Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Break ups, Couple's counselling

How should we break up?

Most of us have been through a tough break up, nursed a friend through one or even experienced our parents go through one.


They are perhaps one of the most painful human experiences one can go through in life – apart from the death of a loved one. It takes courage to break up – let’s face it – and children, extended family, assets, social circles all make it a lot easier to stay.

So why do it? Well most people these days also expect to be energised, challenged and nurtured by their relationship – life is too long and too short not to be – as well as this there is more social and financial support to break up. Separations are commonplace. However, this does not make the process of breaking up any easier, nor does it mean the decision to break up is made any lighter. Most people I see think long and hard about a breakup knowing full well that this can impact not just the couple but also children, family members and friends. What I have noticed over the years is that more and more couples are trying to “break up well” – people are consciously thinking about the impact of the break up on others which is why I see more and more post-separated couples in my practice. Here are some answers to questions that are commonly raised in my room.

What happens first in a break up?

Shock, denial, anger, sadness, shock denial, anger, sadness and so on – finally some acceptance before shock denial, anger, sadness and a whole lot of weight loss or weight gain begin. It’s a grief process that’s similar to the grief process when a loved one dies, and these emotions can cycle around again and again. Usually there are bigger gaps between the pain as time goes on, and it’s important to note that it is impossible to maintain this intensity of pain long term – so it does eventually ease up and for most stop altogether.

In my experience both people go through the grief process. However, the person who has initiated the break up has often started the grief process before the breakup if they have been thinking about it for some time. This can result in more outrage for the person who has not had the same experience in the relationship.

How do we tell people?

There is a good chance that you will both have different ideas about this. One of you might want to tell everyone straight away whereas the other might want to delay this in the hope that you’ll somehow get back together. You should delay telling significant people like your parents and your children until you are sure that this break up is permanent.

However, as soon as you believe the break up is permanent you should tell people as quickly and as honestly as you can. This prevents significant others hearing about the break up in a distressing and upsetting way. Most people aim to be respectful about their ex partner and this helps everybody involved to cope.

Should we see each other?

No. This is one of the biggest couple mistakes I see in my work. So many couples seem determined to maintain some sort of friendship or contact straight away. This is not practical as it doesn’t give each person the space to work through the grief process. Unless you have children together you should cease all contact until you have both had the opportunity to move on with your lives.

What about children?

If you have children together, one of your first piroties will be working out custody arrangements. These need to take into account the emotional pain you will both experience at hand over times – so keep it simple and straight forward and set some ground rules e.g. sticking to conversations only about the children. So many couples come unstuck time and time again when they are at hand over time and cannot help bringing up a hot topic – nobody ever wins emotionally.

Extended family?

This is a confusing time for extended family who have formed their own bonds with your ex partner. Often extended family will want to remain in contact with the in-law. Down the track new relationships will work their way out but in the short term it is usually not practical to remain in contact with extended family. The person who belongs to the family group will need and expect loyalty and support from their family members. Exposing ex partners to extended family can also ignite further explosions for the couple – extended family will all have their own version of the truth to add to the situation, which is not always positive or timely.

Mutual friends?

This can be a hard one. Ideally you want your friends to stay neutral. However, they are human too. It’s important to be aware that your separation will possibly trigger emotions for your friends – some may feel threatened by your decision or worse still judge you for it. Choose one or two friends at the most to confide in to limit the potential fallout. Some well-meaning friends get caught out trying to support their friend only for it to backfire later either when a story is leaked or the couple get back together again.

Button pushing – I was doing okay until……

Remember that you and your ex know how to push each other’s buttons fairly easily. There is also a good chance that you will both be in different stages of the grief process – so you may be feeling sad and your ex may be feeling angry and vice versa. Be ready for the likelihood that you’ll both cause a bit of hurt and push each other’s buttons when you are in different stages of the grief cycle. Understand what might push your buttons and rehearse a response. Be prepared to stay neutral to minimise the damage that button pushing can cause.

Should we try couples counselling?

If both people are motivated and believe the relationship is worth saving, couples counselling is often a successful way of moving forward. I have seen many couples over the years who have worked hard in their therapy and despite affairs, betrayals, addictions and escalating arguments have learnt new ways of communicating and therefore have become more connected and stronger as a couple.

How do we know for sure we should break up?

If one of you is thinking about it in a serious way now, there’s a good chance you have been thinking of this for years. Just remember, announcing that you want to break up can be confusing for the other person in the relationship who has not been thinking about breaking up and therefore feels more shocked and ambushed by the revelation. Not knowing 100% whether you are making the right decision can be painful and frustrating – for everybody. Time usually sorts this out. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured to make a decision one way or the other by people. It’s an important decision and has many major consequences.

However, if you are having an affair or are involved in activities that are taking you away from your relationship (like addiction) you need to seriously think about the right thing to do for your partner’s sake if nothing else.

Should I stop seeing another person to work on my relationship?


Time and time again I see couples where one person is still not ready to give up an affair or other activity. Your relationship is an investment so you need to be prepared to invest all of yourself back into it to make it work.

Finally, unlike the grief process attached to death, people do get through break up pain. I am often amazed when I walk a person through a break up how much their life can change for the better further down the track. The reward of a new healthy relationship and the love and energy that comes with this can make the pain of a break up all worthwhile – many of my clients tell me this. It’s important to remember that there will always be significant events that re-trigger that past break up pain – like the introduction of a new partner. Be break up ready and understand that these feelings also pass very quickly.

If you feel as though you need to talk through your break up, contact us today on 02 8968 9397 arrange an appointment.

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