Relationship breakdowns: the male experience

Divorce|May 8th 2017

This week film star Brad Pitt spoke to GQ magazine about his recent split from Angelina Jolie and how difficult it has been for him to cope with the emotional trauma of relationship breakdown. His interview follows a recent trend in men talking openly about difficult patches in their life and dealing with the mental health issues that typically follow a tragic event.

Rio Ferdinand appeared on a BBC documentary entitled Rio Ferdinand – Being Mum and Dad to discuss how he was coping with the sudden passing of his wife from breast cancer. In a moving and hard hitting show he opens up about his feelings, speaking honestly about the difficulties he is now facing as a single dad looking after his three kids.

The Princes, William and Harry, also spoke about the trauma and shock of their mothers death in another BBC documentary called Mind over Marathon – a show about a group of 10 unlikely runners living with different mental health issues.

We have a Hollywood action hero, a former England football captain and two Princes, both of whom have served in the Army.  Very few people would deny them ‘manly men status’ but all of them have spoken up about mental health and the difficulties they encountered after a loss.

The impact of divorce on men was picked up by The Telegraph in a recent story highlighting the statistics. According to a 2013 survey commissioned by Yorkshire Building Society, divorce makes men feel devastated, betrayed, confused and even suicidal, while, it claims, women are more likely to feel relieved, liberated and happy following a split. The most striking aspect of the research was that men were shown to suffer more emotional trauma than women following a marital break-up. More than two years after a divorce, 41 per cent of men were still sad about the failure of their marriage; whereas with women the figure was just 33 per cent.

Men coping with divorce

I recently represented a father who was fighting for contact with his son. One evening he returned home to find his wife had gone, taking their child with her, bags packed to never return. As is typical during relationship breakdown, when children are often used as pawns, an application to Court was needed to secure interim contact with his son and a child arrangements order then had to be drawn up to regulate the visits going forward. As the name suggests, such orders set out the practical arrangements relating to a child’s accommodation. They define with whom a child shall live or otherwise have contact with – mainly (but not exclusively) the other parent. If the parties are at loggerheads over the kids, securing a child arrangements order can be a long and difficult journey.

During my time with this client I got a clear sense of a man who was ready for a fight. He was  a hard nosed city analyst who was mentally tough and rightly felt betrayed by his wife leaving him and taking their son. During the several hours I spent in consultation with him he didn’t crack. He spoke only of the process and the legal steps required to start divorce proceedings and secure contact with his child. But later, at the hearing for an interim contact order he finally broke down under the pressure of the day as the reality of a broken marriage and no contact with his son finally hit home. His feelings poured out in our consultation room outside the court.

In such moments you realise the seriousness of the situation men (and women too of course) find themselves in when their partner suddenly leaves, and the mental anguish they go through. It is our job as family lawyers to guide our clients through the difficult terrain of relationship breakdown and advise them not only on the law but also on how to cope and move forward. However, more often than not, it is women who open up about their feelings and the difficult circumstances they find themselves in. Men tend to bottle things up and then weeks down the line, it all suddenly becomes too much to keep a lid on any longer and everything pours out. Instead I believe men need to understand the importance of speaking about their feelings and worries during the difficult moments in their lives. Look at Brad, Rio and the Princes – being a man doesn’t mean bottling up your feelings and fighting your way through a tragic event. Being a man means owning your emotions and opening up to those around you.

When asked about his low moments following the divorce from Angelina Jolie, Brad responded as follows:

Sitting with those horrible feelings, and needing to understand them, and putting them into place. In the end, you find: I am those things I don’t like. That is a part of me. I can’t deny that. I have to accept that. And in fact, I have to embrace that. I need to face that and take care of that. Because by denying it, I deny myself. I am those mistakes. For me every misstep has been a step toward epiphany, understanding, some kind of joy. Yeah, the avoidance of pain is a real mistake. It’s the real missing out on life. It’s those very things that shape us, those very things that offer growth, that make the world a better place, oddly enough, ironically. That make us better.”

By Brad, Rio and the Royals opening up in the way they have done, they have helped us all to feel compassion but most importantly, to also understand. As an industry, family lawyers need to go beyond legal advice and really take on board the psychological trauma often associated with divorce and the mental health issues that can result.

