Written by Dr Rachel Davies

Practice Consultant at Relate

Rachel is a Senior Practice Consultant for Relate. She is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist and has extensive experience of working with couples and families and providing clinical supervision to counsellors and psychotherapists in this field.

If you are looking at a book on separation then you are likely to have reached a point where it seems to be the answer, maybe the inevitable or the only way you can see out of how things currently are. The six areas of focus below will look at whether that is actually the case, consider how you can work out if the relationship is over or not and steps you can take to turn a potential separation around.

What got you to this point? Identifying the relationship ‘ouches’

First it is important to say that some people are in relationships that are emotionally, physically or sexually abusive. If you are in this situation then your safety and that of your children should be your first priority and there are people who can support you to separate safely. It may not be safe to do this alone, so seek help and support from friends, family and professional services that help people to separate safely.

Sharing an ouch with each other as soon as it happens and with kindness can stop it becoming a problem.

The rest of this article will consider non-abusive situations that can still leave people considering separating. When relationships aren’t going well it hurts – sometimes people describe it like a physical pain and it certainly is an emotionally bruising time. There are many reasons that relationships can go wrong so for ease these are going to be referred to as the ‘ouch’ moments; the moments and incidents that you know have hurt you/your partner and your relationship.

You may be all too aware of a major ouch that precipitated thinking of separation, for example an affair. But sometimes it appears to come out of the blue and you have to dig a bit harder to identify what the ouches have been. It may be hard to do this but pretending an ouch isn’t there is like ignoring a pain as you are worried to go to the doctor; it doesn’t tend to sort it out and the delaying can make things more serious.

How did you get here – relationship journey/couple fit

If you are struggling to identify the ouch moments or say things like ‘we drifted apart’ or ‘stopped feeling in love’ it can be helpful to consider the journey of your relationship. Think back over the like ‘we drifted apart’ or ‘stopped feeling in love’ it can be helpful to consider the journey of your relationship. Think back over the time you have been together, maybe even draw it out and note the high points where you recall feeling happy and strong together. What about the other times? Frequently there are crunch points when relationships are tested, for example just after a new baby or when one of you is made redundant or gets ill or when the children leave home. Transitions in relationships at different periods of our life are normal but for some people the transitions have become real ouches that have left a mark. Mapping the journey will helpyou to clarify your highs and your ouches.

Two key relationship skills – communication and conflict resolution

How many ouches you can weather and what you do about them is a very individual thing. While it’s impossible to give one size fits all advice, Relate generally recommends the value of talking to your partner about things that have upset you. Sharing an ouch with each other as soon as it happens and with kindness can stop it beaming a problem. Ouches that are left unspoken can build up and become resentments that are harder to address as time goes by. So try to talk about the ouches even if that seems difficult.

The good news is it’s never too late to learn to communicate better. Simple things like choosing the best time when neither of you is tired, listening as much as talking and taking turns can really help. Using non face-to-face methods can also help if you have a lot you want to say. You may want to look at the relationship journey together – do their highs and their ouches match with yours?

Dealing with the ouches –  what needs to happen?

Ahead of talking to your partner think about what you want in order to get past an ouch. This is a solution-focussed approach as it helps you to avoid a moan but be clear on your needs. For example, you may want your partner to hear your side about something where you felt misunderstood or you may want them to say sorry for something they said that hurt you. The past can’t be changed but couples can re-edit the story of their relationship by how they talk about an issue from the past, for example, by talking about how a period of your lives was for each of you and hearing, maybe for the first time, how it was for your partner. This can reduce the impact an ouch has in your relationship.

If you find you are holding on to an ouch or several ouches ask yourself: are you really prepared to lose your relationship over them? Do you want to give the ouches this amount of power over your potential happiness?

Equally important –  designing a better relationship

When the ouches have a stranglehold on you it’s hard to remember the good stuff and even to recall why you were together in the first place. Make an effort to do this though and you will see the benefits. Perhaps the passion you had for kayaking or films got you together but your kayak is hidden under debris in the garage and you go to see films with mates now.

Realising this is the key to making changes. You can decide to bring some of these things back into your life. You have choices.

Everyone responds to positive strokes from another person. Ask yourself what you loved, or still love, about your partner and then ask when you last told them or showed them you love this about them. Don’t fall into the trap of waiting for them to appreciate your first. Model the partner you want to have, appreciate them and often the appreciating habit will be caught by your partner.

Learning lessons/future proofing your relationship

Ironically one of the comments people who have nearly split up sometimes make is that the most rocky patch made them stronger. Some people describe it as a wake-up call where they have realised that they have let ouches have a stranglehold in their relationship and stopped them noticing the good stuff. Use the early times after a near separation to put things in place that help rather than hinder the health of your relationship. For example, if over-working was leading to stressed based arguments then work a bit less. You may be financially poorer but your relationship health will be richer. Or if the conversation about the ouches brought up things from ten years ago, set up an annual relationship MOT where you talk to each other about what’s been going on. Don’t forget the noticing and appreciating.

None of this is easy and doing it well will take effort and commitment but consider the investment you have already given to the relationship, especially giving a part of your life. If it feels overwhelming or you doubt if you can do it alone then seek help. Relate regularly works with couples considering separation. After attending counselling 95% of our clients say their communication is “a bit better” or “much better” and 86% feel able to cope with any difficulties they may face in the future. What we do works and we’re here for you should you need it.

Additional Reading/Resources

If you are facing court alone many people have found Lucy Reed’s book, ‘Family Court Without A Lawyer’ particularly useful.

You may also find our page on How To Tell Your Children You Are Divorcing – Recommended Books useful.

The Handover Book by Ashley Palmer is a unique and simple communication book for separated families. It will allow them both to always be aware of what is happening in their children’s busy lives as they go from one household to another. It’s a way of communicating the important things they both need to know about their children, while keeping your relationship as parents friendly and calm.

Charlotte Friedman has written Breaking Upwards – How To Manage The Emotional Impact Of Separation. Charlotte offers calm, therapeutic advice on everything from how to manage loneliness to letting go of grievance, and draws on illuminating case studies to answer questions such as:  How long before I get over this divorce? How do I tell the children?  How do I cope with the new partner in my ex’s life?





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