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  • Writer's pictureBrynn Doctor

Where Do We Go From Here: A Guide to Making Healthy Decisions in Separation and Divorce

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Divorce and separation are an everyday part of my world. I have helped hundreds of people through this process – both those that are amicable and those that are not. I have also experienced this in my personal life, and have a unique perspective and understanding because of both my professional and personal experiences.


Having worked with over 600 families over the last 5 years dealing with the breakdown of their families, I wanted to provide some perspective and insight that I think may help in navigating the decision to separate, and that will allow you to move forward in a healthy and productive way whether together or apart. I want to be clear that this advice is not meant for everyone or every situation: if you or your children's safety is at risk, or if you have already determined that separating is the healthiest decision for you, this advice is not for you.


Separation and divorce are life changing, hugely disruptive and serious decisions that need to be approached with care and intention. As someone with older children, the first thing I wanted to say is that the early years are SO hard. For so many people these years are the breaking point. Your kids require so much time and energy, and this is particularly demanding on an introverted or neurodivergent parent who suddenly doesn’t have the down time needed to be able to keep their own systems regulated. The younger years push us to our limits, and bring out all of our differences in super pronounced ways. For this reason alone I strongly discourage people from making decisions about ending their relationships during the first 3 years (even though its super common to do so).


The other primary issue I run into in helping people make good, sound decisions that are focused on what’s actually best for themselves and their children is that people most commonly make these decisions at the time when they are at their lowest in terms of personal capacity to actually deal with stress, when they are at the height of their emotional dysregulation, and when they are individually and collectively struggling most with their ability to communicate effectively (because they are overwhelmed and burnt out). This leads to so much more hurt than what needs to be there. While all divorce is loss, and all separation is painful, it does not need to come from a place of exhaustion or desperation. Having said that, sometimes separation is the right answer, so this is not a commentary on whether or not that is ultimately the right choice for you.


If I could help people better approach both the decision to separate, and then the subsequent process of divorce, I would tell them to do the following. While I focus on couples who have children together in this post, this advice can equally apply to couples without children.


1. Start by acknowledging you are struggling and acknowledge all the factors that play into it. You need to clearly define and understand your similarities and differences, and identify the root of the issues that got you to where you are, whether that is demanding children or demanding careers, unresolved traumas, ineffective or conflicting styles of communication and more. You cannot heal what you do not understand.


2. If you have reached the point where you are both asking the question “is this partnership the healthiest and best thing for us and our children” then start by simply pressing pause on your relationship.


This isn’t the same thing as a separation. Instead, for a period of 6-12 months, you are intentionally choosing to set aside any questions about what will happen with your relationship long-term to help you each do some work on your own. If you aren’t already in therapy individually, this is the time to start. I recommend treating this time as an opportunity for you both to A) figure out your own issues, and B) develop a co-parenting partnership plan that ensures you both receive the opportunity to do this self-work. Set up a schedule where you both have times that you are to be the “on call” parent, and times when you aren’t. Yes you are still living together, and working together to support your kids, but if you do ultimately separate you will both need to get used to this sort of sharing of time anyway, and learn to cooperate as individual co-parents. Use this as a time to practice these skills.


I also strongly would urge you not to do anything related to couples counselling or working on the relationship itself during this period. Particularly for the burnt out parent, you cannot even begin to address any relationship issues unless and until you have the energy and perspective to do so. We cannot pour from an empty bucket – this period is about each of you filling up your own buckets, and figuring out what you want and need out of your life and a partnership going forward. By intentionally choosing not to demand energy from each other toward your relationship itself, you both free each other up to instead spend that energy on healing and re-orienting yourselves.


3. At the end of this initial period, agree to a 2nd stage for another 6 months – during this stage you now focus on the relationship itself. Using what you learned in stage 1 where you figured out what you want and need from a partner, this stage is about figuring out if both of your wants and needs can be met by one another, and if so, how to do that in a way that still honours you both as individuals. It is also the time to figure out what went “wrong” before – what were the patterns in your relationship that led you to feeling unsupported, or overwhelmed, and is it possible to change those patterns.


4. Finally, you enter the last stage. The last stage will either be deciding to continue in your marriage, or to separate. By taking the time to work on yourselves, and then to work on your relationship from a healthier place as individuals, you are set up for success no matter what decision you make. You are ensuring that this decision is coming from a place of deep understanding, you will have gained an understanding of what your life might look like in separation, and you will have developed skills that will continue to carry through any separation. You are ensuring this decision is the best for everyone involved, and that your kids are going to have two healthy and capable parents who can maintain a love and respect for one another as you move forward.


Whatever you decide, only you get to determine what’s right for you and your family. But give yourself the chance to make these decisions from a place of empowerment and understanding, instead of hopelessness and exhaustion.


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