The Brexit Break-Up And The Psychology Of Separation

The UK is about to undergo divorce from the European Union. Having triggered article 50, Prime Minister Theresa May has this week, entered into no man’s land, that space that couples arrive in during the psychological stage of separation. As such, we are all now in limbo in terms of knowing what might happen next. On the one side we have the EU members setting out their position and on the other we have the UK politicians maintaining as confident a stance as possible. In reality, the next two years are likely to see an eruption of the underlying resentments and furies which have been kept at bay by the formal marriage of our country into the EU. No longer governed by the vows we made however, the psychological boundary which kept these negative feelings under control, is gone. And with it all predictable outcomes in terms of what happens now.


Entering the process of separation after a long marriage takes a significant toll. Whilst it can seem easy to divorce on the outside, the internal dynamics of the process are complex. Whilst the focus of the outside world is upon the physical separation, the emotional, mental and psychological processes are much more tricky to negotiate. In some marriages, long after the decree absolute is signed, a couple can remain in psychological relationship to each other, seen often when ex-partners spend inordinate periods of time and money attacking each other in court in a negatively bonded state of mind.


Watching the separation process in Brexit, there are plenty of signs that this is a significant risk for the UK in terms of both the exit negotiation process and the future. There is much in this unfolding drama, to suggest that in the next decades, the trauma bond between the UK and the rest of Europe will prompt some ugly scenes. The attempt to separate is already raising hackles and the negotiation process shows all the signs that blackmail and other threatening behaviours seen in the divorce process will feature strongly. In every respect it cannot be any other way because a marriage cannot be unpicked without unpleasantness and couples cannot part without breaking open the bonds which held them together. When the separation process involves one country leaving a union however, the scale of the psychological trauma is potentially huge, affecting not one but many people. In the months and years to come, Brexit has the capacity to psychologically impact upon all of us and not in the ways many are celebrating right now.


The danger zone for separation and divorce lies in the space just beyond the decision to separate when the psychological realisation that change is coming kicks in. In this space many fears are dredged from the unconscious and a defensiveness erupts in which protection of the self comes to the fore. Without the open channel of communication which assists in soothing and protecting the marriage when the union was intact, the defensive stance is heightened by a return to tribal mentality. Just as separating couples return psychologically to their family of origin during the divorce process, Brexit is about to drive Britain back into that isolated place in which dependence upon the past and the belief in greatness is our only psychological defence. Given that the United Kingdom is unlikely to remain that way for long, what happens next is likely to have a ripple effect down the next generations.


Divorce and separation rarely happens without causing harm to children. As Britain enters the no man’s land of negotiation, growing up in Britain just became psychologically more unpredictable for children now and to come.