Of course, every man is different, and not everyone going through a relationship breakdown will want to spill their guts to their lawyer – or even to their friends and family. But it is important for them to know that if and when they do want to talk about their feelings it is okay to do so and it won’t make them any less of man.

You can read Brad Pitt’s interview with GQ here.

Benjamin was a solicitor at the firm's London office, specialising in all work relating to family law. He advised people on the practical, legal and financial consequences resulting from the breakdown of relationships.

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  1. Vincent McGovern says:

    Every week I either attend or Chair a meeting with Central and North London Fnf. The above post is a breath of fresh air compared to so many on the subject. However, it misses out on a crucial detail. It is useless saying men should open up and talk more about their feelings during divorce and not seeing their children when the entire system is adversarial and so heavily rigged against fathers. At the moment if dads during proceedings admit to severe stress mummy has only to say he may have suicidal tendencies, her state funded counsel will usually lead her there. Most fathers are now litigants in person, against not just the mother and her usually taxpayer funded legal team but also social services, local authority DV agencies etc. Perhaps if lawyers insisted on a level playing field for all then men could open up about their feelings. In reality of course such improvements would directly lead to less revenue for lawyers. So, I won’t hold my breath.

    • Stitchedup says:

      Absolutely Vincent, it’s simply too dangerous for a man to open up about his feelings and emotions because he will immediately be seen as a threat. According to the Police, displaying strength of emotion is in fact violence. Men are simply not allowed to have feelings and emotions, they are not allowed to feel insecure and worry about what the future holds for them. They’re expected to be totally self sacrificing… No self pity allowed… Man up, grin and bear it!!

  2. spinner says:

    Men are strong and they don’t mind a fight to achieve a goal such as securing a child contact order, the big kicker is when you realise that the order you’ve spent all this money on, allowed yourself to be interrogated by whomever and held it all together for is not worth the paper it’s written on because court rarely if ever will enforce a child contact order against a mother who is not wanting to cooperate.

  3. Andy says:

    This fight must go on.In this blog the need to be strong is important as all the agencies court and others will be trying to undermine the situation with solicitors dragging out every penny you have plus the ex who will lye all the way to the top..even tho she left with the children and the father picked up the pieces…
    The prior comments are all to true in such fight as divorce it reveals all too many memories good or bad but forget that you must concentrate on what is right for you and you only..Every one is your best friend when money is involved but when your hard earned cash is spent fighting over the dog or cat or whatever the plot is lost..
    Strength is not seen as weak but focus on what is right for you as the path of divorce is rough but look past this and in time the situation will become very clear…FIGHT ON..because the system is against you..even when it’s not your fault…

    • Brian says:

      The system is against you AND it is your fault too. A relative of mine is having another variation to an already varied CAO from an enforcement application. Now the judge says that it is his fault for being homeless (removed from tenancy in MCA 1973 s25 TRIAL!!!!) and his continued situation is because he does not accept responsibility….well on that case judge, best you not sit on the train he drives then that takes half a mile to stop from 100mph. Responsibility enough? He makes a mistake people die a judge makes a mistake paperwork gets generated and nothing changes (w****rs!). The judge is trying to throw out the application on the grounds that he has no home either as he’s made a point of it on the application but stops short of ordering him from finding accommodation because such an order would show him as the prick he is! Meanwhile mother is a narcissist
      (CMS failed to update records when informed of no abode 6 months ago…they did nothing! !!)..
      It’s hard enough battling a narcissist without having to battle the whole fucking system with it!!!!!!!!
      (*Comment edited – our moderation policy is here)

      • Cameron Paterson says:

        Hi Brian – if you want to discuss your relative’s case on here, for important legal reasons could you please not use your full name, specify the judge or relative or include any other details that could lead to the identification of the people involved. Thank you

  4. Brian says:

    Yup.who gives a damn about brad Pitt…wasn’t Angelina wife no2 anyway? they’ll queue up for a Hollywood heartthrob! As for the royals…talking about bereavement as a mental health issue is stretching it abit, everyone bereaves at some point in life, the royal Princes just had it early and they never had a welfare report looking to take them into care as a result! As for lawyers taking a human side to it all…tosh, they take the money til its all gone and move on to the next narcissists victim over child arrangements til all the money is gone there too. Narcissist ex partners are emotional vampires and their financial vampire competition are lawyers!
    (*Comment edited – our moderation policy is here)

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