"We have separated." What do we reply to this sentence? At most, some still get a "but I’m sorry", although a separation is not a death and no disease. But what else can you say?
While separations are very common, the number of divorces has increased sharply in the last 40 years, and nearly half of all married people get divorced. Nevertheless, we as a society do not deal with it openly and often enough still treat the breakup of a partnership like a failure – or prefer to keep quiet about it altogether.
We want to break this silence. The next time someone tells you about a breakup, please don’t say "I’m sorry" because this will only reinforce the feeling of "failure. Rather say: "Would you like to tell about it, or would you rather not??" And then inquire again soon about the well-being of the family. Who knows, maybe your acquaintance or colleague also felt the separation as a liberation. Still it is never easy. But talking about it always helps.
The following individual experience reports are naturally one-sided – they give a subjective perspective on a common history, on which there is of course also another point of view.
"Once the first step has been taken, completely new paths reveal themselves"
Nina, 39, two children (ages 4 and 7), works a 60 percent job, has been living separately for a little over a year, and shares practically half of the care of the children with their father.
When did you know that you will separate?
There was no key moment in that sense, but the indications increased. This was a slow, gradual process over two years. There were always good and hopeful times, then disappointment and disillusionment followed again. The thought of a separation was at first a fleeting one, which touched me briefly, but immediately flew away again as unrealistic and unwanted. But he came back and stayed longer. He became more concrete, more realistic. It lost shock and sadness, even promised relief, relaxation. At some point during this time I think my decision was made. Even if my ex-partner would have wanted it, he probably couldn’t have changed it anymore. In me this intention had ripened like a fruit that now wanted to be harvested. Moving to a bigger apartment and couples therapy were the last sparks of hope in our relationship. When my ex-partner broke off the therapy after only a few sessions and there was also no other commitment to change, it was "only" the few words that had to be said.
What helped you most?
Couples therapy in any case. Without the willingness of both partners to work on the relationship and themselves, even the best therapy can’t save a partnership. But even so, it was conclusive for me, even if it was brief.
Coaching sessions on how to perceive, strengthen and assert my own needs have helped me personally. Time for myself (vacations in a monastery), a place of retreat (the empty apartment of a friend, the attic of a neighbor), to "learn" to be alone again, but also to realize that I can still do it, and that it feels right and also still good. Trips, vacations, weekends alone with the children. So to speak as a "dry run" for the future. Many conversations with understanding and above all patient people. People who have known me for a long time and whose honesty I am sure of. Time, time, time, courage, trust and openness for what comes next.
What was the most difficult?
The fears and insecurities of living alone (and) with children, but without a partner, the existential worries of building a completely new life, looking for a new apartment, what other people would think and say about me, etc. Just the thought of it blocked me for a long time. To overcome this hurdle was very difficult. In retrospect, however, it turned out to be easier than feared. Once the first step has been taken, once the hurdle has been jumped, completely new paths reveal themselves.
What surprised you?
The separation from my partner is also a separation from the children. You have to be aware of that. Actually, you only want to separate from your partner, but you also cut a part of the connection to the children. There are days you don’t see your children, you don’t know if they had a nice day, you don’t know if they are healthy, what they have experienced, what they have learned. You can call, but in doing so you have to feel and accept that they now live in the "father world" to which you do not belong. When you see her again, what you have experienced is in the past. The moment is lived and will not come back again. The feeling of not being there, the loss of the children – I underestimated that. The longing and the desire to separate were greater. Inevitably I have a guilty conscience, again and again. What surprised me was the silence of some, not close, but still collegially connected people. No inquiries, no sympathy, no gesture of compassion, as if they were uncomfortable bringing up the subject – until today.
"In the meantime, life and everyday life are more coherent for both of us than before the separation"
Karin Hanzi (44); two children (9 and 5 years old); separated since October 2019, divorced since January 2021; in a new relationship since June 2020; workload between 60 and 80 %, depending on the order situation; shared custody with care split in half for two weeks at a time (fixed paedo/mom weekdays, alternating weekends).
When did you know you were going to break up??
It had been clear for some time that we were caught up in numerous patterns and a handful of different views. The last year and a half our life together was a back and forth between "it can’t go on like this" and "aues henne guet u schon". Whenever we thought we had turned the corner, the next big storm came around the corner. Until sometime in September 2019 that dispute broke out from the fence, after which there was no turning back for me. After that, for me, it was just a matter of getting a reasonably clear head to actually be able to go through with it.
What helped you the most?
I had booked a surf and yoga week in Portugal for October 2019 just under a year before the breakup. What should have been a retreat with my business partner was in the end the week in which I was able to take a step back and get a running start in order to turn our life upside down back at home. Besides the backing and support of my dearest people, the clarity I was able to take away from this week was the most important thing for me at that moment. In dealing with the children, I found appropriate books from the library and honest communication the most helpful. Now again, quasi in the aftermath, I am grateful for my therapist. On the one hand, one or the other pattern has already fallen victim to our conversations, on the other hand, it lets me understand little by little how our marriage could have come so far in the first place.
What was the most difficult thing?
