Relationships Break-up

What happens when your relationship breaks up?
The break up of a marriage or de facto relationship is often very stressful. One or both of you may be distressed, resentful or angry. Hopes may seem shattered, your life disrupted and your lifestyle at risk. Whether you feel upset, numb or relieved, you face a lot of sorting out: you are likely to have many questions about separation, dissolution (the legal word for divorce), care of your children, child support and the division of your property.

This information outlines the steps that can be involved in the break up of a marriage but it cannot take the place of the legal advice that you should get from your own lawyer. Always see your Lawyer first.

If your relationship is in trouble you may want to get help from a counsellor. Counselling lets you explore alternatives, reach decisions and deal with your emotions. You may want to consider whether getting back together is possible or, if not, to work on reaching agreement about the issues involved in separation. Counselling can be for you or your partner alone or together.

You can get free counselling by making a formal request to the registrar of your local Family Court. Your lawyer will help you to do this. Or you can make private arrangements for counselling. Your lawyer, the registrar or the counselling coordinator at a Family Court can advise you of available counselling services, which include Relationship Services (formerly Marriage Guidance).


Couples sometimes live apart temporarily, for work or family reasons. They are not “separated”.

Some couples split up abruptly, with one partner leaving or being forced out by the other. They may then need to sort out whether they will get back together or will separate (live apart) permanently.

Some couples agree to separate while they are still living together. In most cases one partner will then move out, but it is possible for separated partners to live separate lives in the same home, and some do.

If one partner in a marriage wants to separate and the other does not, the partner wanting to separate can apply to the Family Court for a separation order. The court will make a separation order if it is satisfied that it is unreasonable to require the couple to continue living together. Partners in a de facto relationship cannot apply for a separation order but the Family Court may be able to assist in a range of other ways, for example occupation of the home.

If there has been violence: if your partner has injured you or you fear for your safety or the safety of your children, talk to your lawyer about getting protection orders. In special circumstances, orders can be made immediately. For further information refer to our other pamphlet Domestic violence. For both married and de facto couples a separation agreement can be simply an oral agreement to live apart. Often, however, partners will arrange for their lawyers to write a separation agreement that includes provision for custody of and access to children, maintenance and dividing up property.

If you and your partner can reach agreement on these things (or even some of them), you will save yourselves time, worry and expense. If you can’t agree, you may need the Family Court’s help.

If you decide to separate, talk to your lawyer who will:

Explain your rights and obligations and those of your partner;

  • advise you on matters causing you concern;
  • tell you what action you can take; act for you if you reach an agreement or in necessary court proceedings;
  • help you apply for legal aid if you are entitled to it;
  • take urgent action if that becomes necessary.

Each partner should have their own lawyer so that they get independent legal advice.