Coping with the trauma of divorce and separation

Inspired by Pedro Algorta’s Into The Mountains

The media enjoy branding January as ‘divorce month’.  Whether that is true or not, it certainly makes a sensational headline at the start of each New Year.  For me, it becomes an opportunity to reflect on those families and couples who will be heading ‘Into The Mountains’ this year (whether that happens to be in January or not).

Pedro Algorta’s recent book is the latest account of the famous plane crash in the Andes in December 1972.  It is the tale of his survival along with fifteen other fellow passengers; discovered after 70 days of living in extremely hostile conditions, without food and facing unimaginable adversity.

As Pedro’s brother asks him in the prologue, “hasn’t everything already been said about the subject?” Indeed a lot has already been said but it is a story that continues to resonate strongly in the collective consciousness. The difference with this new account is that Pedro had never spoken about his own experience in the Andes. For him, it was a private matter but after 40 years, he has now chosen to break his silence.  The angle and approach of his recollections are inevitably different from all the others because they come so long after the event.  This got me thinking about trauma, as well as post-traumatic stress. In particular, the immediate impact of such unexpected life events and how different ‘survival mechanisms’ will manifest in different people; but also, how the injuries and effects of traumatic experiences may only be seen or felt many years later. 

This theme is present from the outset of Pedro’s story.  In the prologue, he notices wounds on his friend’s calf.  On asking his friend whether he got the injuries through some kind of motorbike or car accident, his friend turns to him and says “no Pedro, I got them in the mountains”.  After all those years, something which Pedro considers should have been plainly obvious at the time, went completely unnoticed in the midst of the struggle to survive and the confusion of the rescue that eventually succeeded.  This brought to mind that if such scaring and physical suffering can be missed, then how easy would it for the emotional and psychological damage from other types of less ‘physical’ traumas, such as divorce, to go unnoticed/untreated.

Clearly, drawing parallels and analogies between such a unique historical event and divorce or relationship breakdown, has its limits. However, in the case of divorce, it remains very much one of those things that ‘happens to others’ and so when it happens, people are, for the most part, fundamentally unprepared; they will often suffer shock, emotions and struggles they have never really encountered before.

Many separating couples will often be responsible for the protection, welfare and emotional wellbeing of children, thus feeling the need to mask their own fears and sufferings to shield them.  In that sense, suddenly finding yourself in a terrifyingly hostile environment, with little clue of which ‘next-step’ to take next is not so far-fetched.  A divorce can be resolved in around 6 months but in most cases, where financial settlement is required, a year is a more realistic timeframe. Divorces can sometimes go on for several years, where the issues/disputes that arise are complex. The longer the delay, the greater the scope for anxiety, uncertainty and vulnerability to take over and become deeply entrenched in the neurological pathways of the brain, having long term effects on wellbeing.

Rayden Solicitors recently ran a highly successful child anxiety seminar ( ).  The firm were taken by surprise by the demand for tickets and eventually hired a theatre in St Albans, in order to cope with the demand.  Whilst the seminar was not aimed solely at anxiety caused by relationship breakdown, this was an acute reminder of the struggle numerous individuals face in understanding and tackling such emotional and psychological difficulties.

Solicitors are not usually trained counsellors and whilst it is our primary role to bore down into and resolve the legal issues at hand, the majority of family solicitors entered this area of the law with a wish to help and support families going through difficult personal times. For this reason, beyond providing reassurance that the legal steps necessary to secure a clients’ position and future are being taken, we will always look to providing holistic support through our knowledge of and access to specialist resources.

Inevitably, however, family lawyers do encounter a multitude of emotionally loaded issues on a daily basis and operate in an environment in which there is a real danger of becoming de-sensitised and ultimately going through the motions of the legal process.  ‘Divorce month’ should therefore also be a reminder to solicitors (and barristers) to keep our senses and minds open to how we might need to recommend further support to our clients, beyond the legal grappling (as fundamentally important as that is to getting our client back into a place of safety and stability).

The steps Pedro and other survivors had to take in order to survive were unimaginable, yet the relative ease in which this turned to normality and routine is palpable in the story. For me, the analogy with divorce, is not that people will do anything to survive or to “win” (albeit of course some people will go to extreme lengths to gain a perceived advantage over their former partners), but that the trauma and sense of vulnerability caused by divorce and separation can severely change people’s characters during the process, sometimes beyond recognition. 

I have more than once heard family solicitors talk about divorce and how they would themselves behave should they be faced with such a situation. The most common comment tends to be ‘I would never prevent my husband from seeing the children, he is their father’.  I have always thought to myself that no husband/father or wife/mother really knows, being faced with the predicament of divorce, where it would really take them.  They may also discover that their ‘survival mode’ takes them to places they had never imagined. 

In time, everyone will eventually make it off the mountain and whilst I would not wish to make-out that legal representatives are some kind of heroic characters, we are there to help with practically making that happen. Divorce month should, however, be the reminder for practitioners to look at the wide and varied holistic support we can and should recommend to clients during their life changing experience. As difficult as it may be, I also urge clients to talk to their legal representatives about any wider issues they or their families may be experiencing, for the best chance of receiving all the support they may require towards securing their future, whether it be legal or emotional.

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