from a sense of loss. Separation can be painful, and may involve the loss of:

  • your family structure and routines
  • daily contact with your children
  • the family home
  • friends and social life
  • support and approval from your family and those around you
  • meaning and identity
  • the opportunity to have children
  • financial security

These losses may be even harder to accept if you don’t want the separation, or your family and friends don’t support you.

Separation can also bring up practical problems, such as where you will live, how you will support yourself (and any children), and how you will share parenting.

Money is a particular issue for many couples who separate, and women are more likely than men to experience financial hardship after divorce.

You may feel sadness, rejection and confusion. Your world has been turned upside down, and with so much change you may feel overwhelmed.

You might find yourself experiencing a range of behaviours such as crying, having trouble sleeping, losing your appetite, or feeling unable to concentrate at work. If you have children, you may also struggle to look after them for a while. You may feel happy one day and sad the next, or have mixed feelings in the same day.

You may feel:

  • relieved that things are finally out in the open
  • nervous about how you will juggle work and home commitments
  • positive and excited about the future
  • worried about legal matters, finances and perhaps a new relationship
  • sad, consumed by the loss, unable to move on or simply numb
  • ready for change and new beginnings
  • concerned about the impact on your children

A relationship breakdown is a time of mixed emotions. But, if you take time and care for yourself, you will come out the other side.

Depression is more than ‘feeling down’. While it includes feeling unhappy, it also includes feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, a loss of enjoyment in things you previously enjoyed and physical symptoms such as low appetite and tiredness.

Depression can be triggered by many things, divorce included. Talk to your GP if you think you might be depressed.

Regardless of whether you started the separation or not, you may still experience grief. Someone that you used to care about, or may still love, is moving out of your life.

To cope with your grief, let’s look at things that might help you:

  • Look after yourself – try to eat healthily, keep your sleeping and exercise routines, and plan for treats and the things you enjoy.
  • Everyone copes differently – you could try to keep busy, perhaps distract yourself with new people and new activities, or talk to friends and family and others who can support you, or consider some quiet reflective time by yourself.
  • Avoid rushing into a new relationship.
  • Avoid using alcohol or other drugs to ease any emotional pain.
  • Talk to your GP, or look at having counselling, if you have any concerns about your health and wellbeing.

Anything that is an attempt to make someone feel small, demoralised or punished is unhelpful, and in some cases may even be illegal (such as vandalising a car or other property). Regardless of how bad you feel during or after separation, it doesn’t help to:

  • steal from each other
  • lie about each other
  • try to damage each other’s new life
  • take out your frustration and anger on your children

The separation will be easier on everyone if each person takes responsibility for behaving with respect and maturity – even if it might seem difficult at the time.

Sadness experienced from a relationship breakdown may be intense, and might lead to depression. Depression is a serious illness that affects mental and physical health.

People with depression find it hard to function every day. They may become isolated from family and friends, less productive at work and home or stop enjoying, or even doing, the things they love to do.

If you or someone you care about hasn’t been their usual self for 2 weeks, it might be worth having a chat with a GP.

Another unhealthy response to separation is violence. Some people feel a great deal of anger or even rage when their relationship falls apart, and they may try to punish their partner. If you feel you cannot control your anger, or you are worried about your partner’s anger, please speak to someone immediately.

Family violence, stalking and abusive or threatening language and behaviour are never acceptable.

The safety of everyone in the relationship, including children, must come first.

If your partner is violent:

  • avoid contact as much as you can
  • only meet in a public place
  • ask a friend or family member to be with you at meetings
  • don’t respond with aggression
  • keep a record of abusive incidents, including stalking
  • seek legal advice about what you can do
  • contact a family violence support service

Normal differences and warning signs of a relationship breakdown

Many things can create difficulties in relationships:

  • stress and pressure about anything including health, work, parents, children or money
  • different goals and expectations of life
  • different perspectives or values
  • lack of time to spend together or lack of interest
  • limited trust
  • financial insecurity/difficulties
  • raising children
  • infertility
  • addictions
  • serious illness or disability
  • sexual difficulties
  • job loss or unemployment
  • violence or abuse
  • issues arising from a previous relationship
  • You’ve simply grown apart and want different things from life moving forward

It’s always better to talk about the issues than ignore them. Speak to eadch other first and see if you can work your way through differences, if not, speak to your family and friends or look to speak with a counselling or legal professional.

People bring different outlooks, talents and strengths to a relationship. You might appreciate some of the things your partner has to offer – great cooking, their sense of humour, good sex, getting on well with your family and friends – but you might not like their taste in music, the time they spend on technology or the fact they get stressed easily.

Some disagreement in relationships is normal, there are ways to handle it so it doesn’t affect you as a person or your relationship as a couple.

Relationships can become stronger if partners can talk about differences and stress as a normal part of their relationship. Conflict or disagreement can often be worked through with a bit of give and take.

Frequent conflict and anger may indicate that all is not well, and change is needed to keep the relationship healthy.

The key things to think about are how can you manage not to hurt each other or your relationship when you have a row and how can you learn from it and leave it in the past.

Avoiding talking about the issue that caused the problem, might give you both normality for a short while. It’s better to sort out important relationships issues and try not to ignore them.

If you patch things up without finding out what’s at the bottom of your differences, you’ll probably find yourselves in the same situation again.

Local and National Support

Helping children and families to retain positive relationships after separation or divorce. FNF is the leading UK charity supporting dads, mums and grandparents to have personal contact and meaningful relationships with their children following parental separation since 1974.

If you need to talk, Family Lives are there to listen.

Call free on 0808 800 2222.

Gingerbread are there to support single parents and their children.

Netmums is the largest online network to support parents and carers of young people.

Rotherham hospital provide maternity care on site and throughout the community.

Not-for-profit social enterprise supporting families through separation

A registered charity run by and for families of children and young people (aged 0-25) who have Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND)

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