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Coping with separation later in life

It is a fact of life that many relationships do come to an end. According to the Australian Institute of family Studies, the highest proportion of divorces and separations occur among couples who have been married for nine years or less. However, an increasing number of couples who have been married for 20 years or longer are also divorcing.

The end of a relationship is almost always a difficult and painful period. It is common to experience thoughts and feelings like anger, resentment, disillusionment, regret, frustration or a combination of these things (and in some cases, negative response resulting fear or abuse). It is also common for these negative feelings to be the result of complex and different reasons.

Even so, underlying the negative feelings of a relationship ending is the fact that a divorce or separation is, at its heart, a loss.


Divorce and separation later in life

There are certain facts about later life that can make the distress and sadness of separation seem more intense.

One reason is that the end of a long-term relationship can in many ways change your identity. Relationships from earlier in life (such as your teenage years or early twenties) start and end at a time when you’re more likely to still be figuring out who you are and what your place is in the world.

Relationships that begin and last throughout later life tend to happen when we’ve worked out who we are and what we want in life. Whether we realise it or not, a long-term relationship is usually an integral part of our identity. This means that a change to something that was such a large and constant part of who we are can dramatically affect our sense of self.

The end of a relationship may also be a source of significant stress and disruption to routine. This can include the stress and hardship of moving out of home or selling assets; financial arrangements and changing insurance and bank policies; access (legal or otherwise) to and general rapport with children or grandchildren; the effect of the split on family and mutual friends, and so on.

Understandably, these factors can seem even more painful and disruptive if the outcome of the separation is ‘bad’ and one or both parties are combative. For example, resolving disputes through the courts can be highly stressful.

The sense of loss may also affect a person’s outlook. They may feel doubtful about their future or they may be overwhelmed at the prospect of ‘starting over’.

Some people may even believe that separation or divorce is a source of shame or embarrassment. While it is common to dwell on feelings of failure, some may believe that separation is a sign of weakness or that it is a source of shame on a family.

The belief that the end of relationship is embarrassing or somehow reflects on one’s character (whether it’s a belief held by the former couple or by their peers and family) is neither helpful or healthy. In fact, it can cause harm and further add to the stress and pain of separation.


Coping with separation

You cannot change what has happened in the past. You can, however, change how you respond and think about what has happened. In other words, you can manage how you cope.

As mentioned, a separation is a loss, which means that grief is a natural and normal response, even if it was a bad relationship.

Everybody will experience grief in their own unique way, so remember that there’s no ‘right way’ to grieve. It is important to accept and confront the pain and distress of separation and to not ignore or repress it. It is equally important to not be talked into believing that you “should be over it by now”.

Another vital part of coping is to get support and stay active. Simply trying to ‘tough it out’ on your own can actually increase the sense of pain. It can also increase the risk of depression and other mental and even physical health problems.

There is no shame in reaching out for support from friends, family or a professional. Understand also that these feelings are normal and that a large part of coping with loss is allowing these sad feelings to ‘run their course’.

Unhealthy coping strategies like drinking or playing the pokies may feel like they numb the pain. However, while things may seem better in the short term, the long-term effects and damage are just not worth it.

A better way to cope is to deal with it in ways that are healthy and productive. For example, by making an effort to stay active socially, even if it means stepping outside of your comfort zone. One reason for this is that the risk of social isolation increases with age, especially if the ex-partner was the predominant social organiser and ‘diary-keeper’. Getting in touch with people can begin as something simple, like making a contact list and checking in with people. Social media, like the automobile, is a modern invention that has made contributions to society that are both good and not so good. Nonetheless, it’s one of many ways to maintain some contact with people you wouldn’t otherwise see regularly. So if you’re not an active social media user, consider getting involved.

Making an effort to make new contacts is also vitally important, particularly if the separation resulted in a loss of contact with mutual friends or family members. Consider joining a volunteer group, club, book group, choir, church or civic organisation like Lions Club or Rotary.

Much of the general advice that applies to general wellbeing is just as relevant to separation. Eating well and healthy always makes for common sense, remembering that greasy or sugary food can in itself become an (unhealthy) way of coping with negative feelings.

Regular physical activity like walking or exercise are just as important. Apart from the obvious physical health benefits, there are numerous mental health benefits of exercise as well.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try something new. Instead of stagnating with your lifestyle, get out and do things you haven’t done before. Sign up for a class or course. Join a group or society. Go somewhere you haven’t been to before. And do something challenging or different.

Right now it may not feel that change for the better will happen, but being aware of your thinking and taking pro-active steps to improve your situation will ultimately have a good effect on your wellbeing.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.