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Coping with family break-up, separation or divorce

9-minute read

Family break-ups, separation and divorce are highly stressful, and people often grieve over the loss of their former relationship and lives. However, the intense early feelings ease with time, and most separated or divorced couples go on to lead fulfilling and happy lives.

Divorce and separation are also major events in a child’s life, but with the right communication and support, most children will be able to manage.

Responses to separation and divorce

When you have separated or divorced, you will probably have very strong emotional and physical responses at first.

Everyone and every situation is different, so you will have your own response, especially if you experienced domestic violence or ongoing conflict in your relationship. Even if your partner was abusive, you may feel sad, angry and conflicted at the ending of the relationship.

The early emotions may be so intense you could feel as though you are not coping.

You could:

You might also feel upset about losing:

  • your partner
  • your marriage or relationship
  • the amount of time you had with your children
  • contact with friends and relatives
  • your future plans
  • your lifestyle and financial security

These responses to the stress of a break-up are all normal, regardless of whether you were in a heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual or intersex relationship.

Here are some tips on how to deal with break-up, separation and divorce.

  • Make choices that give you control over your life — These choices might be accepting that it’s over, not being a victim, being positive for your children and other family members, learning new skills and making plans for the future.
  • Ask for help — People will want to help you, so don’t be afraid to ask. Talk to trusted family and friends or to your doctor, especially if your feelings are affecting your everyday activities.
  • Contact services for support and advice — There are many services that can help you through separation and divorce, such as counselling, family dispute resolution and family violence prevention. You can find a list of services on the Relationships Australia and Family Relationships Online websites, or call Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.

How to support children coping with a family break-up, separation or divorce

Children may feel hurt, worried, confused or angry when their parents break up, separate or divorce. How well your child copes will depend on how you are coping with the change, how you behave towards your former partner, the child’s age and level of maturity, and whether he or she is easily upset or easy going.

Here are some tips for supporting children affected by separation or divorce.

  • Talk with them and be open — You don’t need to give your child all the details, but it’s important to explain them truthfully what’s going on in a way they can understand. Make time to talk and listen to them. They might ask you difficult questions, so think carefully before you answer, and be prepared to answer the same questions again and again.
  • Provide lots of reassurance — Make sure your kids know the break-up was not their fault and that you will always be their parents and love them just as much. Be positive about the future. Tell them about future living arrangements and that good things will come out of the situation in the end.
  • Be respectful about the other parent — It is harmful to children when parents attack or criticise each other. Children should never have to take sides or to be your go-between. Minimise arguments and find a way to communicate respectfully with the other parent. Let your children be free to love both parents and not have to choose.
  • Never quiz your child about what happens in the other parent’s house — This can lead your child to feel torn between parents and may put pressure on them to come up with an answer that they believe you want to hear.
  • Be consistent with routines, rituals and boundaries — It’s important to keep changes and disruption to a minimum. Even if they are living between 2 homes, it’s possible to maintain your child’s regular routines to help them feel safe and secure.
  • Make them the focus — When discussing parenting arrangements, think about what is best for the children rather than what is fair for you. Ask your child for their opinions and acknowledge their feelings and needs. Let them know their view counts.
  • Make time for fun — When everyone is upset and stressed, it’s important to take some time out to have fun. Go for a walk or a bike ride, put some music on and dance, go see a film together, or do something spontaneous.
  • Suggest someone else to talk to — Let your children know it’s okay to talk to another trusted adult (teacher, aunt, grandparent) or to call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

A helpful resource is What about the Children? published by Relationships Australia.

Parenting tips after family break-up, separation or divorce

Your relationship with your partner has ended, but you are still parents of the same children. Everyone’s situation is different, but you need to work out how you will continue parenting your children in a positive and cooperative way.

Remember, one of the most valuable ways to help your children adjust to their new circumstances is successful co-parenting.

Here are some parenting tips for separated or divorced parents.

  • Develop a parenting plan — This lets both of you know what is expected of each other in terms of parenting rights and responsibilities. The plan should include living arrangements, custody or visitation schedules, finances, education and medical and emotional care.
  • Manage family conflicts — Ongoing conflicts can hurt children. If communicating with your former partner is difficult, counselling can help. Contact the Family Relationship Advice Line on 1800 050 321.
  • Accept you may have different parenting styles — As long as your children are safe and secure, the children will learn that different rules apply in different situations.
  • Give your former partner time to adjust — If you previously did most of the parenting, your former partner will need some time to learn the ropes as a single parent. If you haven’t done much of the parenting, give your partner time to adjust to your new skills and level of responsibility.

Tips for men on coping with family break-up, separation or divorce

If your partner has initiated a separation or divorce, you may feel unprepared or powerless. It can be tough to deal with problems you can’t solve, and you might find yourself working too hard or feeling anxious and depressed. You may be worried about finances, or about caring for your children, or not seeing them enough.

Here are some coping tips for separated or divorced men.

  • Look after yourself — Give yourself time to deal with the situation and continue to do the things you enjoy. Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
  • Seek help early — This is very important, especially if you have ongoing negative thoughts or are depressed. Make an appointment to talk to your doctor.
  • Stay in contact with family and friends — Losing your social networks can increase your risk of depression, substance abuse or suicide.
  • Don't bottle things up — Talk about how you are feeling with someone you trust, or call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78, Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. If you are bisexual, gay, trans or intersex, you may want to call QLife on 1800 184 527.

Helpful resources include Men and separation: navigating the future and Part-time parenting and distance parenting.

Tips for women on coping with family break-up, separation or divorce

It can be tough to deal with the problems you face after a separation or divorce. You might find yourself overworked, or feeling anxious and depressed.

You may feel unprepared or powerless if your partner has initiated the separation or divorce. You may be worried about finances, or about caring for your children, or not seeing them enough.

Here are some coping tips for separated or divorced women.

  • Accept that you will need time — Coming to terms with the separation won't be immediate.
  • Embrace your changing role — Don’t panic if your former partner did most of the practical jobs around the home or managed the family finances. You can learn to do these for yourself. Sign up for a DIY course or get some free financial counselling.
  • Don’t feel guilty — It takes 2 people to end a relationship. Ask for help to deal with feelings of guilt or hopelessness. Talk to your doctor or trusted family and friends about how you are feeling.
  • Ask for help — There is a lot of help available, whether you are returning to the workforce after a period of time or trying to negotiate tricky legal issues. The online booklet Women and separation: Managing new horizons has a comprehensive list of services. If you are lesbian, bisexual, trans or intersex, you may want to call QLife on 1800 184 527.
  • Don't be ashamed if you experienced domestic violence — Your partner’s violent behaviour isn’t your fault. If you are struggling with your feelings call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). This is the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service for people living in Australia.

Seek help

If your feelings are not improving despite having good support, or if you feel overwhelmed or depressed, seek medical advice as soon as possible. If you or someone you know is at risk of harming themselves, call triple zero (000) immediately or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.

If you are worried about your child, seek professional help. It’s also important that you are getting help for yourself, not relying on your child for emotional support.

Resources and support

If you are going through a separation or a divorce, there are a number places you can go for help:

There are also a number of resources that can help:

For parenting plans see the Relationships Australia booklet Share the care: Parenting Plan - collaborative parenting apart.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2020

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