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Beware Your Behavior in the Throes of Separation

There is a point in the break-up of a relationship where things may finally get out of hand.

If the relationship has been marked by domestic violence and the target of the violence initiates the separation, there is risk for a spike in the intensity or severity of the violence. This can make the difference between violence being hurtful to being dangerous. The perpetrator may feel like a grip on the other has been lost and escalates the violence to act out the associated anger or to reclaims the grip on the other. If your relationship has been marked by domestic violence, particularly of the controlling coercive type, then before triggering your separation, consider making a safety plan to facilitate the disclosure of your intent to separate and exit from your relationship.

In other cases although violence may not have been a feature of your relationship, in the throes of separation, tempers and upset can still flare. People can say mean things in their upset intentionally or unintentionally. One may feel compelled to slap the face of the other or hit and lash out. An object may be thrown; a door may be slammed. In this context, the behavior of the one acting out physically/violently in the moment can have this behavior used against them so as to suggest it was a common feature of the relationship and/or to influence the outcome in a child custody/access dispute.

A parent who has had undesirable behavior, not necessarily violent or who has had other issues such as problems with alcohol or extra-marital relationships can use the acting out of the other to obscure what may have been a long-standing issue on their part by pointing to the momentary lapse of the other. Despite the escalation of feelings, it is critical for separating couples to still maintain control of their behavior even when provoked, lest their lapse of control is used against them and obscures or distracts from others’ issues.

The delivery of the intent to separate should not be made with children anywhere near the parents having this discussion. More to the point, the children shouldn’t even be in the home if the discussion is taking place there. Your children will hear. Your children will try to listen in even when you think otherwise.

Children are reasonably curious about parental disputes and your children will be worried for you and themselves. Many children feel compelled to break up their parents’ dispute and help them reconcile. Many children feel responsible for the safety of their parents and the integrity of the parental relationship. Being present for the break-up can be frightening, overwhelming and emotionally traumatic and even more so if the child feels some sense of responsibility for making things better, whether or not they act on the feeling of responsibility. Further, if violence does erupt in the process of the parental break up, children can be accidentally hurt and injured. A parental break up is no place for a child.

After a discussion of separation has been had, then parents can decide on how best to inform the children. Caution must be taken to not have the child feel like one or other parent is at fault or bad or that the child has any duty to either parent to support or take sides.

Remember the lyrics of the Carpenters, “Breakin’ up is hard to do.”

While there may not be a best way to break up, there sure are many wrong ways to do so.

Before you do, give it some thought, speak with others and perhaps a professional. Keep it safe for yourself and your partner and especially for your children. Your children will have enough on their plates to worry about without having been exposed to the trauma of a separation fight.


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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
(905) 628-4847  


Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.


Call Gary for your next conference and for expert opinion on family matters. Services include counselling, mediation, assessment, assessment critiques and workshops.



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27 Sina Street, Georgina, ON, Canada L4P 3E9 Tel: (905) 628-4847 Email: gary@yoursocialworker.com