How to separate during the coronavirus (and manage the impacts on your children).April 27, 2020
As the weeks go on, the stress of COVID-19 is increasing for many of us. It’s really showing up cracks in relationships. So much so, there is an increase in the number of people contacting me to help them separate.
Coronavirus means that now is not a good time to break up. It’s not a good time to sell property. Not a good time to manage financial settlements. Not a great time to be moving out or moving about. Not a great time for getting support from extended family and friends. Not a great time to organise parenting plans.
If you are a couple with children, separating during COVID-19 will bring some formidable challenges. In my work as a Family Therapist and Marriage Counsellor, I am suggesting that couples only make interim decisions about care of their kids while this COVID-19 event is still running. It is not the time to set up strict rules around child access – not when so many parents have lost income, are home schooling and/or have lost extended family support. And it’s also not the time to be changing a home environment for children when they are already unsettled and out of their routine. I also recommend you don’t try to finalise your financial arrangements just yet.
COVID-19 is stopping a lot of things, but it should not be a reason to stay in a damaging or toxic relationship. If you want or need to separate now, I suggest you come up with ground rules to help you both through this very painful period in your lives until restrictions lift. You can then move onto the next phase of separation.
Here are the types of ground rules I suggest to separating parents during the coronavirus:-
Decide first whether you are able to keep living together through the lock-down phase. If this is too emotionally difficult, then it is best that one person moves out. If this is you, ensure you have worked out and agreed how you will have contact during the social distancing phase.
If you have made the decision to separate but stay in the same home together during the lock down phase:
- If you plan to tell your children that you are separating, you need to be able to tell them how that’s going to play out on a practical basis. Right now, because of COVID-19, you probably don’t know what the living arrangements will look like just yet – so don’t tell your children you are separating just yet. Remember most children want their parents to stay together so they will begin looking for signs you have changed your mind and some kids will start campaigning for this.
- If possible, sleep in different rooms but don’t move into your child’s room or bed. Whilst this might be a comfort for you, your children need an equal connection to both parents and to be protected from adult pain (a lot of people feel the pain of separation in bed at night as they try and sleep). You will have to make up an excuse to your children as to why you are sleeping in separate rooms.
- Try to give each other space in the home so that you each have a place to relax and process the separation. Take turns to leave the house to work somewhere else or exercise for extended periods of time.
- Put finances and future parenting plans on hold until you can physically separate. Agree that this is a temporary phase, and that you will commit to organising child access and finances once the COVID-19 shutdown is over and life returns to something resembling normality.
- Agree to not discuss relationship problems. You have now made the decision to separate, so you do not need to grind over old resentments or pain. Entering into discussions about your relationship will only lead to conflict and make the lock down phase a whole lot harder. You will also end up blurting out things you wish your children never heard. Sometimes, this type of conflict can even lead to physical violence.
- Now is not the time to announce your separation to the whole world – especially if your children do not know. Remember children read text messages and emails and often find out this way their parents are separating. I know because so many children tell me this in sessions. Choose one support person each and agree that you will both make phone calls which can’t be listened into either by your partner or your children.
- Not on the same parenting page? Most separating couples are not. If you do not agree on bedtimes, discipline and so on, take turns at being “lead” parent for the day. The lead parent is the one who is responsible for parenting decisions while the other steps back. The next day you switch roles.
- It’s really not a good time to start dating anybody – not just because of social distancing – but also because if you are still living with your current partner it will be emotionally too much and it’s bound to increase ill feelings in the home. And believe me your ex will find out about new people in your life.
- Be careful what you post on social media. Remember to be sensitive and respectful to the other parent of your children.
- Be careful that you are not drinking too much alcohol to manage the pain of separating. Alcohol can lead to conflict. And alcohol is also a depressant.
- Agree to be adults and to keep adult opinions, resentments and hurts between yourselves and not disclose these to your children. Your child is not your friend – do not lean on your children for emotional support.
If one or both of you are too angry and unable to manage conflict between you, then it is better that you physically separate – despite the COVID-19 situation. Many of the above ground rules can still apply. Except of course you will then need to tell your children you have decided to separate. Seek professional help with a Family Therapist if you are not sure how to do it.
Family Therapy with someone who understands the separation process from a child-centred perspective is a good investment during this time. A Family Therapist will be able to guide and support you both to make the right decisions for your children and keep you both on track when emotions are heightened and it’s more difficult to know how to respond to situations as they arise. If this is you and your partner, consider seeking professional help to do it right during this unusually difficult time.
If you would like to book in with one of our experienced online Marriage Counsellors at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists, please contact us on 02 8968 9397
Jacqueline has been in private practice for more than two decades, helping individuals, couples and families. She has extensive experience in couple and family therapy and is considered a specialist in these areas. In her clinical practice, she has helped people deal with complex trauma, affairs, complex mental health issues, eating disorders, adolescent behavioural problems (including self-harm and suicidal ideation), behavioural issues in young children which are impacting parents and families, relationship issues and post-separation work.
Jacqueline works with many different dynamics: couples, parents, families with young children, same-sex couples, foster/adopted families, families with teenagers and also adult families. She is particularly interested in helping parents of children with behavioural issues, or with diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, ASD and so on.
Although Jacqueline’s work is supportive and friendly, she will challenge her couples and families to make the necessary behavioural changes, to repair relationships and to move towards healthier communication styles in the future.
Jacqueline’s style is direct and fast paced and she is known for quickly getting to the heart of the matter. Clients report that they feel safe and understood with Jacqueline.
Qualifications and Professional Membership
Jacqueline has a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy (UNSW). She has a Bachelor degree in Counselling and Human Change, and a Diploma in Psychotherapy and Counselling.
Jacqueline is a Clinical Supervisor for Counsellors and Therapists. She lectures in couple and family therapy at Masters and Post Graduate level, and is currently Head Lecturer for the Couple and Family Therapy course (Masters) at the Jansen Newman Institute. She has been a Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and Sydney University, and continues to guest lecture at other tertiary institutions.
Jacqueline is also the Director of the Couple and Family Training Centre where she runs regular professional development workshops and seminars for Therapists, Counsellors, Psychologists, Social Workers and Health Industry Workers who are looking to gain skills in this specialist area.
“Thank you for seeing me today. Your help with all our family issues and all your advice has been invaluable.
I don’t know how other families do it, without a Jacqueline in their lives.” – Anna (43) step-mum and mum to four children.