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The Knack

How To Break Up Gracefully

An expert’s guide to taking the stress (and mess) out of ending a relationship

Most of us know someone, maybe a family member or close friend, who is in the throes of separation or divorce. In Britain, divorce rates are among the highest in Europe – some 34 per cent of married couples choose to go their separate ways before their 20th wedding anniversary. In the US, 40-50 per cent of marriages end up on the rocks.

Family lawyers in Britain often refer to the first working day of January as “divorce day”, as couples so often put their problems on hold until after the festivities are over. In the US, however, researchers have come up with statistics to show that March and August/September are the most “popular” months for separation or divorce.

It stands to reason. Couples often use holiday periods to re-assess relationships when moments away from the stresses of work life allow freedom to ponder an alternative path – would I be better off with someone else, or even on my own? The December holiday period can be a particularly trying time for couples, especially if one doesn’t get on with the in-laws, leading to heightened feelings of isolation for an extended period of time – time that can expedite these big decisions.

As a practising relationship counsellor, I advocate couples’ therapy, both to try to repair and restore relationships and to make separations as amicable as possible. But before you even get to that stage, here are some helpful places to start.

Choose your moment

There is never a right moment for such a disruptive act. There is always loss, regret and recrimination. If one partner has no inkling this was coming their way (perhaps a lack of awareness of what was going on is the root of the problem), it’s a massive blow, not only to the relationship, but to the ego. So pick your moment carefully. Try to imagine the best time to deliver the news, allowing the other person time to think about it and process what it means. Make sure there are no birthdays, anniversaries, family gatherings – or, for the children, no school exams or annual dances – at that time. Then plan what you want to say, write it down and stick to it. Mr Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, tells the story of when, on the night of his 21st birthday, his father announced he was leaving the family. “We were all in shock,” he recalls. “I remember feeling conflicted: half-admiring, half-loathing.” As it turns out, all the siblings were going to get $250,000.

Talk to a professional

Even at this late stage, it is a good idea to get some help from a qualified and experienced relationship expert. They may have heard your story or situation before and might be able to offer some guidelines as to how you might manage your separation a little more amicably, hopefully with fewer arguments and less anger. It might also be a chance for one party to hear the other’s point of view in a safe environment, with a third person present. This will also give you a different perspective on the entire thing and what it means for the future. Separation and loss are always two very difficult experiences to manage, but understanding the reasons behind them might make the break-up an easier pill to swallow.

Try to be generous

There will obviously be plenty to argue about when splitting up the valuables, and sometimes sentimental importance will outweigh actual value. If something has a familial value, you need to say so before it’s too late. Write a wish list of things you would prefer to take with you and ask the other party to do the same. If there’s a shared pet in the relationship, such as a dog or cat, that needs to be discussed carefully. Having joint custody of a dog, for instance, isn’t always a good idea, particularly when the pooch travels to and from a different home each weekend and there are new or temporary partners, walkers and carers involved. It is beneficial for the dog, cat, hamster, parrot or whatever to stay in one home.

Think about permanence

Some might find that a period of separation is only that, but they need the time out to decide. Others might want to remain friends with their ex-partners. Sometimes it works seamlessly, for others there is jealousy and envy involved, and it’s hard to remain friends. If there are young children involved, contact can carry on for some years. Lawyers will bargain and argue about who gets weekends, vacations and religious holidays such as Christmas – often the most contentious period of the year. When children aren’t involved, some couples might want the break-up to be as final and permanent as possible.

Take time to heal

There is no precise time factor involved in getting over a failed relationship or marriage. Some people will complain, “It’s been six months, and I’m still not over him/her.” Sadly, getting a divorce is not an easy process and couples often experience difficulties in jumping over the next hurdle. Procedures can take months, if not years – in and out of courts and in the lawyers’ offices, with heavy costs, both financial and emotional. Give yourself and your ex-partner time to grieve over the lost relationship and allow your feelings to mend before jumping into the next one. Go for your own individual therapy to work out for yourself what your role was in the separation and, more importantly, think about the mistakes you made so you can avoid making them again.

Mr Michael Kallenbach is a relationship counsellor with consulting rooms in Harley Street, London, and Marlborough, Wiltshire

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