During the last referendum campaign I had a strongly held position, but I did nothing. Well, I bought a jumper. But no marching, no real effort.
I don’t blame myself though, because I was otherwise engaged on the home front. Specifically, my marriage had fallen apart, and so I was busy putting my life back together. Or just keeping things going, keeping the show on the road, day after exhausting day.
For obvious reasons, I also have a fairly strongly held opinion on this week’s referendum, in which we will be asked to decide how long people must live apart before applying for a divorce.
Of course, I am a Yes vote. But as a relative newbie to marital breakdown – separated a few years, not yet divorced – my understanding of the benefits of this change were to some extent academic. Someone much further down the line explained it to me in far more real terms recently.
You separate. It is a shit show; even if amicable, no one gets through a separation without extreme levels of angst, stress and upset. Then hopefully, things settle. A new normal asserts itself. You figure out some way of managing your family through this. And then the divorce process hits, and everything is yet again thrown up in the air. Because the legal process can cause even the most amicable to raise their hackles, feel defensive, take a stance. And so all the hard work and the pushing through of the last few years falls to pieces as a couple yet again find themselves back in the hardened, anger-filled positions of the early days.
Simply put, a shorter deadline means the whole thing could be achieved in one harrowing fell swoop, rather than a break between acts, only to re-engage in hostilities.
The notion that a longer waiting period between separation and divorce allows people to really consider their actions? Please. We are not bold children to be put on the naughty step to think about what we have done. No one, no one, puts their children and themselves through a separation when they’re not actually that sure if this is what they really want. That idea is utter nonsense.
Separation is hard. Divorce is hard. What can help?
* On a most basic level, I found the phrase This too shall pass, even when uttered grimly and somewhat disbelievingly to myself, helpful. Mostly because you come to know it on a cellular level. I have been here before (grief, anger, sadness, fear). I got out of it, moved on, felt better. I will do it again. This too shall pass.
On that note, know that it is normal for grief to take time. You will think you are done, and then you will be hit by yet another wave. And you discover a whole new world of things to feel sad about. I used to feel frustrated when I would wake to find myself mired in what I knew before I opened my eyes was to be another grief day – exhausted, overwhelmed, the most basic tasks requiring what felt like a gargantuan effort. It helped to think of it as pulling myself out of a swamp. Really bad phases were because I was pulling an entire limb out; the worse it felt, the more progress I was actually making, because I was processing things, I told myself.
* Acceptance; I don’t really know how you do it, maybe it’s just time, but nothing happens without it. While you are still struggling against your new reality, then you’re going nowhere in terms of feeling better.
* Make your new life as nice as you possibly can given the circumstances, and try to be in it, rather than fighting with the past.
Any kind of stressful life situation means that your system is overwhelmed by simply coping with the day-to-day tasks. You are diminished. And so the fear finds a way to creep in. It would be inhuman not to suffer extreme fear and anxiety at times during a crisis. But try to tell yourself that these fears are not always real. Some of them are symptoms of the pressure you are under.
I used to worry endlessly about how I would make it down my rather steep, wooden stairs in retirement. As if a similarly aged spouse would have thrown me over his shoulder and carried me down. As if this was a thing worth giving one moment’s thought to now.
* Try not to overwhelm yourself with thinking about the future. On that note, a very wise woman said to me in the middle of it all, ‘take one day at a time’. I smiled politely, thinking it was one of those well meaning but meaningless things people say. It is not. Literally, take that day in front of you, and get through it. Thinking about all the things that might come – financial worries, the terror that you have broken your children (you have not) – is pointless, and will paralyse you with fear.
* Self-care is practically a parody of itself by now, but there is something in it. In the midst of a crisis, self-care looks almost passive. Instead of making it into a stick with which to beat yourself (planning to go to the gym and then not, eating a certain way and then not) – adopt a passive approach. A doing nothing.
I gave up drinking, because hangovers made me sad and angry and I wanted to give myself every chance to feel good. I kept off Instagram, because who needs the perfect life propaganda it spouts when your own life is falling apart.
* Cultivate your people. Yes, comparison is bad, and it is easy to feel ‘other’ in such a situation (everyone who goes through something feels ‘othered’, this is normal). But the more intimate friends you have, or the more intimate are the friends you already have, the more you realise that actually, everyone is dealing with, or has dealt with, stuff. And so you get positive comparison; we are all in this together. Find someone, or several someones, you can speak honestly to, and you will discover they too have suffered, and it will be comforting. Their particular burden might be different from yours, but we are all dealing with the same emotions. Grief, anger, coming to terms with our life not going as we had planned.
Have People-Without-Preamble, those who are up-to-date on the situation, and will not be horrified when you burst into tears at the sight of them, if that is what that day’s grieving requires.
On that note, you need empathisers, not sympathisers. Sympathisers (or head tilters, as I call them, for their signature pitying head tilt usually accompanied by a sad moue), will make you feel pitied, which is the worst. Empathisers get that this is difficult, but this is life, we will get through it, and it does not make you a Sad Person.
