Relationship breakdown and separation

6 mins read

On this page we look at some of the legal and practical issues that you might face if your relationship is breaking down or you and your partner separate.

In this article

Relationship advice and counselling

You might consider talking to a relationship counsellor – they will explore with you the issues in your relationship and help you make changes. You will have regular sessions that can be face-to-face or by telephone.

The counsellor will listen to both of you and will not take sides. The counsellor will respect your ideas about your relationship, as well as suggesting some others.

Visit the Counselling Directory website.

Domestic violence

Women, especially, may be subject to a wide range of manipulative, controlling and violent behaviours by a partner. Sometimes violence is also directed toward children, other family members and friends.

Every situation and every relationship is unique. The organisation Women’s Aid produces some very helpful information about different behaviours to help you recognise if you, or someone you know, are in an abusive relationship. This includes examples of physical violence (punching, pulling hair, raping) and verbal or emotional abuse (shouting, mocking, verbally threatening).


A refuge is a safe house where women who are experiencing domestic abuse can life free from violence. If you have children, you can take them with you. Refuge addresses are confidential.

Some refuges are especially for women from particular ethnic or cultural backgrounds, for example Black, Asian or South American women. Some refuges have disabled access and workers and can assist women and children who have additional needs.

Men who are victims of domestic violence

If you’re a man who is experiencing domestic violence you may you’re the only one in this situation, but you’re not alone. Men have exactly the same rights as women to be safe in their own homes. All statutory services (such as the police, housing department and social services) have a duty to provide services to all – male or female. Also, many local support organisations provide services for both men and women who have been affected by domestic violence.

Communicating with your ex

For some parents, having to maintain contact with one another and sort out arrangements for the children can be a huge strain. These are some tips to help you communicate with your ex and protect your children from any fallout:

  • Avoid blaming yourself or partner and agree not to let your own relationship issues get into the discussion.
  • When agreeing contact arrangements with your ex-partner, think about a trial period that can be reconsidered at a later date. Work on a parenting plan together.
  • Create rules ahead of meetings with your ex so you can focus on child-related conversations and avoid talking about relationship problems.
  • Continue at another time if you feel discussions sliding into choppy waters. Don’t argue with your partner about the children in front of them. This will only increase their sense of guilt.
  • You may want to consider family mediation services to help you settle disputes with your partner. Visit the College of Mediators website.

Relationship breakdown and the law

Parents who were cohabiting, or are married but do not wish to formally end the relationship, including civil partners, might need legal advice if no agreement can be reached on issues concerning children, property and money.

There are several ways to end a marriage legally, the most common being divorce. If both parties agree to divorce (that is, it is ‘undefended’), a solicitor will not usually be needed and a local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) should be able to help with the petition.

If a divorce is contested, or there are other issues in dispute concerning children, money or property, then it will be necessary to consult a solicitor. The same applies to civil partners wishing to formally end their relationship (this is sometimes called ‘dissolution’ rather than ‘divorce’). A local CAB should be able to help you locate a solicitor in your area and advise you about any legal aid which might be available to help with the costs.

Parental responsibility

The law presumes married parents both have parental responsibility. Unmarried mothers have parental responsibility but not all unmarried fathers do. Unmarried fathers can acquire parental responsibility, for example by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother. A civil partner or member of a same-sex couple can acquire parental responsibility in a similar way.

Child maintenance

Child maintenance is the money a parent pays towards their child’s upbringing. All parents have a responsibility to support their child financially. Child maintenance is usually regular amounts of money paid to the parent who cares for the child most of the time from the other parent.

You and your ex-partner may be able to arrange child maintenance yourself if you are able to agree the amount and how to receive the payments. This is called a ‘family-based arrangement’. A family-based arrangement is a private way to sort out child maintenance. Parents arrange everything themselves and no-one else has to be involved.

Further information on child maintenance, including guidance on payments, is available from the Child Maintenance Service.

Children and separation

Helping your child through a period of separation or divorce is challenging as you come to terms with your own feelings. But research shows there are things you can do that can help.

  • Avoid criticising your ex-partner in front of the children. It can be very upsetting for them and leave them feeling forced to take sides.
  • Children often feel a great sense of loss, and letting them grieve is an important part of helping them move on to accept the changes in their family relationships.
  • Your children may also express anger towards you. Try not to take it too personally as it can be a sign they are finding it hard to cope.
  • Keeping children informed about what is happening will help to prevent them blaming themselves and worrying unnecessarily.
  • You can help children feel more secure by helping them to express their feelings, letting them know that you understand how they feel, and making sure they feel they can ask questions if they want to, will help. 
  • Denial is also a common response. A child will naturally have hopes and fantasies about the family, such as wanting you all to be reunited. Talking about these feelings, without raising false hopes, will help your child to move on.
  • See also our tips on children and conflict in our Relationships guide (page 24), which might still be relevant after a separation.