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E43: Making Separation Work

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On the Show Today You’ll Learn

Ben and Heather welcome Dr Atina Manvelian, a psychologist and clinical scientist. As a postdoctoral researcher at Stony Brook University and Stanford University, she studies how our relationships impact our mental health and conducts research on how we can improve the quality of our relationships. Of particular interest for our listeners is Dr Manvelian’s specialty in adjustment following a breakup or divorce. So she is the perfect guest to help tackle the topic of how to make separation actually work.

This episode deals with the following questions:

1. What does a “good” separation look like?

2. How separations can get off on the wrong foot when one person has been thinking about separation for a long time and the other is taken by surprise.

3. How can couples avoid getting into a spiral of anger and blame that will be hard to unwind.

4. Managing a solo life and dealing with loneliness.

5. Is it possible to re-partner too quickly?

6. How to cope with the emotions that arise when your ex re-partners.

7. How separating couples should talk to their children about separation.

8. The importance of boundaries, how to set them and stick to them.

At the end of the episode, Dr Manvelian gives us her top three tips on making separation work. Not to be missed!

Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Dr Atina Manvelian – click the link to find out more about Dr Manvelian

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome! Making Separation Work

Benjamin Bryant: Welcome to episode 43. I’m Benjamin Bryant from Bryant McKinnon Lawyers returning to the hot seat after a remarkable holiday in Egypt, which now feels like months ago. Gemma Rope did a fantastic job hosting last month’s episode on making mediation work, so a big shout-out to her. As usual, my partner in crime, Heather McKinnon is joining me and Heather a big thank you to you for holding the fort while I was away.

Heather McKinnon: No problem, Ben.  Geez, I’m glad you’re back.

Benjamin Bryant: Well, I think I’m happy to be back, but I’m certainly excited about today’s show. The toughest part of our job is watching people go through one of the most difficult times in their lives. What we hope for, for all of our clients, is that their separation will ultimately make their lives happier in the end. Particularly when children are involved, a happy life requires a well-functioning separation So today we are going to talk about making separation work, and we have an amazing guest to help us tackle this thorny topic.

Benjamin Bryant: Dr. Atina Manvelian is a psychologist and clinical scientist. As a postdoctoral researcher at Stony Brook University and Stanford University, She studies how relationships impact our mental health and conducts research on how we can improve the quality of our relationships. She received a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Arizona and has published peer-reviewed manuscripts on break-up adjustment and divorce. She practices both as a scientist and a therapist and will transition to become a faculty member in the counselling department at the Santa Clara University later this year. One of the primary focuses of her work is relationship issues, including couple and family therapy and adjustment following break-ups or divorce. Dr. Manvelian, welcome and thank you so much for joining us on today’s show.

Dr Atina Manvelian: Absolutely, Ben Thanks for having me. And please feel free to call me Atina.

Benjamin Bryant: We are very excited to have you, Atina. Thank you. And your advice has the potential to help so many people in our little community. I’m eager to get going. But just before that, I need to remind our listeners to share this show with friends and family starting down the path of separation or divorce. We’ve got a huge library on a wide range of subjects with world-class experts, and this particular episode could benefit so many people right here on the Coffs Coast. So please share with your friends and family who may benefit.

Introducing Dr Atina Manvelian

Benjamin Bryant: Atina, let’s start by finding out a little bit more about you. What has led you to specialise in relationship issues and in particular, tell us about your work in divorce or break-up adjustment?

Dr Atina Manvelian: Absolutely, yeah. So growing up, I was always fascinated by how deeply our relationships impacted us, shaping our sense of self and impacting our quality of life. And in college in particular, I watched as friends navigated, moving into relationships and relationships falling apart. And I watched their mental health and their outlook on life either sort of soar or flounder. And it became really interesting to me. Why is it that relationships matter so much? And how can we cope with these transitions, in particular with break-ups or divorce, marital dissolution, in ways that promote growth and healing for us? So I decided to study these relationship transitions at the University of Arizona, where I got my doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Benjamin Bryant: That’s great. And I know, certainly Heather and I share the passion of that sociological element of relationships and family and interpersonal relationships is what keeps us going every day. The only difference that I have is that that translates to reality TV for me, but not for Heather. Heather doesn’t do reality TV, but I certainly do.

