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Children pick up on undercurrents, says Annalisa Barbieri. Look at this as a new chapter, but be clear in agreeing boundaries
After 22 years together (half my life), my husband and I have decided to separate. We’ve had extensive therapy, we love each other and want the best for each other, but unfortunately, the romantic and intimate side of our marriage has died.
For now, we’re going to continue to live together to co-parent our son. At some point, my husband will start dating again. I think I’m OK with that, but I can’t imagine ever pursuing a romantic relationship for myself.
Since we decided to separate, I have been struggling with feelings of shame and guilt, especially regarding our young son who knows nothing of this yet. I am worried about how he will cope and how to tell him. I feel sad and frustrated with myself that I couldn’t manage to save our marriage. I am terrified of how I’m going to cope financially, as my husband is the main breadwinner. Rationally, I tell myself that our relationship is moving to a new phase. But I’m finding it hard not to worry about what people will think and how I might be judged.
Separating is really hard and stressful. It has become more commonplace, so people think it’s got easier. But it’s hugely destabilising and people often have to redefine themselves outside of their relationships. If you do know anyone who has successfully separated, it might be worth chatting with them to make you realise there is life after divorce.
It’s completely normal – but no less difficult – to feel as you do, so I’m not going to tell you not to. Instead, explore how you feel; don’t hide from it. It will be uncomfortable, but facing the fear will mean it dissipates faster than if you try to suppress it.
Relationship psychotherapist Sarah Calvert (cosrt.org.uk) pointed out that “you’re grieving, not only for the relationship but for all the plans you thought you had”. You also talked of multiple miscarriages in your original letter, and Calvert wondered if you’d ever dealt with the pain from those losses. If not, then this separation may also open up past wounds.
When it comes to your son, Calvert stressed that children “are very sensitive and will pick up on undercurrents, so it’s important that you explain to him what’s happening in an age‑appropriate way”.
You and your husband need to tell him together, and stress that he hasn’t done anything wrong and that you still love him.
Children often think things are their fault. “Remember you are modelling good relationships to your son and how you don’t need to settle and be in an unhappy relationship.” Stress that he can come back to you with questions.
“You’re blaming yourself a lot,” Calvert pointed out, “but you need to challenge your belief that you are [solely] to blame.” Both you and your husband need to take responsibility. If people react to your news with anything other than curiosity and sympathy, it may be that this information has triggered something for them. News of separation challenges people who are also in unhappy marriages but haven’t yet had your courage, and they may express that as judgment. But it is really themselves they are judging.
Calvert explained that “shame makes us want to hide away and withdraw. But I would advise reaching out to trusted friends because shame can become a destructive circle: the more you hide, the more you start to have negative thoughts, as there is no one to challenge them.”
It’s understandable that you are concerned about money. “It sounds,” Calvert said, “as if you are taking all the worries and worrying about them all together. But do you need to tackle them all at once? Can you be kind to yourself and just think, ‘What needs to be tackled today, or this week?’ Can you tell your husband you’re worried about money?”
I wasn’t sure if you and your husband continuing to live together was a good idea, especially if one or both of you start dating again (you say you don’t want to, but that may change). Will you tell each other? What will you tell your son? Some agreed boundaries are vital.
I think you are right to look at this as a new chapter, so allow yourself to dream a little as to what you’d like to achieve for yourself over the next few months. Think about what makes you feel good outside of the relationship. You need to build up that side of yourself because, as you say, for half your life you’ve been part of a couple.
• Send your problem to email@example.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
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