Matthew Pruen Of The French Retreat On 5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Fall in love with yourself. When we fall in love, we become fascinated by our partner’s every move. Get as intrigued by your own inner workings: the range of your emotions; the spectrum of thoughts, judgements, beliefs and assumptions; the extraordinary miracle that is your body. This inner enquiry gives you vital data. Check-in with yourself every morning. What could be more important than being in good connection with yourself as you face the world?
As part of our series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce Or Breakup” I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Pruen.
Matthew is a relationship coach and group facilitator. He is also a supervising facilitator with the Hoffman Institute UK. Alongside his wife, Emma, he designs and delivers relationship workshops internationally and from their retreat centre near Bordeaux (retreat.fr). He is also a father of three, a grandfather of three, a musician and an artist.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in Lebanon. My English father was a United Nations diplomat, my mother, a Lebanese/Palestinian artist. The ‘75-’91 Civil War exiled my family to the UK where I traded the warm Mediterranean for the thrills of art school in late 70s Britain. This mixed ethnicity has enabled me to see the beauty and flaws of both cultures. And unexpectedly, it set me up to be a mediator of sorts — translating, where I could, the mistrust of the “other” into fleeting connection. Post 9/11, this has felt more and more important.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’d attended numerous personal development workshop including therapy and relationship therapy and came to see there was something couples needed which couldn’t be achieved in weekly one-hour sessions. What was gained in an hour got lost in the remaining week and talking therapy wasn’t enough on its own. This inspired me to create my own private three-day course for couples in difficulty.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
A strange syndrome occurs. I see a pattern of numerous clients bringing the same issues all at once, which also happens to be a subject I’m grappling with. Is this collective intelligence at play? Part of the evolution of consciousness? Or just the fickle universe giving me a kick? Perhaps all three. In any event, themes of authenticity, forgiveness or facing fears come up with uncanny timing and regularity. The insights I gain in the privilege of my role are very helpful, if humbling, for me personally. For all my flying hours, there has been nothing quite so insightful as witnessing the openness of my couple client’s courage and vulnerability.
Until working with one fabulously honest couple, I’d understood my willingness to apologise in marital rows a sign of my virtue. When I did it first, I would be quietly smug — as though I’d won some kind of contest. Listening to one of the couple confess that he often used apologies to close the discussion down because of his fear of confrontation was a slap in my superior face. ‘Fessing up about this brought a smile of recognition to my wife’s face, but also helped me change.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a group facilitator, it is sometimes my job to read and absorb in-depth information about my students. I have to quickly refer to key life events to support their process. Typically I am diligent and reliable, but on one fateful occasion I inadvertently referred to cosmetic surgery to the wrong person. Mortified, I immediately apologised only to find that the client had taken it as a compliment. The lesson learnt was “if you’re not sure, shut the f*** up”!
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“If you can’t regulate your own emotional temperature, you’ll regulate everyone around you to keep yourself comfortable.” David Schnarch
I often see the legacy of unhealed childhood wounds playing out as manipulation and drama in adult relationships. I know this in my own life too. One couple transformed their communication when they made the connections for themselves. They came to see that they had been in reaction to each other as if they actually were the abandoning father and controlling mother they’d grown up with. His tendency to shut down and escape on long business trips and her coping strategy of angrily taking over were a perfect echo of their childhood environment. Their reactions to each other in these states weren’t just the predictable frustrations of two scratchy adults, but also the deep pain of their hurt inner children. After witnessing their respective histories, they came to see a parallel between their journeys. Despite different stories on the surface, both strongly identified with the other’s experience of rejection. This empathy bonded them deeply and they were able to take things much less personally. And I knew they were on the mend when I saw them side-stepping triggering moments by ironically calling each other Mum and Dad.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My wife Emma and I will be writing a book about the hidden dynamics of intimate relationships. There is lots out there about how to catch the guy or keep your marriage alive but less about understanding what is underneath the endless power struggle of intimate relationships, and more importantly how to get out of it and use it to deepen intimacy and connection.
Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell us a bit about your experience going through a divorce, or helping someone who was going through a divorce? What did you learn about yourself during and after the experience? Do you feel comfortable sharing a story?
A couple I supported separated at such a gentle pace, healing past grievances and completing so beautifully that when they divided their possessions they took care that the other left with favourite paintings or wedding gifts, even swapping family heirlooms, remembering that in time it would all end up with their beloved son anyway. They divorced without lawyers and just for the price of submitting the papers to the law courts. They continued to co-parent and even had the odd Christmas together so their child didn’t have to choose between them. This taught me the real possibilities of good endings.
In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?
People usually divorce when the pain becomes unbearable. We might not be in fit state to live together, but when we use divorce as an escape, there are unforeseen consequences. It’s often a mistake to rush things.
Much like a stiff gin and tonic, separation can bring an initial relief. But as with alcohol, a hangover follows. Anyone who married in good faith, discovers divorce is a bereavement. It is the death of a dream. When divorce is used as an anaesthetic this enormous loss goes ungrieved. When it wears off, the pain comes back tenfold. It is far better to process the loss together. This takes time and often needs third party support. That’s my job.
When working with couples who are facing the end or are ambivalent about a future together, I encourage them to treat the ‘should I stay or go’ question as secondary. It is important of course, but it’s essential to be in a fit state beforehand. Surprisingly, the optimal conditions for saying goodbye are identical to those needed for happily staying together. We need to witness and validate each other’s honest experience of the relationship — the highs and lows. Next, we need to let go of past grievances and forgive our partners and ourselves. This opens up the possibility of kindness and respect in the future. I can’t see a way round it and rest assured I’ve tried! It’s tempting to avoid the awkwardness and vulnerability, but if we do, we’ll likely experience these incompletions as restlessness and anxiety until we do.
People generally label “divorce” as being “negative”. And yes, while there are downsides, there can also be a lot of positive that comes out of it as well. What would you say that they are? Can you share an example or share a story?
What motivates people to get married in their twenties might have been influenced by our relatively recent childhood. This may steer them towards safety and security as a primary need. By the time we reach forty, we may find that same stability feels suffocating and our need for adventure and passion boils over. Now that marriage is less to do with the advancement of the family, it’s both innocent and honourable to say goodbye if the time comes. But of course, this must also be done skillfully and with integrity, particularly when there are children involved.
Given my own experience of having been married twice — and having a merged family — the work that touches me most is when I am asked to support couples parting. One couple I worked with slowly came to this conclusion themselves during my Couples’ Course. On the third day, having cleared their resentments, they greeted me with great vulnerability and dignity saying they had decided to free each other from the marriage and commit to an authentic friendship. They are thriving.
Some people are scared to ‘get back out there’ and date again after being with their former spouse for many years and hearing dating horror stories. What would you say to motivate someone to get back out there and start a new beginning?
I’m not a coach who gives dating advise. I support people to get in fit state for a healthy relationship. However once they are ready my top tip is this: Do what you love and lights you up. If you love singing join a choir or open mic nights, creative writers get in a writing group, if plants are your thing dig up a gardening club. Being seen in your power will attract healthy people. If not, you put yourself on the radar of rescuers and abusers. Let the world see you at your most resourced.
What is the one thing people going through a divorce should be open to changing?
Themselves! There is a bluntly simple Irish expression: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. If there is still resentment and recrimination between you and your ex, let this be the first thing you change. Forgiveness is an act of self-interest.
Nelson Mandela famously said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
If this feels impossible, then get help. Bitterness is also a choice.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. If you had a close friend come to you for advice after a divorce, what are 5 things you would advise in order to survive and thrive after the divorce? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Fall in love with yourself. When we fall in love, we become fascinated by our partner’s every move. Get as intrigued by your own inner workings: the range of your emotions; the spectrum of thoughts, judgements, beliefs and assumptions; the extraordinary miracle that is your body. This inner enquiry gives you vital data. Check-in with yourself every morning. What could be more important than being in good connection with yourself as you face the world?
