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Listen: How to tell your partner you want to separate

Telling your partner that you want to separate is a daunting prospect. Doing it wrong could have consequences like escalating conflict, creating unnecessary hurt for those around you and, in extreme circumstances, it could be dangerous. Preparing yourself to tell your spouse the right way can set the tone for a low-conflict separation from day one.

In this episode, we speak to our Senior Separation Consultant, Arabella Feltham, about:

  • safety as your number one consideration
  • discussing separation if moving out isn’t an option
  • the right moment to bring up separation
  • having a support person present
  • what to consider if you have children
  • how to prepare yourself
  • the words to use to avoid escalation
  • how to approach a trial separation
  • emotional reactions to expect from your partner and yourself.

You can find out about the Separation Support sessions mentioned in the podcast here.

Please subscribe for episodes about all aspects of separation and divorce in Australia.

If you know someone who will find this podcast helpful, please share.
The Separation Guide aims to make separation and divorce simpler, more manageable and less stressful. To find out more about how one of our Network Members could support your separation, take our free 3-minute Q&A.

Kate Russell

Separation and divorce is such a difficult decision to make. It can be even more difficult to tell your partner that you want to separate. Welcome to The Separation Guide podcast. I’m Kate Russell, and in this episode, I’ll be finding out about having “the discussion.”

As the song says, “breaking up is hard to do.” But how do you tell your partner that you’d like to separate from them in the best way possible? And how do you do it safely? How can you get ready to break the news, and when is the best time to raise the conversation? What are the extra considerations around this conversation when you have children together? What possible reactions might you prepare for from your partner? How should you approach the prospect of a trial separation? And how can you set the tone for a lower-conflict, de-escalated separation, right from the first discussion?

To help talk answer these questions, my guest today is Arabella Feltham. Arabella is a Senior Separation Consultant at The Separation Guide. She’s spoken to hundreds of people and couples going through separation and divorce to help them understand how the whole process in Australia works and guide them on their next practical steps. Arabella also works very closely with our Network of legal, financial and well-being professionals and helps connect her clients to the right professionals at the right time.

I asked Arabella to explain a little more about her role in helping people going through separation.

Arabella Feltham

So what I am, essentially, as a communicator and a connector, I try to take the nuance and the unknowns of separation and divorce and apply it to people’s situations to help them create an action plan which will give them direction throughout this process. What I’m not though is a solicitor or a lawyer, a financial advisor or a counsellor. So what I would never say to people that approach me or book sessions with me is you’ll definitely get 50% of a particular asset or this is definitely how the circumstances of your separation will play out. That’s what I won’t do.

But what I will do and what I have done is spoken to hundreds and hundreds of people over the last few years that are experiencing separation and divorce, that know that separation and divorce is in their journey and in their future and helped them to create that next step to give them some comfort in this process.

Kate Russell

You speak to men and women, what do you find is the split between genders or ages of the people that you speak to?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, I do speak to both men and women. I don’t find that there’s that bigger divide between either men or women approaching me. I wouldn’t say that there’s a higher percentage of either, but what I would say is that men and women approach me, typically, at different stages of their separation. So I often find that I’m speaking to women who have not yet had the conversation about separation and are trying to understand how to do that safely and what their next thoughts should be.

And I find that I often speak to men immediately after that separation conversation has happened sometimes within the same week and they’re trying to understand what the next stage is going to look like and the language to use with their now former partner to stay on a de-escalated pathway.

Kate Russell

If you speak to people prior to separation, what do you find? I know you don’t speak to as many men, but what are some of the worries men have about separating, perhaps, versus what women worry about and what might hold them back from separating?

Arabella Feltham

Yes, really great question. Although everyone, if they are parents that are approaching me, everyone always has the first thoughts of their children. I do find typically men are more concerned with what is going to happen to their parental rights after a separation. And I do find that that is one of the topics that holds them back from separating from their partner, because everyone has watched those horrible American TV shows and they’re very fearful of becoming that Disney dad and that’s not what they want and that’s not what we want. We want them to have fair and meaningful relationships with their children, and that’s what they want. And that’s often why they’re approaching me.

And on the other side of that, whilst children are obviously at the forefront of mothers’ minds, they are typically more concerned with what’s going to happen to their immediate financial situation. This is particularly evident with clients who have maybe not managed to reenter the workforce or have only partially reentered the workforce. They’re very concerned about how they are going to be able to fund not only their separation, but their life now that they will be separated or a single-income household.

