Building Resilience During Separation or Divorce

Ask An Expert: Kimberly Mueller, M.S., R. Psych

By Brittany Koenig, Business Development Manager

Navigating the tumultuous terrain of family law matters is no easy task. The emotional strain of a separation or divorce can seem insurmountable and often leaves individuals struggling to remain resilient in the face of adversity. In these challenging times, it's invaluable to seek guidance from seasoned professionals who are equipped with the right knowledge and experience to help. A prime example is Kimberly Mueller, a registered psychologist based in Calgary, Alberta. Psychologists like Kimberly have expansive expertise in handling emotional regulation, stress management, and relationship dynamics which makes for an invaluable resource for those navigating the complexities of family law matters. 

Armed with a Master’s degree in psychology and nearly a decade in private practice, Kimberly has carved out a notable career dedicated to helping her clients navigate the choppy waters of anxiety, depression, and stress-related challenges, among other concerns. A relationship specialist, Kimberly offers guidance in various relational spheres, including romantic, familial, workplace, and child-parent dynamics. This knowledge base uniquely equips her to support those embarking on the challenging journey of separation and divorce.

In the following interview, we probed Kimberly's expertise to unearth effective strategies for promoting positive self-talk, fostering resilience during and after a separation or divorce, initiating difficult conversations, and the importance of therapy during such a challenging period. This enlightening conversation illuminates the path for those grappling with these pressing issues and offers pragmatic tips for self-care and maintaining mental wellness. 

Brittany: What are some effective self-talk strategies that people can use to promote positive thinking throughout their family law matter?

Kimberly: Our internal dialogue is one of the most powerful tools we have to support ourselves throughout a family law matter. Many individuals have the tendency to engage in self-destructive thinking, which does not make an already difficult situation any easier.  

There are several “negative thinking tendencies” called cognitive distortions that certain personalities, combined with a stressful situation will likely find themselves engaged in. For example:

  • Catastrophizing - thinking (and believing) that the worst-case scenario will happen;
  • Black / White Thinking - thinking that there is a “right or wrong” rather than in grey, or a “mid-point”; or
  • Mind Reading - assuming you know what the other person is thinking (and it is usually a negative assumption).

The best place to start with your own self-talk when going through any stressful circumstance is to “catch yourself” before you go down the rabbit hole. Identify alternatives to your first assumption (which is usually fear-based) and start to talk back to the “worry brain.” For example:  You can say things like:

  • “Understandably, your emotional brain has taken over, but what may be 2 other ways to interpret this?”
  • “I understand that you are feeling totally hijacked emotionally (and physically with stress and anxiety). Take a 15-minute break, move your body, and come back to it.”
  • “You are going through really difficult things right now. It is okay to feel overwhelmed.  You got this.”

When hit with stress, grief, anger, or worry, it's normal to seek out positive distractions like calling a friend or engaging in physical activity. Moreover, remind yourself to take a day to let the situation sink in. With the dawn of a new day and a clear mind, the problem will often seem more approachable.

Brittany: How can individuals build resilience during and after a separation or divorce?

Kimberly: Going through a separation or divorce is the ultimate opportunity to learn to build resilience. In some ways, we are forced to as we must face one of the most difficult, uncomfortable, and anxiety-provoking problems that any person will ever have to face. In other words, there is no way to avoid it, we must approach it.

The way to build our resilience muscle is by being willing to reframe the problem as an “opportunity” to learn. An opportunity to realize our mental toughness that we likely didn’t know we had. By reframing the difficult circumstances that lie ahead or happened in the past, and “valuing” it as something that is going to make us stronger, we can have a more optimistic mindset.  

Once we have reframed it, we start to practice. For example, when an “opportunity” arises that is difficult, and requires cognitive flexibility rather than rigidity, we embrace it, tolerate the discomfort, and take action.

Eventually, this practice of reframing one's perspective can make daunting situations seem a bit less intimidating. It is like anything that causes anxiety, in the short-term it is easier to avoid it, but it only reinforces there was something big and scary to be afraid of! By approaching it, though temporarily uncomfortable, we show our nervous system we can handle it and it builds our resilience.

The final step is to reflect on your successes. Take a moment to “notice the good” and intentionally encode the mini successes where you showed resiliency, grit, and strength in the face of a difficult situation. Intentionally encoding the good, builds the pathways to resiliency!

Brittany: Can you share some practical tips for initiating difficult conversations with a former partner during a separation or divorce?

Kimberly:  Every situation is different, so it is important to understand the type of individual you may be dealing with, but there are some “across the board” tips that should work for most personality types.

Firstly, it's important to consider the “emotional maturity” of the person you're dealing with. If your former partner is generally calm, stable, and rational, interactions can typically be approached with calmness, logic, and fairness. However, if you're faced with a partner who shows signs of emotional immaturity — demonstrated by a lack of empathy, a propensity for disagreement, and a defensive demeanor — a different strategy may be necessary. In such cases, maintaining fact-based, written communication that minimizes emotional content could be the more effective route.

Secondly, initiating tough conversations can indeed trigger anxiety. Therefore, it's important to remember the three T's that can help alleviate the stress surrounding such dialogues – timing, tone, and turf: 

  • Timing - what time of day is good for both of you to have a difficult conversation. On the commute home? On weekends?
  • Tone - consider the tone of voice you use and the tone of your message. Avoiding an accusatory approach can greatly enhance the likelihood of a successful conversation.
  • Turf - selecting an appropriate location for the difficult conversation can also be important. First and foremost, DO NOT DO IT IN FRONT OF YOUR KIDS. Once this key guideline is observed, reflect on the medium that facilitates your best communication, whether that's face-to-face, over a phone call, via text, or through email.

