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Stiff upper lip – or gibbering wreck?

We British, or so we’re told, are as famous for our collective “stiff upper lip” as for our passion for fish and chips.

Although it is a huge generalisation to dub an entire country as buttoned-up, there is more than a grain of truth in the received wisdom that Brits don’t go in for exaggerated displays of emotion. That’s why there was such surprise when the whole country appeared to rise up in shared grief following the untimely death of Princess Diana a decade ago.

What the Diana saga showed was that, as a nation, we have moved on: we are happier wearing our hearts on our sleeve than previous generations were. Still, though, a great many of us feel uncomfortable with the idea of allowing our private emotions to spill into the public arena. A lot of us even baulk at confiding our innermost thoughts to friends and relations.

This “stiff upper lip syndrome” can work well in many circumstances, but when it comes to divorce, I can see no benefits whatever in bottling up emotions such as grief, anger, frustration and a sense of failure.

Divorce is a kind of bereavement and no one would expect someone whose loved one has just died put on a brave face (although far too many bereaved people do just this).

Without wanting to sound sexist, men usually find it particularly difficult to give vent to their feelings – and that’s just in business. When it comes to personal issues, such as divorce, they retreat into their shells.

“Oh, I’m doing fine,” is the likely response from a newly separated or divorced man, even though I know, from my many years’ experience as a matrimonial lawyer, that men generally find it a whole lot harder than women to adapt to their newly single state.

Maintaining the “stiff upper lip syndrome” in the office is one thing, but keeping it up out-of-hours can be psychologically harmful.

I would advise anyone – male and female – to find a way of letting off steam: women are pretty adept at off-loading to girlie friends in a wine bar, but men struggle to identify a suitable outlet for their emotions. Hence they are more likely to turn to drink and drugs.

If you are going through a divorce, it is OK – no, it is legitimate – to feel devastated, unconfident and fearful of the future. It is hugely important that you are able to confide those feelings to someone – not necessarily everyone – in order to come to terms with what’s happened and start to move forward into a new phase in your life.

My advice, then, is to select someone – or a group of people – that you trust and to make a conscious effort to admit and explore the emotions that keep you awake at night. As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. Most friends and confidants will be supportive and encouraging.

I am not saying that being emotionally intelligent will take the pain away – of course it won’t – but it will enable you to deal with it more effectively and, hopefully, more constructively. Talking about how you feel can help not only to heal the wounds but also to move forward into a new way of being.

In other words, maintaining a stiff upper lip can, in the long term, turn you into a gibbering wreck. And that’s when you really do start to lose friends. So, bare your emotions when they hit – and feel the benefit.

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