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Tuesday 18 June 2019

How to avoid the fight club: breaking up without tearing each other apart

As Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's divorce case grows toxic, experts tell Katie Byrne the secret to breaking up without tearing each other apart

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

They split almost two years ago but the divorce battle between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is raging on as the former star couple try to get to grips with custody arrangements, child support and the distribution of assets.

Jolie allegedly wants to finalise the divorce by the end of this year, but sources say the pair have reached an impasse as relations between them have become increasingly hostile.

The actress recently denied rumours that her "ridiculously unreasonable" demands have driven her divorce attorney, Laura Wasser, to quit the case. Meanwhile, court documents filed last week allege that Pitt hasn't paid any "meaningful" child support for a year and a half. Jolie may want to wrap up this legal battle as soon as possible, but it looks like this very public divorce is going to drag on and on…

Acrimonious divorces are rife in Hollywood but it's important to note that not every split devolves into a toxic war of words.

Demi Moore and Bruce Willis still go on holidays together after divorcing 18 years ago, while Liz Hurley talks to her ex, Hugh Grant, every day. Gwyneth Paltrow says she and Chris Martin are closer than ever after their "conscious uncoupling" in 2014 and Courteney Cox still describes ex-husband David Arquette as her "best friend".

It just goes to show that congenial divorces are possible, but it also begs the question: why are some splits amicable while others are acrimonious? For counsellor Tony Moore of Talk Point Counselling, it comes down to communication. Couples that have amicable separations or divorces, he says, are usually the people who "have been able to sit down and communicate and understand each other's position that the marriage has come to an end".

Think of the kids: Brad and Angelina with their children
Think of the kids: Brad and Angelina with their children

The problem is that couples aren't always in agreement on this matter. "In my experience anyway, rarely does it happen that both people agree that the marriage is over at the same time," he explains.

"There is always one who wants to leave and the other who says, 'maybe we could save it'. So it takes a lot of understanding between both sides to sit down and listen and eventually reach acceptance that it is finished."

The cause of the break-up is equally important, adds Moore - especially if there has been some form of betrayal. "One party will be very emotional, very angry and very resentful, often seeing themselves as the victim," he says. "They feel 'Why should I be reasonable when my partner has been doing this, that or the other?'"

In this scenario, Moore says a "neutral individual who is trained to help people listen" is crucial. "You need a third person whose only agenda is to try to get people communicating about how they are going to manage the situation," he explains.

Moore says modern couples are more likely to work with relationship counsellors and mediators to help them navigate the emotional maelstrom of a separation. And since the Mediation Act came into effect at the beginning of this year, Irish solicitors must now advise their clients to consider mediation, and point out its advantages over litigation.

Skibbereen-based family law solicitor Helen Collins, author of A Short Guide to Divorce Law in Ireland, thinks it's a step in the right direction. She says the emotional component of separation can't be underestimated, which is why she only works with clients who are attending an accredited counsellor.

"It's important to recognise that separation and divorce is 80pc emotional and 20pc law," she says. "There are lawyers that would argue with me on that but even the most argumentative lawyer would have to accept that it is 60/70pc emotional and the rest is legal. And until lawyers understand that - and support their clients in that understanding - then you will end up with terribly difficult, acrimonious divorces."

Collins says she can tell when a client has stopped attending their counsellor because "all the really strong emotions start coming to the fore again". She can also tell when a client is taking advice from a family member, be it a sibling or a parent. "Generally, families are terrible advisors in this situation because they are coming with their fears on top of already existing fears. They might say, 'Don't let him see the children if he hasn't paid you money' or 'Don't pay her money if she hasn't let you see the children'."

In Collins' experience, the couples that have the least hostile separations are those that can clearly see there are two roads ahead.

"They see that there is one road where they are separating from their spouse but they also acknowledge that they are going to be co-parenting their children forever," she explains.

Moore is in agreement. "Couples need to sit down and say we, as adults, have both contributed to the situation but the innocent people are the children. And that really helps build bridges because they then see the other person as reasonable and helpful."

It also helps to remember that children are very intuitive when it comes to family dynamics, says dating and relationship coach, Annie Lavin. "So many couples tell me their children have no idea what is going on yet they describe arguments when children are in earshot," she says. "If you think children don't know what is going on when tensions may be high between you and your partner, think again."

Lavin recommends that couples sit down with the child/children and explain what's happening in age-appropriate language, while Moore often directs clients to co-parenting classes that are run by various organisations across Ireland.

Of course, the risk when prioritising children is that couples can suppress their own painful feelings about the separation.

Collins points out that divorce can be as devastating as bereavement, and she has noticed that the couples who have the most amicable separations are, by and large, those who "have an awareness that they are hurting".

"In Ireland we are brilliant at dealing with death," she says. "We are so supportive with friends, neighbours and family, but somehow we can't seem to join the dots and see that the same thing is happening with separation and divorce."

Lavin agrees that couples need to acknowledge the stages of grieving a break-up - denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance - whilst ensuring they are prioritising self-care. "Focus on getting a healthy amount of sleep and eating healthily," she says. "Avoid whatever your negative coping might be (alcohol, narcotics, overeating, etc) and identify some healthy behaviours such as getting out in nature for a walk or a run or joining a meditation class. And do at least one nice thing for yourself a day.

"If you treat yourself as well as you can," she adds, "it's possible that you will have more energy for other people in your life - including your ex and/or children."

5 things no one tells you about break-ups

Who gets what? The division of property is always tricky after a break-up but the real predicament is the king size mattress. Do you keep it, dump it or put it on DoneDeal?

Navigating social media: Breaking up is even harder to do when you're connected across various social media platforms. Experts recommend that couples block one another until the dust settles. Of course, that's easier said than done…

Bills, bills, bills: They say you're more likely to get divorced than change bank account. When you have to do both at the same time, be prepared to overlook at least one shared utility bill.

Blackboard jungle: Parent-teacher meetings in the midst of an acrimonious separation are yet another minefield. Experts recommend parents attend together, but what happens if you aren't seeing eye-to-eye?

Christmas blues: Most newly-separated couples struggle to cope with their first Christmas apart. It can also be a hot-button issue when it comes to custody arrangements - forewarned is forearmed.

Irish Independent

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