Divorce can be an ugly and perilous journey. But what if there was a kinder, gentler way to navigate the end of a marriage?

Divorce done differently…
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A simple invitation marked the beginning of the end. Cheryl Duffy’s husband seemed strangely reticent when old friends suggested they should all go on holiday together.

“I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year,” he told them, abruptly shutting down the dinner party conversation.

It seemed odd, yet Cheryl had no idea her marriage was about to implode.

“What did you mean,” she asked her husband when they got home that night. His answer was to shatter Cheryl’s life – yet ultimately lead her to a new career helping other people survive the trauma of separation and divorce.

“He said when our daughter finished her Year 10 exams, he was leaving,” the 56-year-old bleakly recalls of that moment 14 years ago. “They were due in November, this was June, so for all that time I had to make out nothing was happening, there was nothing wrong. Nobody knew the truth except my mother. Otherwise, I had to put on a facade.”

After 19 years and two children together, Cheryl was utterly blindsided, the first in her social circle to face divorce. By turns brokenhearted, furious, disbelieving and terrified of a lonely future, she wondered where her “happily ever after” had gone.

“I’m very sentimental. I’d kept all the old Valentine and birthday cards from my husband, and I would get them out so often,” says the author of The Divorce Tango. “I just couldn’t comprehend how he felt that way once, and now he didn’t. Was he lying about it all that time?”

Unable to move on, Cheryl ate chocolate and chips for comfort, inexorably gaining 16kg. Her self esteem, already shattered, plummeted to new depths as her dress size increased. She was physically sick every time she handed over the children, then aged 12 and 15, for custody visits with their father.

Finally, there was a lightbulb moment when daughter Jessica told her, “Mum, I just don’t know what to do to make you happy.”

Realising life must go on, Cheryl booked to see a psychologist, shed 21kg over two years, started dating again, trained to become a certified divorce coach and launched Australia’s first one-stop divorce centre.

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Post-pandemic she is already seeing a record number of inquiries, with relationships falling victim to lockdowns, job losses, financial worries and the stress of homeschooling. Christmas holidays can also strain togetherness to breaking point.

“January is global divorce month,” explains Cheryl, who happily found new love three years ago.

“People seem to decide things just can’t go on the same old way, so they make that New Year’s resolution to change their lives.”

Latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal that the divorce rate remained stable in 2020 at 1.9 divorces per 1000 individuals, with a total of 49,510 people officially ending their marriages. For women, the divorce rate was highest in the 40-44 age bracket; for men, it peaked at 44-49. Midlife crisis, anyone?

The numbers give a snapshot of society yet fail to paint the full picture. Divorce can never be painless, especially when children are involved.

It’s a form of bereavement, a loss of identity. Yet it doesn’t have to become an ugly feud like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s ongoing legal battle, which has already dragged on for five years and so far cost them each an estimated $1 million and counting.

Back in 2014, many of us laughed when Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” from 10 years of marriage. It sounded pretentious, as the Oscar-winner herself admitted, but she was intrigued by the sentiment.

“Was there a world where we could break up and not lose everything,” the wellness entrepreneur reflected in an article for British Vogue last year. “Could we be a family, even though we were not a couple? We decided to try.”

Today there’s widespread recognition that the costly adversarial court system – immortalised in the Oscar-winning movie Kramer v Kramer – is seldom beneficial, except for lawyers.

When a case embroils children in spiteful custody disputes, it becomes increasingly fraught.

“The legal process complicates things and can lead to combative situations developing,” says Carolyn Madden, of Divorce Coaching Australia. “People want to do divorce differently, so they are looking for support and ways to achieve this. Every divorce is unique.”

WATCH: A detailed timeline of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce (Article continues after video)

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Nowadays, therapies on offer include everything from primal screaming to meditation, art, dance, yoga and music. Counselling is available for individuals, couples and families. Financial planners and divorce coaches – overseas they’re often known as “divorce doulas” – help you to chart a way forward.

