As an experienced counselor, one of the questions I'm asked frequently is, "Can a marital separation ever save a marriage?" My answer is a qualified "yes."
Sometimes a couple is miserable living together and can't seem to co-exist without having constant harping and bickering. If they have children, they may worry about the impact on them of all the fighting. Each spouse wants the marriage to work and is willing to work on the problems and issues in marriage counseling while they're separated.
Couples in this situation often plan to use the separation period to "let the dust settle," reflect on the marriage, take responsibility for their share of what has happened, and work on individual and joint issues in counseling. One goal is for the spouses to use their problem-solving skills in counseling to address and resolve the most serious problems before moving back together. Both spouses agree not to date anyone else and to focus exclusively on working to improve the marriage.
For these couples, the separation can be a time to think, to reflect, to analyze, to cool off and calm down, and to take a break from each other. It also provides time and space for each spouse to make unhurried, thoughtful decisions instead of waiting for things to blow up and then impulsively leaving. Used in this way, a planned separation can actually help to save a marriage.
In other cases, one spouse or the other may move out on the spur of the moment after an upsetting argument. The separation is unplanned, and there are no plans for marriage counseling, no guidelines agreed upon about seeing others, and no tentative time-line for the separation.
There is usually much anxiety on the part of the partner who has been left unexpectedly and there are many unanswered questions: What is happening? Will the partner file for divorce? Will the marriage survive? Whether the separation will help or hurt the marriage is unknown in this case. Things could go either way, depending on what happens.
Another situation that can result in separation is when a spouse is living in an intolerable situation in the marriage. Perhaps the partner is verbally abusive, chronically runs around, or shows continual disrespect towards his or her spouse in some other way. The spouse may have tried to get the partner to go to counseling, but the partner always refused.
Sometimes the best thing the spouse can do is to decide to separate and hope that the partner will be shocked enough by the unexpected action to finally agree to work on the marriage. In situations like this, a separation can sometimes save the marriage.
The partner often says, "I knew we had some problems, but I didn't think they were that serious. I never thought she (or he) would really leave. She kept telling me, but I didn't believe her." The spouse then has to stand firm and let the partner know that she is going to live separately because "I refuse to be in a marriage where I'm treated like this. I deserve more."
By not rushing to file for divorce, the spouse finds out during the planned separation if the partner is finally motivated enough to enter counseling and work on changing. If the couple enters counseling, the therapist will then be able to give them a recommendation about when they are ready to live together again, if ever.
Of course, there are no guarantees in a marital separation. The separation might be instrumental in saving the marriage, or it may widen the gap between the two spouses and eventually lead to divorce. A planned separation is always preferable to an impulsive one.
The following five tips can help you if you need to think about separating from your spouse:
1. Talk with your spouse about what your individual goals are for the separation. Are they the same or different?
2. Try to reach agreement that neither of you will date anyone else during this period of time. If your marriage is going to have the best chance possible, you'll want to agree not to have sexual entanglements with others so you can continue to work on your relationship.
3. Set a tentative time period for the separation, such as three months. At the end of that time, you can both re-evaluate the decision in terms of what's best for each of you.
4. Agree to seek individual and joint counseling during the separation to address the key problems and issues that have caused conflict in the marriage. This is an ideal time to do some deep individual work on your own personal issues as well as to address core relationship issues.
5. Set guidelines that you both agree to about how much contact you'll have during the separation and what kind of contact it will be. It doesn't do any good to have a separation if one spouse or the other is calling on the phone every five minutes and constantly wanting to talk more about the problems. The separation is supposed to reduce conflict and give each person some space and relief from constant pressure and arguments.
Nancy J. Wasson, Ph.D., is co-author of Keep Your Marriage: What to Do When Your Spouse Says "I don't love you anymore!" This is available at http://www.KeepYourMarriage.com, where you can also sign up for the free weekly Keep Your Marriage Internet Magazine to get ideas and support for improving your marriage.
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