Kate Russell

So how often do you find you’re actually talking to someone who hasn’t spoken to their own partner about separation yet?

Arabella Feltham

Quite often. So I often find that people can either book into my diary as a single session or they can book in for three sessions. And I very often find that when I’m looking at a session where someone has booked three with me, I’m often having that first session around how to have the conversation safely and what language to use and what to talk to them about. So I would say quite often I’m working with people throughout their separation process.

Kate Russell

The cost of living pressures are having a massive impact, irrespective of whether you’ve been a primary caregiver or not. And I know that our data has shown an increase in people who are wondering how they are going to fund their divorce and wondering how they could afford to separate. Do you think that that should be a blocker for someone actually separating? Like if you can’t afford to move out, what are your options?

Arabella Feltham

It doesn’t have to be a blocker as you said. We have seen in our data that more and more people are separating and living together amicably under the same roof. The biggest thing I would say to anyone approaching me is that safety is the most important thing.

So there’s a difference between things being a little bit tense in the household and things being dangerous in the household, post that separation conversation. So if you know that there are no danger concerns, things will just be a bit tense, a bit awkward as you find out your new norm, then having that separation conversation and living together under the same roof because maybe living with a friend or a parent isn’t appropriate for your situation, you absolutely can live together under the same roof and still be separated.

The other common thing we see that couples do in this is they bird nest. So if they are able to have a rental or be with different friends or different family members and keep that one family home as the unit where the children live, then they can jump in and out of that and bird nest for a period of time while the new normal settles in.

Kate Russell

Okay, so you mentioned there about safety, Arabella. I just wondered if that is something people need to consider before they separate.

Arabella Feltham

It’s the very first thing that people need to consider when they are separating. Safety is of the utmost importance during this entire conversation. And if you are in a family violence situation, if you know that things will not go well and will be dangerous during this conversation, then I definitely 100% recommend that you reach out to 1800 RESPECT. That’s 1800-737-732, 1 800 RESPECT. They will help you create an exit plan and an exit strategy and they’ll help you understand how to manipulate a safe environment to have that conversation.

Kate Russell

So what I’d like to focus on is breaking the news, I suppose, that you intend to separate with them and perhaps we can talk about that for people who are not in an unsafe position. So, going forward, these are people who know that they can have this conversation without fearing for their own safety.

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, sure. So just to touch on that ever so briefly, we’ve just covered the dangerous component of it. So if the conversation is going to be dangerous, there are two other elements that I break categories into, when things are a bit tense. I define them as nasty and tense. Things are obviously going to be a bit tense between the two of you, but when things are going to get nasty, so shouting at, or name-calling, none of that. Whilst it might not be a physically dangerous situation or anything like that, that’s still not an okay environment to be in.

So whilst you might still contact 1800 RESPECT, it’s important in that instance to investigate the potential for a support person to be there with you. Now, they don’t say anything, they don’t do anything but the presence of a support person can just de-escalate the situation and just make people sense, check themselves a little bit. So even if the situation isn’t dangerous-dangerous, it’s just going to be a bit nasty, I would definitely recommend you consider a support person.

Kate Russell

That’s a great suggestion. And look, it leads into my next question, which was going to be, when should I tell my partner? Like, wait till I’ve had enough, till I’ve hit the final straw? Or should I, if I want a support person to actually really plan this event?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, definitely. So we would definitely recommend that this be a planned conversation, which isn’t always the easiest. Now, nobody knows your partner quite like you, so it’s a very difficult one for us to help people script, essentially. But picking that right moment can be really difficult. But there are some important reasons of why we tell people to plan and not just wait for that one moment that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back and you can’t take it anymore and you end up in this big moment of “it’s over.” And the two reasons are very simple.

One, unnecessary or accidental escalation. We want to be as calm and as de-escalated throughout this entire process as possible. It is escalation that will cause you both more cost, more time and more stress. And that’s what we don’t want for you and your family.

The other thing, and this one is really important to me, is accidental audiences. So we don’t want any little ears hearing these conversations and hearing that we want to really control the narrative with children and we don’t want them to be a part of this. Separation and divorce is an adult issue, so we need to protect our little ones throughout this journey.

Kate Russell

You talked about children there, Arabella, and I think it’s a really good time to talk about what kind of things we can do to plan. We’ve talked about support person, but what if you do have kids? How could you arrange to have that conversation in a way that is going to be safe for you, safe for them, de escalated.

