Psychiatric nurse Aaron Stevenson likens relationship trauma with PTSD. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Aaron Stevenson’s painful separation led him to write a practical guide for men dealing with the trauma of divorce.
With more than 30 years’ experience in the mental health system, Mr Stevenson regularly saw people in the throes of a relationship break-up.
Then, three years ago, it happened to him.
The psychiatric nurse’s 10-year marriage ended leaving him “blindsided”, just as his 50th birthday approached.
Likening a divorce to a trauma like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Mr Stevenson said the response was the same.
“You don’t have to have fought in Afghanistan or got run over by a car to have PTSD; basically it’s about having trauma and, in some way, feeling you’re at risk,” he said.
Paul Wiseman from Relationships Australia, Victoria, with more than 20 years’ experience as a counsellor and mediator in family dispute resolution, agreed that for a some men this was the reality, particularly in the early stages of separation.
“Symptoms can escalate into extreme situations when people’s willingness and or capacity to seek help and support is poor,” he said.
While both men and women suffer during the experience, Mr Stevenson said men tended to fall apart in “spectacularly destructive ways”.
“They go out and drink, do drugs, smash things, break things, get IVOs (family violence intervention order) against them, which causes another set of problems,” he said.
While there are many services for men and plenty of books, articles and blogs about relationships, Mr Stevenson struggled to find any clear practical guidelines.
“There was whole lot of emotional stuff and wishy-washy stuff, but I wanted a practical guide about what to do, basically,” he said.
So Mr Stevenson compiled all his research into a guidebook, including his own experiences and his 32 years of clinical work.
Stop divorce: Surviving and thriving your breakup is a guidebook for men trying to navigate the crisis of their relationship, which he co-wrote with his friend, former ABC reporter Corey Hague.
The first part outlines options for saving a relationship and the second part is how to make it through the “brutal process” of an inevitable break-up.
More women initiate divorce
The 2016 Census found that 41.5 per cent of divorces were from joint applicants while 32.5 per cent of single applicants were initiated by women.
“There’s a significant percentage where it’s women initiating and a lot less where it is men initiating,” Mr Wiseman said.
While the initiator may have spent much time thinking about the separation, the non-initiator was quite often taken by surprise.
“It will come somewhat out of left field and it can be quite a period of crisis and distress when it’s done in that way because they then have to start dealing with it, whereas the other person is much further down the path,” Mr Wiseman said.
“When that break up happens — you’re sort of out on your own.”
Mr Stevenson said he felt the same when his own marriage ended.
“Things were slowly deteriorating, and I didn’t realise it until one day the writing was on the wall and it hit me — it was like ‘boom’,” he said.
Divorce ‘harder on men’
Author and psychiatric nurse Aaron Stevenson found himself suddenly single after a 12-year relationship and two children. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Mr Wiseman said divorce was harder on men largely due to the higher levels of social isolation many men experienced.
He cited a 2015 survey by Beyond Blue that revealed that 25 per cent of men between 35 and 65 had few or no social connections.
Often in a relationship, Mr Wiseman said, the woman would play the role of social secretary, so when a relationship did end men tended to re-partner much sooner with little time to process their emotions.
“In approximately one third of relationships there will be a separation but that increases dramatically in further relationships,” Mr Wiseman said.
Of those relationships men did have with friends, many of them tended to be “active” relationships.
“They might go off to the football together or the pub together or play golf together, but they may not necessarily talk about what’s going on in their lives and how they’re managing or not managing,” Mr Wiseman said.
Men need to relinquish control
Because men generally tended to be solution-oriented, Mr Stevenson used a crisis intervention model in his book as well as worksheets.
Some of the immediate strategies involved making a commitment to the need for change including strategies in being proactive, finding support, and planning responses.
“What to say, what not to say,” Mr Stevenson said.
He said language was a crucial strategy that formed part of acceptance.
One piece of advice for men was to relinquish control by agreeing with their partner’s opinions instead of automatically defending themselves.
“In martial arts, you use the opponents motion and momentum to your advantage by going with their energy, not against it,” Mr Stevenson said.
While Mr Wiseman conceded this was a “useful, good idea” during times of crisis he preferred a delayed strategy.
“[Men could] park that and come back to it after [they’d] maybe gone for walk or found ways of calming [themselves] down, and then [they] might be able to have a more productive conversation,” he said.
When divorce became inevitable Mr Stevenson said practical information about mediation or the legal system, finances, raising children and information about grief and loss were important.
“Not unlike going to an accountant and getting your tax done,” he said.