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Northern Ireland businesswoman and celebrity hairdresser Brenda Shankey: My break-up hell

‘The separation was hell for me, but I now feel excited about the future and what it holds’

Belfast businesswoman and celebrity hairdresser Brenda Shankey tells Karen Ireland how she has endured three months of hell since splitting with husband Jason - but also why she now feels excited and optimistic about what lies ahead.

After months of constant rumours and speculation that they were living separate lives, Brenda Shankey today confirms that she and her husband Jason have been separated for the past six months.

The couple, who had been together for 18 years and married for 14 years, and who run four salons together as well as supplying a successful range of hair products, are parents to Lauren (15) and Will (13).

"The children and the businesses will remain our priority," stresses Brenda (45) in her first interview since the split.

Asked how she has been coping, she replies with complete honesty: "I went through three months of sheer hell when I did all the stages of the grieving process. First, there was absolute hysteria and shock. I thought I could fix things and we would get back together again.

"Next, there was anger and blame and I worried that I should have done more to make it work.

"Then I went through the feelings of loss that comes with being with someone for 18 years and realising that you are not with them anymore.

"Finally, reality hit me and I started to accept the situation. And when that happened, I went into the stage I am at now, which is looking after myself and preserving my own life."

Brenda, who is known for her bubbly, outgoing personality, says she hit rock bottom six months ago when she found herself alone in a rented house after leaving her beautiful marital home.

"I think we'd both known for a few years that things weren't right, but we tried to hang in there and cling on because of the children and the businesses," she explains.

"Then one day about six months ago we were rowing and I just put my hand up and said, 'No, I can't do this anymore. I am not going to do this for the next 40 years and live half a life'."

Brenda says she and Jason, who is also 45, then decided in a very mature and amicable manner to go their separate ways. She moved out of the family home and the children divide their time between the two houses.

"The children have been my rock," she admits. "They are amazing and say they are much happier now as they know we were making each other unhappy and now we both have a chance of happiness.

"In ways this has been an education for them as they have seen that sometimes relationships don't work out, but there is a way to walk away with dignity. They have seen me cry and they have seen me come out the other side."

Evidently, though, her new-found acceptance with finding herself single again has come after many weeks of turmoil and anguish, and Brenda talks openly about how, in those difficult first few months, she felt lost and alone.

"I suddenly found myself in a strange house which wasn't my home," she says. "I had to take care of all these things Jason had taken care of - from simple things like working the heating in the house to taxing and insuring my car. I'd never done any of that. Jason always took care of things like that for me."

At the same time, Brenda says that while she found the break-up incredibly difficult, she also knew that once she had accepted the love in the marriage was lost there would be no going back. "We had become two functioning business partners, rather than a married couple - the love was gone and all that was left was the business," she explains. "So we both held our heads up and walked away diplomatically and amicably. We both knew it was gone and there was no point in trying anymore."

Brenda says they have worked hard at remaining friends as they know they still have to work together, running their impressive business empire.

At the moment they are in the process of growing the business - next month their salon in House of Fraser in Victoria Square, Belfast, will double in size, while they are currently finalising the details on the opening of a new salon in a prestigious hotel. They also have two other salons in Belfast and one in Holywood.

"Business is fantastic and will remain so as that is what we are good at," says Brenda. "We meet twice a week to discuss the business and email each other constantly. We are polite and courteous to each other and continue to operate well as business partners as that is what we know how to do best. We had simply fallen out of love, which is sad but it happens so often."

The support of close pals has proved invaluable as Brenda navigates uncharted waters in her personal life. "I am surrounded by friends who are in a similar situation and they have been a great support," she admits. "My friends have been amazing.

"I have all this extra time now I don't have the children every night, so I see a lot more of my friends. I honestly feel like I have been given a second chance at life. I now feel happy and free. I can do what I want when I want and I don't have to consider anyone else - only me.

"I enjoy the time I have with the children much more as I don't see them every day, so when I do see them it is precious and I make the most of it. For the first time in years I am excited about the future and what it holds for me."

When asked what she wants to do with her new-found freedom, Brenda says she hopes to travel more. She has just returned from France with son Will and plans to take both her son and daughter back to the country, to Nice, in a few weeks.

"I want to enjoy my time with the children before they head off to university and do their own thing," she says.

"I want to make the most of every second. So I am going to spoil them and go on lots of trips."

For some time Brenda, former Belfast Telegraph Business Woman of the Year winner, has been a passionate advocate of the benefits of mindfulness.

In January, she brought out her first book, Be Fabulous, which has more than 14 chapters examining topics such as morning meditation, evening meditation, how to talk to yourself positively, coping with hardships and beating stress. It's a technique she has found especially helpful over the past emotionally challenging months, and she now has plans for more projects in this area.

"I also want to concentrate on my mindfulness and write more books," she says. "I am working on a book for children and planning classes for children in September."

She attributes all her studying of mindfulness to how well she has been able to cope with the shock and change the separation has brought.

"It has taught me that everything happens for a reason and there is no point in getting angry - that won't solve anything," Brenda says.

"It has taught me to accept things that happen and that after the storm comes the sunshine. I truly believe what is coming is better than what has been.

"Yes, I went through hell in the early days and I cried myself to sleep and there were days when I could barely function. I had been with Jason for 18 years, and that's a long time. But I wouldn't change anything and I certainly wouldn't go back. Now I have come out the other side I am happier now than I have ever been.

"The children and I are just like three free birds in the new house. We do what we want when we want together. I have them on a Thursday through to a Sunday and Jason has them the rest of the time."

When asked how she thinks Jason is coping with the split, Brenda remains ever diplomatic.

"Jason keeps his cards close to his chest so it is hard to know what he is feeling but he, too, seems happier and freer," she says. "He is enjoying going out with his friends and riding his motorcycle and just having the freedom to be himself. I think he is also happier than he has been in years. He seems happy and relaxed.

"It is like the pressure is off both of us. We know we gave it our best shot, but in the end it wasn't meant to be. Jason is a fantastic businessman and a great dad and he will continue to be all those things."

Brenda is adamant that there was no one else involved in the breakdown of the marriage. And when asked whether she would like to meet someone else, she smiles and dismisses the notion, saying that she wants to take time to savour her new-found independence.

"Definitely not at the minute," she laughs. "I am just finding me and loving being by myself. I do think everyone needs someone and I would hate to think that I will be on my own for the rest of my life, but right now I am totally happy being me. I don't need anyone else.

"I don't want to have to impress anyone else or make them happy. I just want to make myself happy.

"I want to try new things and do new things now that I have this extra time. I want to learn a new language and I want to travel."

So for Brenda there is no going back - only looking forward.

She adds with conviction: "I am so excited to see what the future brings."

  • Brenda talks about her life story in a BBC Radio Ulster interview tonight with Mairead Campbell on her new show at 10pm

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