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, definitely. So for the children in mind, if you do have children and you are planning to have that separation or that divorce conversation with your partner, have your children go on a sleepover. Now, not a playdate. I want to make that really clear. It’s my recommendation that this is a sleepover, these conversations can take time and we don’t want to start the conversation at 1:00 p.m. And know that the bus is dropping the kids off at three. And we’ve got 2 hours to try to hash this out with each other and communicate our message of what’s going to happen. So really send them on a safe sleepover with friends or family. That way they’re out of earshot of anything that gets said. And also the two of you can just have some time together to talk this through.

Kate Russell

And when I’m planning 1s to have that discussion, should I actually practice what I’m going to say? 1s Should I just rehearse my words?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, definitely, I would. That is me. Now, this is a very personal, very personal choice. People maybe are very good at shooting from the hip. Some, though, and I would say most of my clients and most people that speak to me, they practise and we talk about the types of language to use in that conversation. And I definitely don’t recommend that this be the first time you’ve told a non-stranger, and I am a stranger, so there’s a little less emotion when people are telling me that they’re separating, that these are the first time they’re using those words of separation, divorce, the marriage isn’t working. I’m not happy. That’s not the time for those to be the first words that your former partner hears. That your partner hears.

Kate Russell

When you’ve actually said those words and they’ve come out of your mouth, what are some of the kind of reactions that might come up, or even ones that you might not quite expect to come up?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, every emotion under the sun has, in my experience, come up in some form with clients that I’ve worked with throughout this conversation. So the most common ones that I think people can estimate is going to happen is anger or denial. You know. “No, this absolutely isn’t going to happen. We can save this. No, it’s not.” Really angry. “Why would you do this?” We find a lot of strong language gets used here, so a lot of betrayal or tearing apart the family.

It’s important to understand, and I always say this to people I’m working with, is things get said in this conversation because tensions are high and emotions are high, all we can do is control ourselves. And that’s why practising the language, making sure that we’re calm, have a support person there if we need, have a plan to exit the situation if we need. And that’s why all of that is so important to de-escalating the situation.

But the other one that sometimes throws people is agreement. Sometimes when you walk in to have the conversation and your partner says, “yeah, I think the marriage has been over for a number of years,” that can be confronting, almost sometimes offensive to hear, you know, I was the one that was thinking this and that’s sometimes difficult to work through that emotion in the moment when you weren’t expecting it. So I do say to people, just plan for it, just in case. How do you think they’re going to react? And they’re going to react, and you may want to leave. They may want to leave. So plan for that.

And then the other one that I see quite often is the immediate suspicion of infidelity. It is easier for them to imagine that the reason that the relationship or the marriage has broken down is because of a third party, not because of anything the two of you have done wrong.

And this comes back to when people make those strong language statements of, “you’re going to take my children away, you’re going to take me for everything I’m worth and you’re seeing someone else.”

It’s important to be calm and say, no, that’s not the case. But I try to help people understand. You won’t convince them in that conversation. You won’t convince them of that their fears are unfounded, that the finances won’t be split unfairly. That will come with time. By showing them, by showing them through your actions, that you have meaningful relationships with the children and a fair split of parenting, that you’re not just taking five to ten to $50,000 out of accounts or putting houses on the market without talking to anybody. It will come with time. Don’t focus on those language pieces. Don’t focus on those bold statements. Just deny them and try to move the conversation back to, so what’s going to happen next?

Kate Russell

And you mentioned that there may be some reactions of denial. “This isn’t over. No. I’ve got to try again. I’m going to try harder.” What if your spouse says things like that or they want to keep trying, or they suggest a trial separation? Is that something you should entertain with them or something you could suggest just to make that transition easier?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah. So the biggest thing here is trusting your gut. If you know that the marriage or the relationship is over and that you want to separate and there’s no trial separation or marriage counselling, that can change that mindset that you have and you know, in your gut and in your soul, I just want to have a clean break and if nothing else in this conversation, I want you to understand that this is done, then stick to that and be strong in that moment.

If in any way, shape or form you are tossing up between a trial separation or making this that clean card, I would definitely recommend that the couple consider marriage counselling. Because in that instance, either they work on the things and they have an even playing field in a room that they can speak fairly and plainly with each other about what wasn’t working. And maybe there is room to save the marriage if that’s what it wants, or maybe it does open that door to help you transition into that separation. And it’s not necessarily that clean cut, but very much trust your gut and go with what feels right and what you want to do.