Brittany: What are some strategies that could be employed after someone has one of these difficult conversations with their ex?

Kimberly: Great question! This is a continuation of the above question, so let’s continue the sequence of “having difficult conversations.”

Having a difficult conversation is difficult for everyone. Whether it is with a former partner, a colleague, a family member, etc. Anxiety related symptoms is to be expected. For example, don’t let tightness in your chest, dread, racing heart, “nerves”, or any of the uncomfortable physical sensations of anxiety let them tell you that you are doing the wrong thing. Let the anxiety show up - it is normal. It won’t last forever. Remind yourself that, whenever we are doing something that is important to us, it can feel scary, and it is normal to feel anxiety.

Finally, consider having a “debrief” plan after you have had a difficult conversation. For example:

  • call a friend, therapist, or family member to talk after the difficult conversation.
  • go for a walk to help process the emotions that the conversation stirred up.
  • take some “quiet time”.  

Acknowledging our ability to handle challenges and balancing it with periods of quiet reflection to 'refill the tank,' can be very beneficial.

Difficult conversations take an emotional toll, so plan for the “post-conversation” strategy in addition to the actual strategy of having a difficult conversation.

Brittany: What advice would you give to someone dealing with high levels of stress during a separation or divorce?

Kimberly: The stress of a separation or divorce is significant, and it often goes on for much longer than most people would like - it ebbs and flows over time. Preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for the stress of divorce is so important. Try to consider and take very seriously the importance of these “stress buffers” as you navigate the change:

  • Think about “safe” family and friends to whom you can reach out for support when you need it. Do not be afraid to reach out for support - you will need it during this time.
  • Acknowledge that emotional stress can be as exhausting as physical stress on the body (though not the same as physical stress from exercise). The degree of mental fatigue and emotional exhaustion can be significant. So, just as you would “rest” after a difficult exercise session, acknowledge that you will need to “rest” when you can as you navigate divorce.
  • As mentioned, stress inevitably ebbs and flows. When stress is high, you need to increase your self-care, social support, and relaxation time.
  • Remind yourself that stressful times come, and they go. At times, it may feel we are at the bottom of a mountain climbing to the top. How do we get to the top? One step at a time.
  • Find a good therapist. Your mental health will definitely be tested during this time. So, finding a therapist can be a valuable support piece as you navigate the change.

Brittany: How can therapy be beneficial for someone who is considering separation or divorce?
Kimberly: The process of therapy can be individualized for every situation. Sometimes there is a misnomer that an individual must have a diagnosis, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD, to benefit from therapy. The reality is very different. Anyone can benefit from therapy, and it can help with stress management, relationships, self-awareness, emotional regulation, and support.

Therapy during one of the most stressful times in your life may help you navigate difficult situations, parent better, allow for self-reflection, and gain strategies to help throughout this time. Therapy can help you decide whether to leave a relationship, help you during the process of leaving, and can also help you after leaving a relationship - there is quite a bit of grief and healing that must happen after a separation or divorce.

Brittany: What should someone look for in a therapist or counselor when they're going through a separation or divorce?

Kimberly: Choosing a therapist can be an overwhelming process but there are a few things to look for to help you select a therapist:

  • Ensure the therapist you choose has a specialization / area of expertise in relationships, stress management, etc.
  • Find a therapist that you have a good rapport with - you want to feel comfortable and that you are being understood by the person you are working with. You also want to feel you can share your experience without judgement, while also feeling that their support and feedback is beneficial to your unique situation.
  • Do not hesitate to contact them via the phone for a 10-minute meet and greet - the therapeutic rapport is so important to the success of therapy, that it is worth having a phone chat in advance of meeting to ensure you feel comfortable and aligned with the therapist.

Brittany: Do you have any final advice or resources you'd recommend for individuals going through a separation or divorce?

Kimberly: Separation and divorce is not easy for anyone. The reality is, it often comes at a time in our lives when we are busy with our career, children, and even aging parents. Remember to look after your own mental health by reaching out to friends, family, community support, and therapy as you navigate this time. Keep in mind, when we take on a new challenge in life, something has to give. We cannot keep the same expectations of ourselves that we had before a divorce or separation. You may have to lower your expectations of how clean your house is, or how many home-cooked meals get made. You are adding a major stressor in terms of time and emotions into your life, so go easy on yourself as you are going through it. You cannot solve everything in one shot, focus on the priorities (e.g., yourself, the children, the essential legal / financial items). Trust that, over the course of time, everything will get addressed. 

Embarking on the journey of separation or divorce can feel like navigating through the uncharted wilderness. It's important to remember that you're not alone in this journey. Experts like Kimberly Mueller are dedicated to supporting individuals like you through the complexities of this tumultuous process. Visit Kimberly at or find her on Instagram @PsychologistCalgary to start fostering resilience and cultivating positive self-talk during this difficult time.

In addition, the paralegals and legal coaches at Coach My Case are here to help as you navigate the challenges of any family law matter. Your well-being and mental health are paramount to us. We understand the intricacies of the law and can guide you through the maze, ensuring you come out the other side stronger and more resilient. Don't hesitate to reach out to us. Visit our website or call to book your free 20-minute consultation today.