One client genuinely struggled to find anything positive to say about herself. Provocatively I asked: “Tell me three good things about Hitler”. Unhesitatingly — and with incredible good grace (to my shame, I later discovered she’d lost family in the Holocaust) — she explained that this icon of evil had been compassionate to animals, a devout vegetarian and amazingly for the time, a committed non-smoker. Once my embarrassment had subsided, we had to concede that it was improbable that she was less endowed with qualities than history’s greatest villain.
Even if you can’t see your qualities they absolutely are there, it’s just that you cannot see them. Ask a friend to remind you.
2. Become a good hoper. Hoping is hard, especially when what we’re hoping for is our heart’s desire. Hope, far from being the thrilling, arousing experience we might have thought, is actually a deeply vulnerable business. It asks us to accept the gap between where we are, and where we yearn to be. When we are lacking a profound human need like connection and closeness, then the stakes are very high indeed.
Facing lack is painful, especially a lack of love. We immediately experience the fear of heartbreak. It feels imprudent to let ourselves dream too big. We make meaning of our history of hurts by judging ourselves as deficient. We may compare ourselves unfavourably to others and reach the sad conclusion that … “I’m not the sort of person who will find love”.
This thinking leads to despair of course, and yet we have a dangerous, but readily available way to soothe ourselves. What we do is we lower our dreams to a level where we’d be indifferent to — or at least feel able to cope — with the loss, if our hope went unfulfilled.
When, after a few months of self-denial we find ourselves still hurting, then we need to lower the bar further. Over time we talk ourselves into a smaller and smaller existence. This syndrome is more commonly called depression.
We need to learn to tolerate the vulnerability of hoping in order to give our dream a chance of blossoming.
Luckily, we all have a super power. It’s called visioning. We must be able to imagine what we want if we are to manifest it, otherwise we wouldn’t know what we were looking for and wouldn’t know when we found it.
One participant on our Finding Love workshop started by asserting her independence “I’ve realised I don’t really want a relationship at all. What I want is someone to make me a cup of tea once” she said. Nobody believed her of course, she was on a Finding Love retreat. By the end of the first day, she had come clean … “actually,” she said tearfully, “all that stuff about cups of tea was hooey”. By letting go of the false narrative and owning her vulnerability her vision finally had a chance of happening.
3. Before beginning a new relationship make sure you learn the true meaning of intimacy. I define it as:
‘Sharing your authentic thoughts, feelings and life experiences with someone and witnessing theirs — without agenda.’ Without agenda means scrupulously avoiding manipulation. For example, speaking angrily with the intention to intimidate or bully the other. Or overtly expressing hurt to instill guilt.
Intimacy is a skill, improved with practice. Before taking on a new relationship, make sure you have a handful of people you practice intimacy with. If necessary, resuscitate old friendships. Think of it as getting yourself racing fit for a more evolved relationship when it comes.
One couple I worked with noticed they had slowly let their friends slip away by making the relationship the only important thing. The cracks were showing — and not for lack of love. When they freed each other from the myth of ‘you’re my one and only’, they unburdened each other from the unsustainable role of having to be everything for them.
4. Give yourself the grace to be a beginner. You are, no doubt, super competent in many areas of your life, but take honest stock of those areas where you struggle and be curious about your own quirks. Ask trusted friends for feedback. When we develop awareness of our own part in our struggle, our blind spot gets smaller. There is a hangover from our childhoods which arrested our development in certain ways. Neglect in childhood can lead to unregulated behaviour in adult life. If we grew up with drama or threat, we may well be prone to anxiety, pleasing or isolation in relationship. If we experienced abandonment or absence we may tend towards control, or have a hunger for attention. These adaptations served us as children of course — they may well have helped us survive — but they could well be past their sell by date. The challenge is to make these automatic reflexes conscious so we can first see ourselves acting out in real time, and then write a new script.