Kate Russell

But don’t suggest something that you don’t feel like, don’t maybe open the door to something if you’re definitely closing that door?

Arabella Feltham

I wouldn’t recommend it. Now, I’m not a counselor, so I’m not going to apply formal advice to this situation. What I will do is say that I do have a set of clients that I am working at the minute. And we did look at a trial separation, and that very much was to soften the blow. Unfortunately, it has created a bit of an escalation situation in their circumstances. Now, not to say it would in anyone else’s, but if, you know, you want that clean cut, I don’t see it making it a smoother. It’s going to be a tough conversation for both of you. This isn’t going to be easy, and sometimes you do just need that divide to help you both move on.

Kate Russell

In talking about a trial separation, do you think it’s a good idea for people to set boundaries or measurable goals about what that trial is going to look like and what might signal when they might come out of a trial instead of opening a door to just this endless, endless limbo situation.

Arabella Feltham

Definitely. So the biggest thing here is you don’t know what you don’t know. And if you are going to consider a trial separation, a trial separation should only be activated essentially with the support of marriage counselling because something was breaking down in the marriage or the relationship in the first place, whether it be communication or anything of what was not helping you have that healthy relationship with each other. That won’t change just because you’ve enacted a trial separation. You now need support to help you both understand why separation was even opened or considered by one or both of the parties.

Kate Russell

Yeah. And I suppose when people live apart, often those triggers and those reasons that made them upset, made them frustrated, made them want to leave, the relationship might be removed, suddenly everything seems great. But without that professional help, you’re not really seeing the base reasons for it.

Arabella Feltham

Exactly. That’s exactly it.

Kate Russell

So when I’m going into this conversation so I’ve decided, I guess I’m going to tell them I’ve made a plan, kids are out of the house, I’m clear on my intentions about whether it’s a trial or not, so I’ve got all those ideas, Should I also have planned everything that might come after? So going into this with a clear plan so I can show my partner that I’ve prepared and I’ve crossed everything off?

Arabella Feltham

Yes. That’s a really great question. So I think there’s a big difference between an immediate plan and that long-term plan. An immediate plan. Perfect. Understand what’s going to happen – are you both going to stay in the house that evening when what’s going to immediately happened with the children? All of that is fine.

Definitely, it is not my recommendation that you take a long-term plan, don’t walk into it and say, yes, I’ve decided we’re separating and I think it’s in our best interest to sell the house and have the kids 50-50 and take XYZ out of our bank accounts and split up. Don’t do that.

OK. So in the separation conversation, often one party, the responder to the conversation itself, already feels out of control. So now showing them that you’ve planned everything out of how not only the separation is going to work, but how their future lives are going to work, makes them feel even less in control of their life, of this journey, of the situation. And that is what can create that unnecessary escalation.

It’s not important to show them that you’ve thought this through and look at all the different avenues and the decisions that you’ve already made for them, it’s about communicating that the relationship is at an end and you will have lots of time to go back and forth and negotiate the new normal of what your separation and your future lives will look like.

Kate Russell

And you talked about a short-term plan about leaving the house. Do you suggest that?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, look, it’s completely circumstantial. So if, you know, you need some time away and if you’re able to do this, then great. Contact your support person, contact a friend, contact a family member. And look, can I stay in a spare room or cross a couch, crash for a little bit just to have some clarity? And I think for my parents, this is really great. So you’ve put the children safely away at a sleepover. You need to give yourself some adult time to just process the conversation and process those emotions that you’ve felt, because even though you are the initiator of the conversation, you haven’t got it all sorted out just yet. I can assure you. I can assure you, there’s emotions that will bubble up. It’s a sad, frustrating, difficult time. Feel those emotions, because if you don’t feel them earlier and they bubble up to the surface later, again, that’s when we look at these unnecessary escalations.

Kate Russell

So there’s that mental preparation people need to go through and to anticipate that even though they might have really made that decision and come to a point of acceptance that the relationship is over, those emotional feelings and thoughts are not just going to disappear.

Arabella Feltham

No, definitely not. And one of the ways that I tell people to prep for the conversation and get it all into their own minds of how they feel is to write it down. I know keeping a diary or keeping a journal or putting a pen to paper is a bit of an archaic old way of doing things, but it really does help.

Kate Russell

Maybe not an Instagram post.