There are even apps to organise access visits, and an all-Australian guidance bot called Lumi can prepare personalised step-by-step separation plans!

Divorce retreats are a recent trend in this holistic approach to healing after marriage breakdown. Some, like Detox Your Divorce – an Australian first – offer a group approach online or in person, with the support of women who have been there, done that, or are currently suffering the same upheaval.

“I’d never been on any sort of retreat before,” smiles Shanneen Bagala, 41, from Parramatta in Sydney’s west.

“I’m not one of those people who jump on bandwagons very readily, but I was sort of desperate. I really needed to work out what I was going to do, I had no way forward. I thought divorce was failure and pain and suffering and loss and arguing about money – all the awful, heartbreaking things that affect you for years and years afterwards and make you bitter.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to hire lawyers who are sharks and aren’t really going to care about your relationships. What I found out, through Detox Your Divorce, is that splitting up can be an evolution, learning about what you need in life.

“The retreat wasn’t just about the legalities. It also talked about taking care of yourself, how to eat well, yoga, meditation, counselling, the stages of grief. It was kind of like having a mum around who’d been through all this process and was giving you the best advice, in a loving way.”

Shanneen, who wed on Valentine’s Day in 2010, has now moved out of the marital home following a slow, carefully considered separation, which at one stage involved an upstairs/downstairs living arrangement with her ex and their two beloved “fur babies”.

“I still think of my husband as a really wonderful man,” she explains. “The things I fell in love with, the fact that he was gentlemanly and kind, those things are still there. I have deep respect for him and I certainly didn’t want to disrespect our marriage, which we had created together, or his family.

“Relationships are so important to me. That’s my idea of success in life – how well your relationships with others are going. So the idea of harming or breaking those relationships was devastating. I think a lot of women feel that way… It’s a hard thing when you realise something is not working for you and you have to choose yourself first.

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“It was so contrary to my upbringing, which was all about making sure other people are okay. But sometimes in that you do get lost, and that’s what happened to me.”

Walking into the retreat, at a five-star hotel on the NSW Central Coast, Shanneen admits she was petrified. Instead, she found “a bit of a sisterhood, a bit of a community” that has subsequently stuck together, sharing progress and adventures through Facebook.

Six months down the track, she reflects, “The retreat was really amazing, you know. Something like that can change the way you feel about yourself and your whole outlook on life. It made me realise you can end a marriage with love and kindness towards yourself, and everybody else.”

Group therapy worked for Shanneen, but if a room full of grieving women is your worst nightmare, you can travel solo instead.

Global brand Naked Divorce specialises in one-on-one retreats at relaxing, deluxe locations from Chiang Mai to Cape Town, the Yarra Valley to Costa Rica. The British-based company’s website, which boasts a 92 per cent success rate, promises “transformative recovery” within 10 to 45 days, according to the program, or your money back.

It won’t be easy but it will be effective, pledges founder Adele Theron, a high-flying former management consultant who was “blindsided” by her own divorce 12 years ago. “I went to therapy but it didn’t suit me at all,” confesses the dynamic 44-year-old, who has since found new love with a New Zealand farmer.

“I was told recovery would take time, but I’m very goal oriented and I thought being stuck in some aimless departure lounge for 18 months was really not my bag.

“So I did a lot of research – I’m a real nerd – and built a program for myself, focused on achieving results in a very, very short amount of time. I think it took me about 20 days to get over everything that had happened, but 20 days isn’t very catchy so we made it a 21-day program!”

She laughs, with a word of warning. “We tell you exactly what to do, but I must say our journey is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a very forensic approach. We are trauma therapists and believe me, it’s not time that heals wounds. You have to process them and then act.

“It’s hard core and it’s forward facing. We help you deal with this fire in your house right now – we don’t go delving into past history. Our aim is to make the whole process more harmonious. If divorce can’t be prevented, let’s at least make it less unpleasant and not harm the children, because that’s horrendous.”

