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Coping with family break-up, separation or divorce

10-minute read

Key facts

  • Family break-ups, separation and divorce can be highly stressful.
  • People often have intense feelings while they grieve over the loss of their former relationship and lives.
  • Intense early feelings usually 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.
  • There’s lots of support available, so don’t hesitate to ask for help if you or your children need it.

How do people respond to separation and divorce?

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

Every person 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 might:

You might feel grief 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.

How can I cope with separation or divorce?

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 or your work or studies.
  • 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 can I support my children through a family break-up, separation or divorce?

Family break-up, separation or divorce is a significant event in a child’s life. 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
  • your child’s age and level of maturity
  • your child’s personality and temperament

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 to 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 as before. 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. They can also be contacted on 1300 364 277.

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 details about your children's:
    • living arrangements
    • custody or visitation schedules
    • finances
    • education
    • medical care
    • 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 how to be a single parent. If you haven’t done much of the parenting in the past, give your partner time to adjust to your new skills and level of responsibility.

How do I adjust to my new 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 course or get some free financial counselling.

If you need financial assistance, visit Services Australia to ask about payments you may be eligible for. There are also payments and support available for people re-entering the workforce or retraining.

Tips for looking after yourself

Here are some tips to help you cope with this challenging situation:

  • 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 one of the support services listed in Resources and support.
  • 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.
  • Get help for your children — If you are worried about your child, seek professional help. Be careful not to rely on your child for emotional support.

It can also help to remember:

  • You will need time — Coming to terms with the separation won't happen straight away.
  • 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.
  • 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 and ask for an ambulance, or go to the nearest emergency department.

Resources and support

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

For emotional support, you can try:

  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
  • If you are bisexual, gay, trans or intersex, you may want to call QLife on 1800 184 527

For general legal information about separation and divorce in Australia see the website of Family Court of Australia on Divorce.

Resources for different groups include:

Read more on helping children and families adjust after separation or divorce:

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: April 2023

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