Separation – Pros and Cons

SeparationA question that occasionally comes up in the counseling room during couples counseling is, “We are thinking of separating, what do you think we should do?” In marital counseling, as a general rule, I am not a big fan of separation. While there are some legitimate times to separate, this intervention must be used with structure if it is going to be a part of saving the marriage.

Why are you separating?
For many, separation accomplishes nothing for two main reasons. One is that either spouse is not honest about the reason for the separation. The other is that there is no structure to the separation. You must know why you are separating and what will be done during the separation to work on the issues in the marriage.

Many couples want to separate because they are tired of fighting and just want out from under the stress. For some, they have already decided to divorce and are doing it by degrees because they think it will be easier on their mate, the children, or even themselves. Some say, “We want to see if we will miss each other.” Others want to bring the emotions down and see if, after a time-out, they can work things out. Some have decided to escape into fantasyland – have an affair, return to an addiction, blow money, etc. The separation gives them an excuse and opportunity to escape rather than deal with the problems at hand. Some of these are not necessarily wrong reasons for separation, but if no plan is put into place the problems usually resurface and the negative cycle starts all over as soon as the couple reunites.

Reasons for separation
There are some legitimate times to use separation in marital counseling. These would be such things as sexual, physical, or even severe verbal abuse on a mate or children. Another would be serial infidelity where a mate is put at risk for STDs. There could also be other illegal or immoral activities (such as drugs) that endanger the mate or others living in the home. Each person has to determine their own boundaries for how they allow others to treat them. A person with a healthy self worth and self-respect determines when they will no longer allow another person to treat them in a less than healthy way. The separation can be a way of communicating to your mate that the status quo is unacceptable and that you are unwilling to allow yourself to be treated this way. Oftentimes, one partner doesn’t realize how serious the situation is to the other person or has simply been unwilling to listen for any number of reasons. Bear in mind, however, that separation can be a two-edged sword – it can help repair the relationship in some cases, but can push it closer to divorce in others.

Separation structure
Here are some basic ingredients of structure to include in any separation plan:

Counseling – Find a counselor you both feel comfortable with and commit to meeting with them regularly. Here you are going to identify the issues and work on solutions. There may need to be individual counseling before you are ready to work as a couple.

Logistics – This would include things like a financial plan, dealing with children, and other family responsibilities. Who is moving out and where? How do you keep some sense of normalcy for children? What kind of contact will you have with each other initially? The goal in the logistics is kindness rather than being adversaries.
Continue to see and conduct yourselves as a married people. You should not be dating or being involved with another person while working on your marriage.

Look for safe ways to interact with one another to show each other the changes you are making in doing your part to make the marriage work. At a mutually agreed time you can start dating one another to work on healing and re-winning each other’s hearts. All of these things can be discussed and worked out in counseling. Neither mate should feel pressured to take a step before they are ready – patience is key.

Children can be a part of the counseling so they have a chance to process their feelings about the family. Remember that all of this affects them and they have little control. Children don’t’ need all the details of what is going on with their parents, but neither should they be ignored.

As progress is made, eventually, plans can be made for reuniting the family since this is the original goal of the separation.
This type of separation can greatly improve the odds of saving a marriage versus two people on their own just moving apart. Pray, seek wise counsel, make decisions patiently, and, above all, fight for the survival of your marriage!

Dr. John, along with his son John, Jr., directs Gateway Counseling Center and can be reached at [email protected]

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