Can a ‘divorce retreat’ heal a broken heart?

  • Nine months after separating from my husband of 15 years, I check in to an upmarket hotel in Sussex that also offers two-day divorce retreats to help people dealing with break-ups. The irony that the ‘heartbreak hotel’ is also hosting a wedding reception is not lost on any of us attendees.

Nine months after separating from my husband of 15 years, I check in to an upmarket hotel in Sussex that also offers two-day divorce retreats to help people dealing with break-ups. The irony that the ‘heartbreak hotel’ is also hosting a wedding reception is not lost on any of us attendees. As we arrive, ‘congratulations’ balloons bob up and down with irritating jollity. Most of the other guests, aside from the wedding party, are loved-up couples on romantic minibreaks. Not long ago, I was part of one of those couples. My husband and I met at university. We were together 25 years, married 15, and have two children, now 11 and 13. Just before Christmas last year he told me he didn’t want to be together any more. By January we’d moved out. The fallout was shattering: two stone in weight loss; countless sleepless nights; my self-esteem fractured into a million shards. In the early months I couldn’t eat, drink, think or sleep. I lived in a heightened state of anxiety.

Sara tells us to think of new empowering beliefs. I find it difficult but give it a go. ‘I’m a catch!’ I write

Somehow I carried on my work as a freelance journalist and held it together for the children – I did the school run, washed uniforms, cooked. But I was in a maelstrom of despair and grief, and couldn’t wait for bed, where I’d block it all out with a sleeping pill.

In his 2017 TED talk, How To Fix a Broken Heart, psychologist Guy Winch said, ‘Brain studies have shown that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same mechanisms in our brain that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine or opioids.’ It certainly felt that awful to me. To beat the pain of rejection I read real-life break-up stories online and hunted down experts I hoped would fix me.

Almost one year on I’m in a much better place – yet I still feel a heaviness in my heart and an unutterable emptiness on waking with no one next to me. Which is why I signed up for a weekend in the heartbreak hotel, led by divorce coach Sara Davison, bestselling author of two self-help books including Uncoupling – How To Survive and Thrive after Breakup and Divorce. The weekend runs every few months at Ashdown Park Hotel in East Sussex, and promises to give its 10-20 attendees coping strategies and the psychological tools to ‘dial down’ negative emotions.

At 9.30am on Saturday, I arrive in a big conference room for my first session. I don’t want to expose my fears and insecurities to strangers, but I’m desperate to imagine a brighter future. Everyone looks as nervous as I feel as we sit in an L-shape around Sara, who is immaculately glossy in a blue lace dress and Jimmy Choos. When she starts talking about her objectives for us (moving forward, taking back control, learning coping strategies), it’s like someone has igniteda pilot light. Maybe this will help.

Sara describes her feelings surrounding her own divorce. ‘I was at rock bottom. Overwhelmed by negative emotions and the intimidating legal process, I couldn’t see light at the end of the tunnel.’ This was, she explains, ‘such a lonely place. So I used my experience as a life coach and began helping people who have separated.’

We all promise to ‘play full out’ (give the weekend our all), which feels a bit cringey. Then we each attach a Post-it note to a word – denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance – to identify how we feel. Sara tells us to think about our break-up support teams and who we turn to (a friendly year when we’re emotional, a legal advisor, or even an exercise buddy), and later advises us to use our exes’ initials, not their names, to minimise their importance.

She also describes a ‘flip it’ technique, where you look for a way of finding the good in any situation. For example, your partner may have left, but now you can set the heating to subtropical without them complaining. ‘Finding one positive opens up opportunities to move forward and feel happier about your situation,’ says Sara.

The trickiest part comes when she asks us to write down our negative emotions. My list runs on and on: sadness, rejection, overwhelmed, shock, fear… But she tells us to sit with those feelings rather than tackle them straight away. ‘It really helps to brain-dump all the negatives out of your head,’ she says. Afterwards, we shred the pieces of paper. It sounds simplistic but Sara says, ‘Shredding is about giving yourselves permission to let go of baggage, and to make room for the positive tools and ideas that are coming next.’ Unconvinced, I do it anyway, and find it surpris-ingly cathartic, as I’d usually push sad feelings aside.

One thing I struggle with is feeling emotional when I speak to my ex, even about practical things. Sara’s overarching advice is to be functionally friendly. I tell her I find this difficult. ‘It can be a normal human reaction to feel angry when someone has been unkind,’ she says diplomatically. ‘[But] it keeps you stuck. You’re giving your power away to the ex by reacting to them and allowing them to control how you feel.’

We’re encouraged to try to look at situations from our ex’s perspective. ‘I call this shoe-shifting,’ says Sara. ‘See the world from their point of view, with their beliefs and map of the world, then argue the issue from their viewpoint. It’s not easy, but it gives a different perspective and shows you a way to move forward.’

By the end of the first day, I feel like I’ve been through the wringer, but realise, with joy, I’m already thinking less about my ex and more about me, and how to progress in a way that’s best for me and my children. We all bond in the hotel bar that night, and are geared up for day two, which is themed around moving forward.

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Another thing I struggle with – and I can’t be the only one in the room who does – is making myself believe I’ll be loved again. It’s not easy when your self-esteem has smashed to pieces. Sara tells us to list evidence that counters negative thoughts and to think of new empowering beliefs. ‘Even if you don’t believe it 100 per cent,’ she says, ‘if you start repeating t, it will slowly embed in your brain.’ I find it difficult but give it a go. ‘I’m a catch!’ I write. It feels embarrassing, and it hasn’t worked yet, but Sarah tells me regular repetition is key.

There are lots more practical exercises, from finding a power song to boost my mood to writing a list of things I want from a partner (‘most heartbroken people only require two things: a pulse and a show of affection,’ jokes Sara). She asks us to think about what we want, rather than just cling on to the first person who comes along. By 5.30pm, people seem visibly different: happier, lighter.

As I drive home I reflect on the weekend. It’s not a miracle – I’m not suddenly healed, but the future seems brighter. I feel like I have techniques (rather than just words) to guide me. And I feel less alone. I also understand that the blame game is not helpful, that anger and bitterness will get me nowhere.

The next time I see my ex to discuss practicalities, I feel less emotional. Less fragile. It’s not about scoring points, but rather about journeying towards a new future. One where the heating is forever turned up high…

Sara Davison’s Breakup retreats start from £699 (saradavison.com)

Six ways to work through heartbreak by Sara Davison

  • Enlist friends who can help you emotionally, financially and practically, and keep them on speed dial.
  • Remember that it’s OK to be sad. It’s normal to grieve the end of something that meant a lot.
  • Write a break-upbucket list of all the fun things you can do now that you couldn’t before.
  • Exercise. Moving your body can really change how you feel.
  • List everything you didn’t like about your past relationship. Rosetinted glasses often stop us moving on.
  • Shift your focus to the future.

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