One post-divorce client of mine took my suggestion to buy a clicker to record each time she noticed she was obsessively thinking about her ex. She had become aware that this ruminating was keeping her in the past and reinforcing a sense of being a reject. Initially she was shocked to find the daily tally was much higher than she had expected. It dropped day by day. Eventually we celebrated the milestone of a whole month free of obsession.
If you find this to be a vulnerable process, then congratulate yourself. It’s nothing less than heroic. Beginner’s mind is the openhearted state where magic happens. It may be awkward, but nothing ever changed by being comfortable.
5. If you want love again, make sure you’re in a fit state for it. Set the intention to lovingly re-parent yourself. What does this mean? As children, our parents hopefully attended to our needs. The extent to which they did this well and the extent to which they failed, both contribute to our suffering in adult relations.
When they cared for us well, when they heard our cries and swiftly fed, changed or cuddled us, it set us up with a delusional belief that to be loved, means having our needs met immediately.
Equally, when they were unable to love us as we needed and we experienced neglect or judgement or worse, it set us up with an insatiable hunger. This, as adults, robs us of the ability to accept a moderate amount when we do get our needs met. It’s never enough. More painfully, we may even push it away when we do get it because it feels too intense.
Ask yourself what did you crave most from your parents when you were little — and mostly didn’t get? What do you need to do to meet those needs for yourself now? Start by giving yourself a hug. Yes, really. Touch was the primary way we experienced our belonging as babies and it still works. As you hug yourself make a plan to meet a need today. If it’s a need for companionship, call a friend and open up a little. If it’s a need to feel special, take yourself out for a special treat. It needn’t mean buying a sportscar, maybe a bunch of flowers or an inspiring book.
A client of mine rewards herself when he’s managed to go for a swim, by stopping by the art supplies shop and treating himself to a box of pencils. He tells me his inner child responds far better to this than to a packet of chocolate biscuits.
The stress of a divorce can take a toll on both one’s mental and emotional health. In your opinion or experience, what are a few things people going through a divorce can do to alleviate this pain and anguish?
Make friends with silence and solitude. Designate clear times of the day for screens and distractions, but always ensure space for some ‘me’ time. The information age is a noisy time to be alive. It demands our attention. In the stillness of a moment of relationship with ourselves we will access the most important daily news. After the trauma of divorce, this can be uncomfortable. Checking our phone is cheap dopamine on demand so challenge yourself to put the screens away for longer and longer periods. Eventually you’ll stop twitching and you might have the good cry you need. Better out than in.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers?
Anything by the fabulous Esther Perel. Also, David Richo’s The 5 Things we Cannot Change is brimming with ancient Buddhist wisdom made contemporary.
Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to think I play my small part in scotching the myth that good relationships are always good. The difference between a good and bad relationship is not that good ones don’t have problems. Struggle is inevitable and no human being, no matter how virtuous, is kind and loving all the time. In any long term, committed relationship, no matter how lucky or successful, we’ll experience our partners in both relaxed and stressed states. And they’ll see us that way too. The simple fact is that when human beings are relaxed, they are adorable, when they are stressed, they are a nightmare. That is true of us all. Me too as Emma will testify. So, in healthy partnerships, the key difference is that grievances are processed quickly and well. In unhealthy ones the resentment grows. After all, we trust people who offend against us and put it right far more than people who never offend at all.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
For my own entertainment and pleasure, I would invite the author Dr Gabor Mate and the late, great journalist Robert Fisk to dinner. Dr Mate’s wisdom and compassion and getting the secret back story on world events from Mr Fisk would be heavenly.
Thank you for these great insights and for the time you spent with this interview. We wish you only continued success!