Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Arts and Humanities

First Supervisor

Dr Deidre Drake

Second Supervisor

Associate Professor Julie Ann Pooley

Third Supervisor

Associate Professor Pamela Henry


The increase in separation and divorce rates during the 20th century brought with it many far-reaching social implications for all involved, sparking a high level of interest among researchers. Most research in this area has been approached from stress frameworks that have conceptualised separation and divorce as a stressful life transition that individuals must adjust to. Yet, attempts to understand separation and divorce to date have been dominated by quantitative methods that have resulted in a relatively static and objective understanding of this experience; particularly in Australia. Furthermore, although international rates of divorce are declining, rates of separation following cohabiting unions are increasing. However, research continues to neglect the voices of formerly cohabiting individuals. Using a qualitative methodology, the current study sought to explore the experience of separation from the perspectives of both formerly married and cohabiting parents in Australia to learn more about how they adjust following this stressful life event. The term ‘separated’ was used to denote relationship dissolution to ensure adequate representation of both formerly married and cohabiting parents.

This study was embedded within an interpretivist paradigm and was guided by a phenomenological qualitative methodology. Using Moustakas’ (1994) systematic phenomenological research method, in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 55 separated parents ranging in age from 23 to 56 years. Thirty-four parents were formerly married and the remaining 21 were part of cohabiting unions. Of the 25 mothers who participated in the current study, 11 were residential, 5 were non-residential and 9 were shared care parents. Of the 30 fathers involved in the current study, 9 were residential, 11 were non-residential and 10 were shared care parents. Exploration of experiences of the six groups of parents allowed for more robust and rich data. Phenomenological data analysis guided by Moustakas (1994) was used to understand and interpret interview transcripts.

Data analyses identified five major themes and related sub-themes that captured the experience of separation and the factors associated with adjustment: uncoupling (including sub-themes of psychological health, family stress, infidelity, and drifting apart); uncoupled (including sub-themes of co-parenting, the economic struggle, loss and loneliness, identity: assumed and assigned, and psychological, emotional, and physical health problems); searching within the self (including sub-themes of personal control, selfregulation, optimism, and healthy living); reaching beyond the self (including sub-themes of connectedness, social support and reaching out, positive employment, constructive coparenting, the parent – child relationship, and loving again); and patterns of adjustment (including sub-themes of the rollercoaster, the ‘time’ factor, and the protective nature of separation).

Collectively, findings revealed that the Australian experience of separation began prior to separation and was constantly changing over time. Formerly married and cohabiting parents’ experiences were imbued with stressors frequently identified in research that has adopted dominant stress frameworks, along with numerous personal and environmental resources that lessened the impact of stressors and assisted adjustment following separation. A framework that represents the experience of separation and the factors associated with adjustment was developed based on these five themes. Findings support an understanding of adjustment following separation and divorce that advocates for a paradigm shift away from objective conceptualisations of this experience, towards an understanding of this experience as it is perceived by those who have been through it. Therefore, to only attend to static and objective conceptualisations of separation and divorce as they are experienced by formerly married individuals would be to overlook significant psychological and social elements of the separation and divorce experience. Further research is encouraged with a specific focus on gender, residential status and marital status.


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