What does a good separation look like?

Benjamin Bryant: And Atina, we want to talk about making separation work. So tell us, what do you think a good working separation looks like?

Dr Atina Manvelian: It’s a beautiful question and I think something that’s difficult to define. So I would really say it depends. You know, it depends on that family’s particular structure, the problems that they’re facing, whether or not children are involved, the reason as to why they are separating: is this sort of a slow trickle and falling out, or was there a major infidelity or was someone unfaithful? And there’s a lot of pain that you have to work through. So I really think it’s going to depend. But I think every good working separation probably includes two things. And the first is open lines of communication. And the second is probably the ability to garner external sources of support for both parties involved, whether that be therapists, great lawyers like yourselves or just family and friends who can see you through.

When one person is has been thinking about separation and the other is taken by surprise

Benjamin Bryant: Absolutely. And we say to our clients every day, don’t we Heather, the deterioration of any relationship will be the absence of communication. You absolutely need to be able to do it effectively, So that’s a great tip, Atina. And in our experience, many separations start on the wrong foot because one person in the relationship has been thinking about separation for a long time and the other person is taken by surprise. Do you see this in your work and what can people do to avoid or correct this imbalance?

Dr Atina Manvelian: I absolutely see this in my work. I think that often there is one person in the relationship that is more attuned to the ups and downs of the relationship. They notice first when there’s disconnection, they notice first when there’s some kind of conflict and it may upset them more. And sometimes the other person is sort of left in the dark and a little bit more oblivious. Generally, I would say, people are taken by surprise for a couple of different reasons. And I think the first is you have a scenario in which their partner has desperately tried to communicate to them. I’m unhappy. Here are some of the issues coming up for me. And their partner simply doesn’t take it seriously or doesn’t hear how serious that cry for help is. They don’t recognise that this may lead to divorce. I think the second scenario is that sometimes the communication just hasn’t taken place at all. That both people may be more avoidant of conflict and more avoidant of talking about these deeper emotions and deeper issues going on. And so the idea to separate sort of comes out of the blue. So I think the way to correct this imbalance is to really dig deep and say, have I communicated here? What’s been happening for me in the relationship? Is my partner on the same page? Are we on board with what I need? Have we tried to make this work together or am I keeping this all sort of to myself?

Benjamin Bryant: And Heather we’ve done a few podcasts on this very topic and I know in your many years of experience you’ve come across this with your with your clients and explaining the grief curve and where they are on it in relation to the other person. Do you have any tips about how to correct this imbalance?

Heather McKinnon:  I think as Atina so smartly said at the beginning, if you’ve got communication problems that are really threatening the relationship, at least one of you needs to get a psychologist or counsellor involved. My experience is denial is one of the greatest problems in Western society and what you see over decades of doing the work is that people maintain denial through things like drinking or drug use or becoming obsessed with sport outside the family. Running away, but with a lawful excuse. So they have these terminal relationships where they never spend any time together. And you can see it when you start to get to know the client, they’ll be able to finally tell you, well, years ago we just started living these separate lives. But denial means they’re not conscious of it. You can save them, with people who are trained like Atina, if you can get there just before that tip-over point. The other thing that I think Atina touched on is having healthy friendships and family relationships outside your relationship is critical, because you need those strong people to flag when you’re in trouble and to listen. But also you don’t want to be attaching yourself to a whole lot of dysfunctional people who feed the machine, who can’t help you see what’s healthy. Moving towards the higher ground is what we talk about. But, it starts in childhood. And I suppose that’s the really big thing in the Western world. How do we raise healthy children who are able to understand communication.

How to avoid the spiral of anger and blame after separation

Benjamin Bryant: And in the early stages of divorce or separation, when emotions are usually high, how can couples avoid getting into a spiral of anger and blame that will be hard to unwind?