Arabella Feltham

Maybe not an Instagram post. Definitely. That’s a good one. Stay off social media throughout this journey. It doesn’t help anybody. And everyone has an opinion about your separation. The most important ones that matter are yours and your partner’s.

Kate Russell

And what about your children? If you have children, what about them? When do they need to know about the situation?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, very personal question, very circumstantial. The most important thing I would say is that the two of you need to be on the same page with the narrative that you want the children to understand. And this is really important so that we avoid any outbursts or potential bad language choices when talking about our former partners or former spouses with the children. It’s really important to have clear guidelines of what the children will know about the separation. And it’s that they are very loved by both parties. They will continue to be very loved and they will continue to have both parents, and they continue to have a family, but their family looks a little bit different. Being on the same page is more important than when you necessarily tell them.

Kate Russell

And being on the same page that you and your partner are ready to tell them.

Arabella Feltham

Exactly. Obviously, if Mummy or Daddy is not in the house and they return, there needs to be some form of communication with them. But again, ensuring that you are on the same page with that and what they get told is really important because we know, we’ve seen with evidence, we know psychologists have looked at the data and looked at this, and we know that it’s not the separation or the divorce that specifically causes the trauma for children. It’s the fighting in between the parents. So it’s really important that we control ourselves, our emotion, keep this as an adult issue, and control the narrative with the kids just to make them feel really loved and that they have a family.

Kate Russell

So after you’ve had the conversation with your partner, and you want to move forward and you want to take the next step in your separation, what’s your role, Arabella, in helping people get their partner to the next level?

Arabella Feltham

Yeah, this is something that’s a great question. This is something I work with clients on all the time, whether it be men or women. They are trying to choose the right language to de-escalate the situation. Very often people have had the conversation and then are working with me maybe a week or so later. So tensions are still a little high, the new normal hasn’t really set in, people’s fears are still at a real high and picking the right language is really important here.

So I find a lot of people come to me to help them with that very next email on how to make tracks in terms of formalising some sort of agreement between each other. Whether it be just a slightly more formal parenting arrangement that makes parenting more fair between them or slightly maybe for a financial reason, we need to look at a more formal financial agreement between the two of them or just start that conversation rolling with each other.

So I find people come to me there and we construct an email together that we can send to them and very often my language is quite similar throughout no matter what client I’m working with and that’s we want to do what’s fair, we don’t know what fair looks like. Many people think that by working with me they’ve engaged a solicitor. That’s not the case. I am confidential and I’m completely impartial between the two of you. I’m here to just point you both in the right direction and talk you through all of the things that can happen and the things that will happen.

And it’s important that like I said earlier, you’re not going to convince them of something in that conversation. Sometimes post the separation conversation, being presented with an option such as mediation or Guided Separation or maybe even a DIY pack, although that’s not my recommendation.
For most people it feels as though the former partner often feels that they’re being manipulated into something, something that’s going to work better for that other party than them and that’s not the case. All the recommendations we make to people, we make it from that impartial and that fairness background. And that’s often why I like to confidentially speak with both parties separately to just truly assess what’s going on and what they want, what are their needs and goals and help to convey those messages to them that they’re not going to listen if their former partner says it.

Kate Russell

And having both people involved in a conversation with someone like you or when you’re going to that next stage to reach a separation settlement, say with a mediator that both people feel in control of the situation and that they’re not being led down a path they might not want to go on.

Arabella Feltham

Absolutely. Fairness is the word of the day. It’s the name of the game. It is everything that we are going to focus on with both parties. It’s the only thing that gets brought into any type of mediation or Guided Separation. It’s the most important thing because if we can construct a fair arrangement between the parties, they will be meaningful parents and they will end up with a fair financial arrangement that will allow them to re-establish.

Kate Russell

That was Arabella Feltham, Senior Separation Consultant here at The Separation Guide. As Arabella said, she speaks to people at all stages of separation and divorce to provide an impartial view on things and can give you your next practical step. As a confidential and unbiased support person, she’s able to speak to both parties in a separation, and separating couples often find it helpful to book a chat each so they hear the same information first-hand. The link to find out more about her sessions in the show notes.

If you’d like to learn more about your options in separation, or you want to be put in touch with professionals to help guide you through, please go to theseparationguide.com.au and complete our 3-minute interactive Q&A, or check out our other podcasts and blogs. If you’ve found the information today useful, please subscribe, share and leave us a review. It’s a great way to help our podcast reach others going through separation.

In the spirit of reconciliation, The Separation Guide acknowledges the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.