When a couple splits up, they may experience a mix of confusion, shock, guilt, frustration, grief, loss, resentment, anger, rejection, shame and relief. The circumstances of the breakup – who decides it's over, whether there was infidelity, who leaves, who initiates the divorce or civil partnership dissolution – inevitably affect these feelings, and the way each individual behaves and reacts. In trying to manage these emotions and navigate the choppy waters of a separation, a soon to be ex-spouse or partner may become unpredictable and unreliable in the other's eyes. Feelings of rejection and bitterness can induce a desire to 'hurt back', escalating anger and conflict, and making it impossible to reach decisions.
Even when both parties are agreed that their marriage is over, feelings of frustration, grief, and shame often surface, all of which can affect an individual's capacity to absorb information, make decisions, and access support at the time when they most need to do so.
As a family lawyer, pragmatic and strategic legal advice is a fundamental part of my job, but understanding, and helping clients to understand, that this cocktail of emotions is normal plays a vital role. After a separation, each person is likely to have a unique and private narrative as to why the relationship broke down. Very rarely will those two narratives be the same. But – and it is a positive 'but' – disagreements are a normal part of family life. The key is knowing how to disagree in a way that is constructive, rather than destructive: in other words, learning how to argue better.
Good communication, even in disagreement, is essential to a constructive relationship, both before and after any split – this is particularly important where children are involved. Knowing how to argue better can help manage conflict and avoid getting stuck in a vicious argumentative cycle. This improves the chances of co-operation and can unlock solutions that will help a separating couple move forwards.
Sharing the benefits of good communication is a passion of mine and so I am delighted to be a trustee of the charity OnePlusOne. OnePlusOne aims to strengthen relationships by creating resources to help families and frontline workers tackle relationship issues early on. Based on the latest research evidence, their work promotes early action in relationship support. They equip people with the skills and knowledge to work on relationship issues before they become entrenched. They also provide support for couples who are separating including training on how to argue better.
Being involved with a charity concerned wholly with supporting relationships has given me an additional perspective in my work. Looking at relationships from the other end of the telescope not only helps me to think about how I do my job, but enables me to use some of my experience to help OnePlusOne do theirs.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.