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Anne Corbett knows all too well the acrimony, anguish, grief and hurt that can flow from divorce, having ended her “psychologically abusive” 38-year marriage in January 2021.

At the age of 67, she now finds herself without a job – she was made redundant when the pandemic took off – and with no home of her own.

In desperation the intelligent, highly qualified mother-of-four has been forced to move back in with her ex-husband to keep a roof over her head. “It’s not ideal,” she says grimly, of her life in a NSW country town. “But where the hell do you go? The housing crisis is real and it’s getting worse.”

That dilemma is increasingly common. Today, many older women are choosing to walk away from unhappy marriages, rather than lingering out of misplaced guilt or duty. But that freedom comes with a huge emotional toll as Anne (whose name has been changed to protect her identity in a small community) can testify.

Overwhelmed by grief, anger and resentment, knowing she couldn’t navigate them alone, Anne went online, found certified divorce coach Carolyn Madden and asked for help. She and her husband had attended counselling in the past, but this was different.

“The trouble with counselling is that it can keep you swimming in the same stagnant pond, going over the same old stuff,” Anne explains.

“Yes, you can dredge up the past and how it’s contributed to the current situation, but that’s not helping you to move on, is it? That’s why divorce coaching is so important. It challenges you to focus on the next step and that’s difficult.

“I would say Carolyn saved my life and my sanity and I want to thank her from the bottom of my heart. I could never have got through the last three years without her coaching and support. She has helped me immeasurably in the journey of accepting that my marriage was over and facing the new direction of my life as a single woman, whatever uncertainty and fear that might bring.”

The demand looks unlikely to decrease. As Carolyn says, “With Covid and the stress of lockdown on fragile relationships, the need for couples to separate as peacefully as possible is just as great – if not greater – now than ever before.

“The better they can do this and agree on asset division and children’s issues, the more money they are able to save on legal bills. Family Law rates for partners can range from $400 to $900 per hour charged out in six-minute intervals, so costs can add up quickly!

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“Every situation is different but generally speaking, the real victims of divorce are the children. Through no fault of their own, they lose a parent from their everyday life. My motivation is to help them by helping the parents do separation and divorce differently and as well as they can.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking outside the square, like violinist Helen Lutz and her de facto John Hughes, who split up in 1997 when their child – whom she would prefer not to name or identify by gender – was still a toddler.

Their novel solution to custody issues was to sell their former home, buy a big, shabby old inner Sydney terrace and divide it in two – one half for each of them, with a bedroom for their little one in both.

“At that point, my side had no bathroom but did have a kitchen. His had no kitchen but had two bathrooms,” laughs Helen, 57, now happily married and living in Kangaroo Valley, NSW.

“There was a huge staircase which happened to be on the boundary line. We actually had to saw it in half, which was like a physical embodiment of our relationship. That was where the dividing wall went, so there was a huge pile of bricks in my living room and every day when I came home my ex would be bricked away from me a little further. It was a wonderful thing, ‘Bye bye, darling.’

“To be honest, I don’t think [our child] slept at their father’s place very often, but loved having that option. It all worked really well until [our child finished] high school, when John decided to move away. But he bought a new house within walking distance and made sure he sold to someone he thought would be a good neighbour for us.”

It was an unusually civilised solution in the take-no-prisoners combat zone of separation and divorce. But as Helen’s story proves, divorce done differently can work.

“It wasn’t that we were particularly magnanimous, good people necessarily,” she reflects.

“Neither of us wanted to pay lawyers $20,000 or create animosity. You have to be in contact with this person more or less for the rest of your life if you have children together. So what’s the point of making things more difficult?

“People told me at the time that I could have got more out of our separation – but how would I have benefited from an extra zero in the bank account? There are far more benefits to keeping the situation as friendly as possible.”

Shanneen sums it up like this: “100 per cent get help if you’re considering divorce. And try not to be adversarial. We don’t have to shout in order for people to hear us. We have to be able to speak our truths to each other respectfully.”

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