The divorce at the beginning of this year was amicable, but the separation was only from me. Living under the same roof for five more months like this has pushed us to our limits at times. A lot of emotions, a lot of slights, a lot of reproaches. The spatial separation in March 2020 was therefore a great relief and has eased many things. In the meantime, most of our interactions are businesslike, often even very friendly. Maybe also because life and everyday life are now more coherent for both of us than before the separation.
What surprised you?
Before the separation: How firmly and how long one holds back oneself with objections such as "but the money, but the children" against better knowledge, i.e. how much this is in our blood through corresponding socialization, although we should actually know better. Staying together for the sake of the children is not something that helps them let alone does them any good. The money, on the other hand, was much less of a factor than we had feared. However, we have always each provided for our own living expenses and handled joint expenses such as shopping, taxes and childcare through a joint account. Compared to before, there are hardly any additional expenses, apart from the extra rental costs. In my case, the rent increase is reflected in a limited vacation budget, which I can live with just fine.
After the breakup: How much whispering and condemnation there still is today when the mother is the one to draw the line.
But also: how much I had lost myself in the years before the separation and how much I like myself now that I am myself again.
"A child is never putty, a child is an earthquake"
Sven (43), a freelance photographer and father of one child (11), is in a new relationship with a bonus child and shares the care of his son with his ex-partner, who is also a freelancer, whenever possible, but with the goal that the child spends equal time with both of them at the end of the year.
When did you know that you would separate??
For me, something earth-shattering had to happen before I realized that this relationship no longer stood a chance. The final straw came when my father was diagnosed with a tumor and my partner at the time told me at the same time that she had fallen in love again. I realized right away that I would not have the energy for it again. After the extremely short course of my father’s illness and death, I suddenly realized that I would now have to take care of my mother and this part of my family. If I am honest, I should have separated much earlier. I was the eternal optimist and always thought we would get through this. I also had the feeling for a long time that I wanted to "stand my ground" and take on my responsibility as a father and partner. The death of my own father has also relieved me of this responsibility to a certain extent. Even though it was incredibly sad: From the moment he was no longer there, I realized what it really means to take responsibility: to be there for my mother, to be there for my son. The other – artificially keeping alive a souring relationship in which we are both unhappy was misunderstood responsibility.
What helped you the most?
Talking to friends has always helped me a lot, even if it was sometimes painful, because some of them didn’t understand for a long time what was still keeping me with this woman. Also the visit to a friend of mine, who has mediumistic abilities, was very helpful. This sounds quite esoteric now, but I knew that this way I would better reach my partner, who is very open to such issues. There I learned to ground myself and to find myself. I also worked hard on my anger after the breakup. I reached my limits in the relationship several times. I had not known this side of myself at all – apart from boxing, which I do as a sport! That is why I went to a psychotherapist. In the process I worked through the whole story. That was extremely helpful. Also hearing for once that it’s ok to be angry and I’m not just wrong or aggressive as a man, but that’s how my overwhelm showed up. He also gave me guidance on what I could do if I were to find myself in such a situation again.
What was the most difficult thing?
To define the moment when it’s time to leave. Figuring out: When is enough? When you have a child together, there can be no fixed end to the relationship because the other parent’s relationship with the child always continues. That’s why the ending pulls extreme strings. I also told myself: You just have to grit your teeth! And as an eternal optimist, I also always thought that we would find a solution, that this was simply a crisis that we had to overcome. The hardest part in my opinion is to feel if it is still worth it to work together – or if maybe it is just too late, if too much is broken, if we have changed so much as people or just simply don’t fit together.
What surprised you?
The huge liberation I experienced when I had my own apartment again, with a room for my child. I could literally feel my spine stretching and I felt free and at peace with myself again. I was also looking forward to my time with my child, because it means everything to me – in contrast to my ex, whom I could have shot to the moon at that time. Living apart offers an incredible privilege, depending on the arrangement: when the child is with the partner, you really do have real child-free time. Really a lot of time for yourself! In a relationship, this can often lead to real fights and you feel bad when you demand it because you see all the work you leave your partner with. But of course, you only have that privilege when you share childcare. And you have to know: as liberating as the separation was for me, as stressful it was for our child, and that often hurt me too. That didn’t surprise me. But this discrepancy was sometimes hard to bear – me, who felt free again, and my son, who suffered from not having his two parents at the same time anymore.
What would you have liked to know beforehand??
I think that in our society we have no idea at all what it means to have a family – before we have it. That raising a family is first and foremost just work and there will be a lot of stress, that you have to build a team: In my opinion, this is not passed on enough. So I have made it a bit of a mission to share that privately as well. We should bury this over-romanticized image of the family – and instead prepare ourselves properly for it. Not by reading books, but by spending more time with families before we have kids of our own.
And last but not least, I always say: never make a child out of the thought that it could heal your relationship or connect you more strongly. A child is never cement, a child is an earthquake. Hairline cracks in the relationship become cracks because of a child, cracks become fissures, fissures become trenches. I realized this myself too late and then separated. The child can’t help it, but is the greatest gift that has grown out of this relationship – and yet it is precisely the child who feels the consequences the most.
In the coming weeks we are planning more posts on the topic of separation, especially including addresses and tips for good resources. What experiences have you had? What do you wish you had known before? Share your knowledge in the comments, we appreciate any suggestions.