Relationship breakdowns are common and the source of a lot of emotional pain, grief and sometimes mental health issues too. The end of a relationship can be a major transition where people are managing strong feelings, the practical realities of changing circumstances and sometimes parenting arrangements for children as well.

Of the almost 50,000 divorces that occurred in 2014, nearly a third of them were initiated by the woman, about a quarter by the man, and in about 42 per cent of cases it was a joint agreement. The average number of years married at the time of divorce is 12 years and about half of these divorces involved children under the age of 18.

How you respond to a separation or divorce is very individual, and determined by the circumstances of the break up, your individual personalities and the relationship you have after a relationship breakdown. In general, there can be an up-and-down roller coaster of feelings which settle over time as you move into new phases of your lives.

People going through a break up describe a range of common feelings. They often feel a sense of rejection, anger and bitterness. A sense of guilt and blame are also common feelings. Isolation and withdrawal can be common too and sometimes people turn to alcohol to try to numb painful feelings – although this is generally counter-productive.

Unhelpful behaviours can throw fuel on the fire in the aftermath of a relationship break up. Obsessing and replaying conflicts over again in your mind is unhelpful. Abusive or violent behaviour is never helpful and can result in a worsening deterioration of the relationship and legal ramifications. Engaging in prolonged legal battles can be enormously stressful and very expensive. 

When kids are involved, the reality is you and your former partner will have to maintain some sort of civil relationship regarding the parenting arrangements. A helpful perspective is to look at decisions through the eyes of what is best for the children and this shared purpose of protecting children’s wellbeing can be a good basis to make decisions. This can give the kids a sense of stability and security.

There are many resources available to help you get through a separation. Relationships Australia has some excellent materials online and some downloadable booklets that provide practical tips on getting through a separation. Online forums, such as Beyond Blue’s forums, that have threads specifically about relationship breakdowns, can also be most valuable. I’s often a relief to speak with other people who have been through similar circumstances.

Two people in a blanket looking out to the distance  

For many people relationship breakdowns also bring financial pressures. There are great resources available to help people go through this difficult process. Mediators are available to assist couples to resolve conflicts and disagreements without having to attend a court.

For some people, the upset and grief of a separation may spill over into a mental health issue such as depression. This might include withdrawal from usual daily activities, sleep disruption, and recurring negative thoughts and pessimism about the future. In some instances, people may have thoughts of suicide and it’s important to get urgent assistance in this case from organisations such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline (13 11 14), lifeline.org.au.

Another common mental health issue during separation is anxiety. Some people experience panic attacks, rapid heart rate and over-breathing, and sometimes dizziness or chest pains. This is sometimes a result of being on your own after being in a long-term relationship, which can create a strong sense of insecurity and loneliness. 

If you think you are experiencing a mental health issue, you can get more information on Beyond Blue’s website and also see a GP to discuss your issues. The GP may arrange a mental health care plan for you and refer you to a psychologist, which will be partly subsidised by Medicare.

Apart from the medical and psychological treatments that the GP might recommend after a separation, it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle during this stressful time. It’s a time to be kind to yourself, get regular exercise, eat well and get enough sleep.

Though it’s a cliché, it is also true that time is a great healer. Take things slowly, as recovery after separation can take many months. Try to keep a regular daily routine and make time also for at least one enjoyable activity for yourself each day.

You can follow Dr Blashki on Twitter.

Related reading: Five things in nature to lift your mood

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