Dr Atina Manvelian: That’s a great question. And it’s, I think, hard to avoid all anger and blame. Right? Separation and divorce inevitably brings up really intense, complex emotions. There’s sort of two things that we can do here. First, we can really uncover why am I feeling this way, Sitting down with potentially a friend or a therapist and understanding what is going on at the heart of all of these intense emotions. And I think sometimes when we really sit with our anger, we can start to feel, it’s not just anger that we feel, but it’s grief. And it’s harder for us to get in touch with that grief and to feel it and to allow it to simply take up some space to allow ourselves to experience that grief because it’s so painful. It’s so painful to face sometimes. And so anger and blame are sort of easier emotions to access. But they can also be pretty chaotic and cause a lot of pain for our partners and within our families as well. So taking the time to really step back, reflect, seeking your own therapy is also going to be very helpful in helping you process and regulate some of these emotions as they come up, so that when you do go to have these conversations with your partner, you’re not completely disregulated. You’ve already talked through what’s going to come up for you. How are you going to deal with some of those things? What are the coping strategies that you’re going to use? Who are you going to call when you just need to vent, when you just need support, when you just need to talk? So I think some of it is inevitable. You know, forgive yourself for getting angry, forgive yourself for shifting the blame and maybe only blaming your partner. But otherwise we want to work through that to the best of our ability.

Benjamin Bryant: And it’s certainly hard. We see it on a daily basis. It’s certainly hard to be mindful and be able to identify what those feelings are and not get sucked into the vortex, as we say, because it’s very difficult to remove yourself. Heather and I obviously are legal advisers, we advise on the law every single day. But sometimes, as you said, people haven’t accessed their support network, their non-legal support network to vent to. Sometimes Heather and I sit in the room with an initial client and it might be 20 minutes before we hear something that is actually relevant to the legal outcome. It’s not to do with the best interests of the children. It’s not to do with the just and equitable property settlement. It’s just to do with the vortex, as it were. So it’s very important that people be able to identify what they’re feeling and, as you said, get the appropriate support in place at the time.

How to accept and manage a new solo life after separation

Benjamin Bryant: And as we know Atina, loneliness can be a big issue following separation. Do you have advice on how to accept and manage a new solo life?

Dr Atina Manvelian: I would say just because you’re single now, just because you’re solo now, it doesn’t mean that your solo life has to be lived solo, right? You don’t have to sort of say, Well, I guess this is it for me. I’m just going to be lonely forever more. And I think loneliness can be a particularly challenging emotion to work with because when you’re in a lonely feeling space, it’s hard to even think about some positive supports that you may have in place. When you’re in that mind space your point of view sort of narrows. So I would say try to garner support to the best of your ability. You’re going to need other supports: friends, family, people who you can really trust to be there for you during this time. You’re going to need new activities to be able to fill your time, to be able to create a community. Because when you lose a partner, in some ways you’re losing the structure and the sort of system you’ve created for your life. And so you have to find ways to rebuild a new system, to create something new that’s going to work for you, that’s going to bring meaning to your life, that’s going to give you that sense of purpose and that sense of connection that’s really important for all of us.

Is it possible to re-partner too soon after separation?

Benjamin Bryant: One of my favourite pieces of advice is fear of being alone is not reason to be with. Quite important. And Atina, of course, one of the things we often see is that people treat loneliness by immediately finding a new partner. Do you think it’s possible to move too quickly to re-partner or perhaps re-partner successfully?

Dr Atina Manvelian: So many people have this question right? Is it too soon to move on? And am I the rebound? You know, often people say, am I the rebound girl? I don’t know. And I think there’s one question we can ask ourselves, and that is: what is my motivation in re-partnering? That is, have I found someone that is wonderful and aligned with my values and I’m excited to move towards this love? Or am I simply trying to re-partner to avoid my own pain, to avoid my own healing? Right. So are we moving towards love or are we just trying to move on to avoid all the painful emotions that you inevitably have to face when you’re going through a separation.

Benjamin Bryant: Or perhaps move on to someone the exact opposite of your ex? Heather decades in the industry, you know a bit about clients re-partnering and perhaps coming to see you again. Do you want to shed some light on that?

