In supporting students for example, in roles such as tutors, there may be times when students choose to disclose challenges in their lives that are affecting their capacity to engage with their studies. There are ways that we can listen to, validate and ‘hold’ a disclosure whilst also staying within the boundaries of our role. For example, if a student discloses difficulties in their home life, once we have checked if they feel at risk of harm (our safeguarding duty of care), whilst we cannot offer advice or guidance on how to tend to these home issues, we may be able to signpost to other support services internally or externally. We can then ask them how their individual circumstances are impacting their studies (attendance, engagement, participation, performance). and offer any reasonable adjustments that may be helpful, within the remit of our role.
This guidance will offer suggestions for sensitively handling disclosure of a relationship break-up.
Students often report avoiding disclosing relationship break-ups. This can be for a variety of reasons. Factors that inhibit disclosure can include:
Fearing feelings will be invalidated during a disclosure.
Fearing assumptions may be made that some separations are more significant than others (divorces/ where children are involved/ length of time together/ monogamous relationships rather than polyamorous/ heterosexual relationships rather than same-gender)
Fearing a time-limit will be placed on grieving (“You should have moved on by now.”)
Confusion, embarrassment, and painful core beliefs emerging can cause individuals to invalidate their own feelings (“Why am I feeling like this when I chose to separate?... I should be feeling happy… I caused the break-up, so I have no right to feel this way… If I disclose, people will know that I wasn’t good enough to be in a relationship.”)
So why is our response to this disclosure so important? Relationship breakups are often shrouded in shame and stigma. Separating from a partner can bring up uncomfortable emotions, such as embarrassment, guilt, anger and sadness. Separation can also bring relief and joy. Sometimes, these emotions may be all felt at once, bringing an additional layer of anxiety and confusion. A relationship breakup will be different person to person dependent on the quality of the attachment, the depth of intimacy and a multitude of factors surrounding the relationship.
On listening to a disclosure, it can be tempting to make assumptions or judgements about the significance of a person’s relationship… to want to advise or remedy any hurt the individual is feeling. This is often where platitudes are offered – “There are plenty more fish in the sea… by next week it’ll all be forgotten about… you were better off without them… look on the bright side.” Unfortunately, well-intentioned platitudes can inadvertently hinder future disclosures and invalidate the individual’s feelings. The most helpful thing we can do for this individual is simply to listen… and if we don’t have a great deal of time to listen, set a time boundary and intention for the conversation that keeps it boundaried.
“I really appreciate you having disclosed. If you would like to tell me a bit more about how this is impacting your studies, I have 15 minutes just now.”
It is important to validate all breakup disclosures. As human beings, attachment is a primal drive. When there is an attachment disruption (such as a separation), it triggers survival threat, at a primitive level. If someone we are attached to separates fully from our connection with them, regardless of whether we perceive it to be a positive or negative experience, it triggers a grieving process on a psychological and physiological level. Whilst it may be that a stressor is removed from our lives, or a positive influence, a sense of security, familiarity, potentially an anchor, is no longer there.
How might relationship break-up affect a student’s studies? Everyone’s experience of relationship break-up is different, but for some it can have a negative impact on their academic studies. Despite this, relationship break-up not being seen as an academic issue can act as a barrier to students speaking to university staff about study-related impacts. There are different ways that relationship break-up may affect someone’s studies.
Emotional dysregulation Emotions can feel intense, unpredictable, changeable and tumultuous (particularly if the individual separated from is still present in their life). Emotions can bring changes in mood and behaviours of students that you might notice in tutorials or 1:1 contact. This might include individuals withdrawing, becoming more distance or avoiding contact. Feeling intense emotions can also bring challenges and changes to the ways we care for ourselves when we are under stress, including diet and sleep. These factors in turn affect our concentration, energy levels, ability to absorb and process information, and be productive in study sessions. Intense unpredictable emotions make it difficult to plan ahead, which can affect study intentions.
Disruption of routine Relationship break-up can cause disruption to a familiar structure and shape to the day. These changes might be initiated by the individual, or the changes may have been dictated for them. With it can bring anxiety, new pressures, uncertainty, new expectations- and/or feelings of emptiness. Changes to routine may practically affect the time the student has to devote to studies. It might also affect motivation as suddenly the future may look quite different. This may mean difficulties meeting academic deadlines, or conversely it becomes easier to meet deadlines. Students may find they need to change the ways they study and how long they can study for. They may benefit from practical guidance on how to navigate this.
Identity confusion Separating from someone who has been an integral part of our life can bring up questions when we reorientate our focus from the other person to ourselves – “who am I now I am not in relation to this person? … Who am I as an individual? … Who am I if I am no longer a partner, a carer, with my children full-time?”). Students at this point may question their studies their goals and their future career path. In conversations validate this as a natural part of separation, offering reassurance not to panic. This questioning may pass, but also validate that the student has a right to choose what feels best for their wellbeing if they feel that they wish to re-evaluate their intention to continue studying.
Support system changes A separation can bring with it changes to an individual’s access to emotional and/or practical support - partner’s absence, potentially others connected to partner (friends, family), attitudes of own family and friends. If usual supports that were there are now not, a student may feel alone and overwhelmed. Encourage them to access study supports that are available if required, as well as to stay connected to those in their personal life that they trust if they feel it is in their best interests. Signposting to other supports they may need can be of help, or if you are unsure of where to signpost to, helping them to identify that there is support out there – finances, accommodation, emotional support (counselling or crisis lines).
Instability With separation can bring changes to living accommodation, work and financial positions for example. Encouragement can be offered to build a new routine and stability as an individual. Even if it is focusing on the basics of self-care. Study performance may be affected for a while (or not at all – it may even improve!) but reassure the student that they need to take this time to prioritise themselves and build a base for themselves.
How can we signpost support? A short conversation, really validating for the student that a relationship break-up can have a significant impact can go a long way in removing anxiety, shame and stigma around separations. It may alleviate some of the student’s concerns around asking for extensions, or even feeling embarrassment of guilt if academic performance were to change whilst they navigate this new terrain. If it seems the student could benefit from speaking more about their separation, and it is not in your remit to be able to facilitate this, gently reaffirm for them – “I hear what you are going through, and if I can be of help with the academic impacts, please do reach out.”“It sounds though like you could benefit from speaking more about the emotional impact on you. I would encourage you to speak to supportive people in your life – friends, family, a counsellor if it could help.” Encourage the student to look into what supports are available through their university. They may be a Mental Health Advisory team, Mental Health Peer Support or a Counselling service.
Thank you to Rosie Williams, Mental Health Advisor, The Open University for writing this guidance.