In family life, separation and divorce is traumatic and distressing. It has a negative impact on the overall health and wellbeing of those involved.

Although the EU is not a ‘family’ unit, the UK’s vote to exit reflects and parallels the negative fall-out and effects of high-conflict ‘family’ separations on the individuals involved. Brexit fuelled my therapeutic curiosity. Personally, it brought up issues of loss of relationships and familiar connections. I became aware of my mixed emotions of shock, confusion, uncertainty, fear of the unknown … and anger. Yes, anger at the event that has caused me to experience these feelings.

As I watched people around me, I noticed different behavioural responses – those who didn’t want to talk about it; those who couldn’t stop talking about it; and those who were ignoring it, trying to maintain a semblance of normality and ‘going through the motions’ of    living as usual.

Given my therapeutic experience, it suddenly struck me all this felt very familiar. The people around me, in their own unique way, were going through different phases of the grieving process. I talked with immediate family about my feelings of restlessness, despite not having any immediate worries. They suggested I investigate ‘myunconscious material’ – I exclaimed, Oh no, not Freud!” However, I went away to ponder on the unknown ‘unconscious thoughts’ bothering me.

Watching the leaves in the garden dance a lot more on the top right-hand side of the oak, I became fascinated at how a tree can be ruffled on one side, yet still maintain a balance within it’s central structure. This curiosity, this mindfulness, helped me direct attention to my own balance. I developed an awareness of the increased ‘aches and pains’ in my body and this helped me connect with the ‘numbness’ of my emotions.

The referendum has introduced the potential for intergenerational conflict, splitting families and causing distress. In communication with a colleague, she told me, One of my clients (late 20’s to early 30’s), has felt angry with his parents since Brexit, as he knows they voted Leave whereas he voted Remain. He feels upset but struggles to talk to them about it. Similarly divorce cuts across the generations too.

I realised the outcome of the vote to ‘Leave the EU’ (Brexit) has triggered individual and collective expressions of strong emotions, similar to those experienced in the aftermath of separation or divorce or a disastrous nationwide event (war?). So, what unconscious feelings were triggered for me? Suddenly, I understood my connection to this issue. It was encountering the unknown, living with uncertainty, disappointment, betrayal, loss of trust.

By making a decision at the ballot box, I felt coercively persuaded and manipulated. Nick Child has written on parental alienation and coercive persuasion. The process of the referendum campaign showed how this works in the political arena, in the way each side presented their persuasive arguments –

I remember being politely asked by a stranger, How did you vote in the EU referendum?” I looked at him and simply said, Confused”. He smiled with reassuring words: It will be ok, either way. I was aware of the elation of some people and the sadness of others. They say time is a great healer but sometimes brings complications. I reflected on this incidental interaction, wondering what a complete stranger noticed about me for him to reach out? I replayed the scene of my conversation – a public place…sitting at a table, waiting for food in a pub restaurant…partner ordering refreshments after a long session of eye tests and selection of lens and frames(not forgetting the paperwork). I thought about how I was sitting, and realised I had my elbow on the table, hands under my chin…staring at the menu.

This helped me to be more aware of my emotional response. Triggers such as Brexit make me feel ‘unsafe’ and ‘insecure’ in my environment and wider social worlds. Recent research findings published by Relate suggest that 2.87 million people are in distressed relationships across the UK. Please see the press release:

Where there are family conflicts of emotional intensity, there are winners and losers. Whether you are a winner (a partner wanting out) or a loser (partner wanting to remain), both parties experience deep emotional turmoil in the process of disconnection and in negotiating new ways forward. Consideration of the traumatic impact on psychological and emotional wellbeing on the individual is secondary, let alone the children.

Once partners and parents decide to go their separate ways, adversarial communication is introduced because of differences and it focuses on blame. In family breakups, there are no winners – especially where children are involved.  When feelings have been severely hurt and deeply wounded, negotiation and communication are extremely challenging, as the aftermath of the decision to leave the EU confirms.

 In my work with couples, some of the questions I continue to encounter that resonate for me include:

  • What is separation?
  • What does divorce mean?
  • Do we have to move?
  • Can I still go to school?
  • I feel different, I don’t know why?
  • Will I be asked to choose?

Similar sentiments echo across the UK as we seek to come to terms with separating from the EU, trying to grasp present challenges and uncertainties, and wondering what the future holds.

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