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, Atina will love this. Because we’re in a regional area, we get to see sociology in action over decades. So I’ve got some people that I would have helped go through divorce four times, maybe five. You hit the nail on the head, rather than deal with pain, they move on. So I have this very Australian saying, when I see someone. I say, Look, just enjoy the romance and (cover your ears) I call it the bridge root. So just because you’re having sex with someone that’s not your ex-partner, doesn’t mean that you’re going to get married next year. And trying to slow them down, get them to counselling and encourage them to enjoy the time and to enjoy the fun, but at the same time deal with the grief that you haven’t dealt with. And you can tell them if you don’t, 5 or 6 years time, you’ll be back in here. And I love making money off you over and over, but it’s not really sensible for you. So you can tell people. But my experience is, particularly the breakdown of long relationships or that breach of trust where people have, say, had children and one leaves when the kids are really little, to repair that lack of trust in the world is really hard and I think you need a professional. That’s if you’re going to move on to have healthy relationships. So many people that I’ve acted for have gone through, terrible situations where they’ve had twins or triplets, and at six weeks post the children being born, the other one says, I’m out of here. Now to establish trust again when something like that happens: very hard. It can be done, but I just think it’s important that your profession becomes as important as ours. I think it’s around the wrong way. But in both our countries, lawyers get paid more than psychologists. It’s much better to be in your psych’s office venting than to be with Ben and I, because it’s just an expensive model. So you give that message over and over and that’s all we can do. All we can do is bring experts in from around the world like you Atina to keep emphasising that and try and get people to move in Australia to a model of therapy to future-proof their life.

How to cope when your ex re-partners

Benjamin Bryant: And thanks for your specifically Aussie advice. Heather. And Atina, whilst we’re on the subject of re-partnering, do you have any advice for listeners on how to cope with complex emotions that may arise when your ex finds a new partner?

Dr Atina Manvelian: Yeah, and this will happen. It happens often and I think there’s a couple of things you can do here. And the first is: don’t judge yourself for having those emotions. So many people say, Oh my God, my ex is moving on and they’re in this incredible marriage. And it’s all happening so fast. I think there’s a couple things going on there. First, it’s normal to have these emotional responses. This is someone you used to really love or maybe still love very much, and finding them partnered and happy may bring up a lot for you. Jealousy, envy, grief. That pang of grief hits you again in those moments. So allow that wave to sort of come and go, to rise and fall without judging yourself. But the second thing here is often that there is a probably a desire within you, right? Seeing that and wanting that sort of cluing you in to what really matters for you. Maybe you want to re-partner again. Maybe this is something you want in your life. Maybe this is something that really mattered for you. So finding a way to turn that energy and those emotions into fuel, to work on yourself, to improve yourself so that when someone wonderful comes along or when you open yourself back up to that, that you’re ready, you’re ready to meet them in the way that they want to be met, in the way that you wish to be met as well.

Benjamin Bryant: Hmm. I think that’s some great advice, Atina. Certainly, what Heather and I see, is the ex getting a new partner is a bit of a catalyst. We’ve seen it undo the most amicable separations and property settlements. And everything for the children is agreed up until the step-parent comes along. So Heather and do a bit of work to try and council that. I think it’s great identify again what the emotions are and let them come and go and don’t be too harsh on yourself. I think that’s great advice.

How to talk to the children about separation

Benjamin Bryant: And of course, the biggest complicating factor in any separation is children. How should separating couples talk to their children about their separation?

Dr Atina Manvelian: What a beautiful question. I find that many couples don’t come together to mindfully talk this through before they approach their children. And I think that is probably one of the biggest problems. That is the root of the problem.  It just sort of comes out. That’s the scenario you probably want to avoid. You want to come together with your partner, put your differences aside and say, all right, we clearly both care about the children (or hopefully you both care about the children). And you want to talk a little bit about how you want to present what’s happening for you. How do we talk about this in a way that is developmentally appropriate for our kids? The way you approach this conversation with a five-year-old. It’s going to be very different from how you approach the situation from a 15-year-old. You want to meet the child where they are at, and you want to come up with a unified message. I think sometimes what happens is that when there is no unified message and you haven’t planned out what you’re going to say, that one parent may say one thing, the other says something that’s contradictory or even worse, throws the other parent under the bus and, starts talking very negatively and critically about the child’s other parent. And so we don’t want that kind of situation to occur. We don’t want the child to play middleman because that leaves your children in a very difficult space.

