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Family Breakup and Survival

Family Breakup and Survival

This article is taken from Family Breakup and Survival Workbook by
Ester Leutenberg and John Liptak, EdD.

In this article, the title care-giver and adults will be used for family members or paid helpers who give direct CARE and are responsible in any way for one or more children and/or teens.

Through out the article, the term breakup will be used to include any breakup, separation, annulment, and/or divorce. 

What is a Care-Giver Breakup?

A care-giver breakup is one of the most stressful events that a family could encounter. Separation, and ultimately a breakup, can be very difficult on care-givers, children, and other caring family members.

It is important to distinguish among the various types of circumstances that are included as breakups in this discussion. Here are a few:

• A couple dating who choose to stop seeing each other.
• A legal separation, which often comes before a divorce.
• Annulment, when a marriage is declared null and void.
• Divorce, the dissolution of marriage and the changing of legal responsibilities.
• Separation in which a couple stops cohabitating.

Breaking up can mean many different things to different people. For the purposes of this discussion, we are using the term breakup to include people living in the above situations. Breakups are extremely complicated processes that usually involve phases of a breakup between the two people and their families, and then possible various stages of a grieving process, for all concerned.

Although some breakups end with reconciliation, the stages of grief, the trauma, the issues of child-care, the communications, the visitations, the relationships, the feelings, and the changes still disrupt the family unit in a heart-breaking way. Things that are said, family members remember. Children suffer. How they react depends on their age, personality and the circumstances of the separation process. Families change. The contents of this discussion will help, whether there is reconciliation or not.

The next two sections will provide information related to these two important aspects of any breakup.

The Phases of a Breakup

It is never easy to break up with someone, but the breakup of a relationship can thrust your world into chaos and trigger all types of painful and negative feelings. The process of a relationship breakup follows some fairly distinct and predictable phases.

This model is not meant to be a definitive way that people in a relationship progress toward a breakup. All breakups will be unique and specific to the people involved. Therefore, the model that follows is designed to provide you with a sense of the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that accompany each of the phases of a breakup.

Phase 1
In this phase, the idea of a breakup often surfaces. The relationship experiences stress and it feels like it is in trouble by the initiator, or by both people. The notion of a breakup is often not directly verbalized, but may be verbalized also.

Phase 2
In this phase, ideas about a breakup are often verbalized. Typically, there is an initiator and a non-initiator. The initiator often has gone through a gamut of feelings and is now focusing on the cognitive aspects of telling the partner. The non-initiator usually feels rejected, anger, confusion, self-doubt and depression.

Phase 3
In this phase, the couple involved in the breakup usually begin to shut down and distance themselves physically from each other. They may stop talking to each other and doing things for each other. The couple involved at this point often look at what happened and who is at fault.

Phase 4
In this phase, the legal process often begins. This tends to be a more cognitive stage than the previous one, and most difficult when children are involved. The couple in the relationship feel the reality that is setting in and they begin to explore how their roles, and their families’ lives will be different.

The phases of a breakup can be devastating to everyone involved in the relationship. It is important to remember how stressful each of these phases are for both the initiator and the non-initiator as they consider how it affects themselves, each other, children, and other family members.

Stages in Grieving a Breakup

Regardless of their makeup and family dynamics, all members of a family proceed through specific stages in the process of grieving a breakup.

Although the descriptors for these stages may differ from what others use, they are simply a guide for better understanding the general issues that family members may experience while going through a breakup. They are not absolute or chronological.

Stage 1 (denial)
In this stage, family members pretend that the breakup is not a big deal and that they can easily move on with their lives. They often talk about their situation and their emotions until the initial shock wears off. Most people in this stage may feel numb about the situation and try to move past it quickly.

Stage 2 (anger)
In this stage, after the initial pain begins to wear off, family members begin to become angry about their situation or others involved in the breakup. They get angry and see themselves as victims of an injustice. In this stage, the anger can range from mild feelings of aggravation to feelings of rage. In this stage family members may often search for ways to vent their anger.

Stage 3 (Bargaining)
In this stage, family members try different tactics to get back what they had. They begin to believe that reconciliation, no matter how bad the situation was, is better than living the way they did in the past, or living the way they are currently. They often seek a “quick fix” for the situation so that they can get back to the way life was before, even if it was not ideal. In this stage, many members of the family may feel guilty about what happened.

Stage 4 (Sadness)
In this stage, family members begin to experience signs of sadness, possibly leading to depression. They may have difficulty sleeping, lose interest in eating, feel exhausted, and are often irritated. In this stage, family members feel pensive and wish the relationship had turned out differently.