* To get used to living on my own, or as the only adult in my house, I have what I think of as my bra off/ pyjamas on people. Those who do not require me to be host while they are a guest. Who know how to turn on my TV and get to Netflix, where the tea-making things are, how to put on the dishwasher (and who will fill it too). Because some nights you are too tired to host, but want company.
* That said, when I was ready, I found it helpful to lean in to things like loneliness. To the hard bits. To have a Friday evening stretch out in front of me with nothing planned, and no one to fill it besides myself.
In facing these hard bits, they lose their fear, become surprisingly manageable, even quite lovely at times. That sense of having coped, flourished, thrived is bolstering.
* Lastly, on coping. Today I am launching a podcast, How To Fall Apart – a Podcast about Picking Up the Pieces, a series of interviews with people who have dealt with something challenging, something which threw their life wildly off the path they had thought it would take.
Kate Gunn, interviewed here, who wrote Untying the Knot, How to Consciously Uncouple in the Real World, is one of this week’s three interviews. The podcast idea began with the intention of asking how each of these people had coped. And while that has been a big part of the discussion, what became clear very quickly is that the notion of coping is potentially a dangerous one.
We take on coping as a badge of honour. Look at me. All around me is falling apart, but look at how strong I am, look at how I am coping. Such a trooper. And we cope ourselves into a corner. Until we are unable to say that actually, maybe right now, I am not coping. Too scared of what might come bubbling up, and burst all over the life that we are so carefully, with so much effort, trying to piece back together. Or unwilling to let go of the bit of strength and imagined control we have retained in all of this.
So I have learnt to make time for the coping to stop. The keeping the show on the road. Whether that is time out with friends, the occasional day in bed, or arriving at my parents’ house only to burst into tears at the sight of my mother.
I will put up the red flag.
How To Fall Apart is produced by Tall Tales Podcasts and will be available on iTunes, Spotify and all major podcast apps.
‘All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time…’ – Mitch Albom
Helen Steele – artist and fashion designer
“Walk it off. Get out in nature. Even just stand under a tree and try to ground yourself. And most important; don’t badmouth your partner in front of your kids. Pick one person to confide in that you trust and talk to them.”
Deborah Veale – fashion designer
“My divorce was a long time ago but I think what got me through was our daughter Sorcha; when you have children to consider, they really do put things into sharp perspective.
The job as parent comes first and although it may be difficult and at times might seem impossible, it’s vital to realise that striving to have a good relationship with their other parent is more important for them and their development. Even though the relationship/marriage may be over, if there are children, their needs after a breakup become even more important. Family and friends also played a huge part in supporting us through the tough times.”
Mari O’Leary – business owner
“Sadly divorce is structured around blame and both parties start pitching accusations at each other. With legal teams involved this can escalate to an unimaginable level. Under current law, this can last for three to four years, which can really take its toll emotionally.
“Having someone to really listen was hugely important to me; my sister, friends and a counsellor, someone I was able to share what I was feeling and experiencing with. I didn’t necessarily need advice but speaking about what was happening helped create greater clarity and kept my confidence up.
“When there are children, you are instinctively protecting them as well as yourself, so being open about the challenges with someone willing to listen was the most valuable resource I had. The shortening of the time between separation and divorce, I believe will make a massive difference and save a lot of emotional hurt. Also changing the process so it limits blame where possible and allows people to simply acknowledge the relationship is over, settle matters and move on.”
Yvonne Keating – cook and broadcaster
“Family and friends. I have a big group of girlfriends who supported me. Cecilia Ahern and Lisa Duffy are particularly funny women and when things were at their most serious and saddest, they would say something hilarious and have us all crying laughing.”
Kate Gunn – author and head of social media @every_mum
“It’s the little things that make a big traumatic event just about bearable. Things like a cobweb-busting walk down a windswept beach; tears and salty sea spray combining so that you don’t know whether you’re crying or nature is lamenting your woes on your behalf. A boxset of Downton Abbey by an open fire, glass of red wine and chocolate to hand. Children and their emotions mercifully fast asleep. Yoga. Stretching your mind and body in directions it’s never been before – showing you that you can still grow and develop. Cups of tea by the Aga in your childhood home, making it clear that although everything has changed, some things somehow never will.
“In the weeks immediately following my marriage breakdown, I myself was broken. It was the first time I held up my hands and allowed myself to be carried. My family guided me through those first terrible weeks.
“I was a shell of myself, completing the necessary daily tasks on autopilot – doing the school run, ticking off work tasks, putting dinner on the table – but I wasn’t fully present in any way. I operated in a half-filled haze of non-reality, going where others nudged me.
“Until I began to come to, finally able to begin building myself back up one small, simple moment at a time. A walk, a quiet night by the telly, a story shared with an old friend. Little by little, I inched myself forward, cautiously, until one day I looked back and realised I’d made it through.”
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