Dr Atina Manvelian: So reassuring your kids, this is what’s happening. We’re not getting along. We’ve really tried to make it work, but it might be best because we care about you so much and we care about each other so much for maybe mom and dad to live in separate places. And reassuring the child that you love them, that you’re there for them, you’re going to continue to support them to the best of your ability, I think is important. And I’ll also mention here, I think some parents really struggle to see their child grieving. And your children, depending on their developmental age, may act out or experience a number of emotions and the issues might be behavioural. They might not be doing as well in school or they might just sort of retreat and feel sad. They might need more or less time with their friends. So paying attention to what’s happening for my child and recognising they need to grieve in the same way that I am grieving this relationship. They’re also seeing division now in their home, in their parents. How is this going to work out? How are we going to be in two separate places? Like what does this mean? Allowing them to have their emotions without trying to fix that. Because in time, children are very resilient, They’ll work this out. It’ll start to make sense to them. And just allowing yourself to be there, to create a supportive place for them, answer their questions if they ask questions and with time and the right support, they’ll make it through.

Benjamin Bryant: Well, it seems the beautiful question met with a beautiful answer, Atina. And look, the most important thing, I think, you said was putting your differences aside. That is, if you can’t put your differences aside, you have to be very careful. Because what we know, of course, is that children are, like you said, very resilient. They can handle parents separating. They can handle new homes, new partners, new schools, things like that, new school buses, all those things. But they can’t handle parental conflict. So if you can’t put your differences aside, you have to be very, very careful because that’s how you can harm your children.

Dr Atina Manvelian: Exactly.

The importance of boundaries and how to set & keep them

Benjamin Bryant: One of the things that come up frequently in this podcast is the need for boundaries. Can you talk to us about the importance of boundaries and how to best go about setting them?

Dr Atina Manvelian: Ah yes the famous topic of boundaries. Important in so many areas of our lives, but especially as a relationship ends. There’s a number of boundaries that you may need to set into place. First and foremost, I think when it comes to boundaries, thinking about what you need is important. What do I need in order to be able to heal? What do I need? What do my children need? What boundaries should I put into place? is sort of the first question that I think many people need to ask themselves. But I think where people struggle with boundaries is actually maintaining those boundaries after they’ve decided to set them. And sometimes what happens, depending on who our ex is and what they’re like, we might set a boundary of some kind, whether for ourselves or for our children, and they don’t like it. They’re upset. They’re threatening you or saying all sorts of things. And planning for that is important. How are you going to handle if someone gets upset with you setting a boundary and how are you going to maintain that boundary? Are there people in your life who can help enforce that? These are some of the things you want to think about.

Benjamin Bryant: And Heather. I know you’ve helped empower some people over the years. Any advice of how to set boundaries and keep them?

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, I think the sort of checklist that family lawyers do at time of separation are things like physical boundaries. So how do we get them into two houses and starting to respect that they’re not going to walk into each other’s house willy nilly. Then we look at financial boundaries. So we separate joint accounts. We get them both with a budget in their own household, so they’re not financially having to interact with each other on a daily basis. And then we get to the harder questions. How do we parent with boundaries? So what we’re told by a Atina’s profession is one of the big mistakes with adolescents whose parents separate is, when adolescents test boundaries parents have got to have a unified front. No, you’re 14 and you’re not going to go to Sydney unaccompanied to see that rock band and come back on Monday and go to school. What happens in my experience is when people separate, they think that the problems they’re having with the adolescent are to do with the separation. So it’s really important that you don’t mix the two things up. You’ve got to parent adolescence, whether you’re in an intact family or a separated family with pretty strong rules and you’ve got to pull together. So that would be a big tip. Be very careful at mixing the two up and get help. My experience is adolescents particularly are really good at testing boundaries if their parents separate and they play off each other, particularly for things like financial reward. And so if there’s one tip, try and pull together with teenagers because they’re the ones that really start to get into trouble if Mum and Dad start pulling against each other and don’t enforce the same boundaries.