Stage 5 (Moving On)
In this stage, family members begin to accept the fact that a breakup might be the best for all people in the relationship, and they are ready to move on. They are interested in releasing the past, living in the moment, and making strides toward a fulfilling future. They realize that it is time to move on and focus on the positivity in their lives.

Stage 6 (release & establishment)
In this stage, family members are ready to release any bitterness and even accept the reality of the situation. They are ready to begin establishing new relationships that will be part of a positive future.

Look for the next blog for the next this series: Stress & Fear Related to a Breakup.

Read more about Family Breakup and Survival Workbook.
Family Breakup and Survival cover

Relationship Skills

Just as laughter is a part of relationships, so are tears. We are reluctant to talk about fighting as a relationship tool, but a clean, fair fight can help. Avoiding fights isn’t a good solution. People who bottle it up are just as stressed as those who constantly bicker. Don’t fight over everything; compromise and pick your battles and words carefully. Be sure you know exactly why you want to fight. It’s easy to get caught up and not understand what’s wrong.

Don’t pick a fight at a time or place that gives you the upper hand. Pick a time when you can both sit down and talk logically, and wait until you’re both calm. Don’t be petty and take a cheap shot to get the last word. If the fight has lost steam, let it go. Don’t hit below the belt, but also, don’t wear your belt around your neck. Being too sensitive will close off things you may need to fight about. You know where the line is; there’s no need to be disrespectful and hurt someone for the sake of gaining ground in an argument. Don’t drive the other person into a corner either. Cornered people panic and don’t fight fair, and this just ends up hurting you both. Avoid always or never (you never listen, you always make me feel like this). Fighting isn’t something that we want to do, but clearing the air is better for everyone involved.

Honesty and time to think can help alleviate a lot of the stress that causes unnecessary fights. Assertive, Flight, and Nest-Building skills help prevent fights that you don’t really need.

Assertive skills maintain honesty. Respect yourself and your partner. Don’t be afraid to say no if you mean it. Practice saying it in a mirror if you have to — it becomes natural with time. Saying no doesn’t have to be permanent. It’s ok to say “I can’t now, but in the future if I can”. However, don’t use this as a cop out, and only say this if you mean it! Making excuses opens a door for a fight later on.

Flight skills help you put some distance between you and your stress long enough to calm down. It can be as simple as taking a nap, or letting your mind relax. Give yourself a few moments to decide how you really feel about something. If you need more time, sleep on it – give yourself 24 hours before acting on any major decisions you make.

Nest-building skills supply you with a place to retreat to when you need to get away. It gives you security and comfort. Is there a place in your home where you can really relax? Try rearranging your home so things that help you relax are all in one spot. For a quick and easy fix, repaint a room a color you enjoy. It gives you a space your own to go to.

Contact Skill Stress

Kicking Your Stress HabitsMaintaining healthy relationships requires contact skills which help you meet others and stay in touch. Expanding social skills isn’t easy for everyone. Some are shy and some are extroverted. Most of us are somewhere in between. For those who are shy, try to keep in mind that no one is born with contact skills; we learn them as we go.

Contact with others is a stress reliever. It is energizing and we need it; we seek company when we’re down. To increase your comfort in social situations you first need to realize a few things. You won’t be interested in everyone you meet, not everyone you meet will be interested in you. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t hit it off every time. Trust the rhythm of the conversation and give it a shot! If you’re nervous about keeping up conversations, try asking open-ended questions. (“What do you do for fun?” instead of “You like soccer?”) If someone supplies you with an answer that goes beyond what you asked, take advantage of this ‘free info’; follow up on it and offer some in return! Tell them something unique about yourself. Also, don’t be afraid to admit it if you aren’t knowledgeable on a subject the other person is talking about, especially if they brought it up. Rather than think poorly of you, chances are they will be happy to tell you more. This is a great way to both get to know someone and learn something new.


Relationship Stress

Relationships can be the best and worst things that happen to people. They produce a lot of joy but also a lot of stress. Your relationship to your own environment can also cause stress. There are ways you can help lessen this unavoidable tension. These skills come in handy if you

  • aren’t getting enough support from the people around you,
  • are confused and need someone to listen and care for you,
  • find yourself saying ‘yes’ too many times when you want to say ‘no’, and
  • your environment makes you uncomfortable.

Relationship skills can make a huge difference in your overall health. Think about all the stress caused by relationships and your environment. How often do your relationships with other people create stress for you? Maybe you have particular relationships that seem to involve more stress than others, or one that you constantly feel as though you have to tread lightly upon. Have you avoided a part of your home because you don’t want to deal with a mess? Have you become stressed from environments you can’t control, like traffic jams or hospitals? Using relationship skills to help cope with this stress will make things a lot easier on you and the other people in your life, and if you have a physical surround that soothes you rather than tenses you, you’ll be even more balanced.