Dr Atina Manvelian: I love what you said there, Heather. And if I could just add to what you’re saying here. There are so many people that I think could benefit from coming to couple therapy, even as they’re separating, to work these things out, to figure out how do we stay a unified front when it comes to parenting and when it comes to setting boundaries. And so many people will say, well, why would we do couples therapy? We’re not trying to stay together. And I think therapy doesn’t necessarily have to mean making a marriage work. It could also mean how do we end this in a way where we can now co-parent and coexist and be there for our children? Because you’re absolutely right. You still need that unified front to be able to maintain and enforce those boundaries over time for the kids.

Benjamin Bryant: And learning to see the other the other party as a parent, not a partner.

Dr Atina Manvelian: Yeah.

Top three tips for a successful separation

Benjamin Bryant: And I think you’ve given a lot of advice. And as you said, it’s very difficult in the circumstances. It all depends. But could you give me three top tips for making separation work?

Dr Atina Manvelian: Ooh, three top tips. That’s a tough one. I think first and foremost, you got to love yourself through this. You got to love yourself. There are so many negative thoughts that might come up for you. Like, did we fail our kids? And, am I really good enough? And why was I cheated on or am I unlovable? Why am I going through this? I think really working on challenging some of those thoughts, holding yourself with compassion, understanding that just because you’re getting divorced, it doesn’t mean that you failed. It means that you’ve had a wonderful marriage for X number of years and maybe things just didn’t work out the way you wanted them to. It’s a very normal process. So really pausing to interrupt that negative thinking pattern, I think can be really important for you. So, yeah, loving yourself, being compassionate is the first tip.

Dr Atina Manvelian: I think second, use this as an opportunity to improve yourself. Can you take this painful situation and the struggles that you are going to inevitably face to really say, how do I want to handle this and can I come out on the other side, having grown in some way? Maybe this is the impetus to finally go and work on your own healing in therapy. Maybe you also think about therapy for your children at some point, if you feel that’s necessary. How do you turn this around and work on yourself, improve yourself? Maybe this is when you start focusing on your health because you’re not so focused on your partner and how things are going wrong in the marriage. So what I’ve seen is that a lot of people can come out on the other side and can really grow from these experiences as painful as they are. That this too shall pass and that you can make it through.

Dr Atina Manvelian: And I think the third point would probably be, you can’t go through this alone. You can, but it will be very, very painful. And you don’t have to go through this alone. To reach out, even in your times of need, even when you find it difficult to communicate what you’re feeling. Reach out to family and friends for support, and don’t shy away from reaching out to a therapist for some professional help. We’re here for you. We’ve dealt with these situations before. And we can help you get through and reach the other side.

Benjamin Bryant: And like you said before Atina, your new solo life might not be as solo as what you think.

Dr Atina Manvelian: Beautifully said.

Goodby for now…

Benjamin Bryant: Well, thank you so much for your time and sharing your wisdom today.

Dr Atina Manvelian: Thank you so much for having me.

Benjamin Bryant: I can’t wait to share this episode with our clients and even some of our past clients. Heather, what do you think?

Heather McKinnon: Oh, look, I wish we could get Atina on Medicare in Australia because I’d love to refer clients to her. That was really good and just done with such grace and wisdom. Thank you very much.

Benjamin Bryant: Well said, Heather. Next month we’re going to talk about parenting and property disputes when same-sex relationships break down. Heather and I will be here as usual to talk about the legal side of things. And we will be joined by Dr. Catherine Boland, clinical psychologist and principal of Relationspace, a Sydney-based centre of excellence in helping to build relationships and cope with relationship change. If you have any questions at all related to relationship breakdown, separation, or divorce, particularly as it relates to same-sex relationships, please send them to familymatters@bryantmckinnon.com.au or message us on Facebook and we’ll do our best to answer your questions on our next episode. We’ll put a link to Atina’s website and any other resources mentioned in today’s show and a full transcript in the show notes on our website. And don’t forget, please share this show with family and friends who may benefit. We hope to have your ears again next month.

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