Can a Marriage Survive a Separation?
If divorce represents the “death” of a marriage, separation is a temporary “bedrest.” As with an illness, it’s often unclear what direction things are headed in during a separation. But a separation doesn’t have to signify a terminal condition. Below we look at how to assess the health of your relationship during a separation … and pump life back into your marriage.
Look Before You Leap (or Speak)
Before you ask for a separation, think long and hard about all potential consequences of this request. While you may perceive separation simply as a time to figure things out, your partner may perceive it as rejection … and a sign that divorce is inevitable. This may prompt him or her to “check out” from the relationship. Separation also creates confusion (e.g., when/if will we get back together, to what extent are we still married, etc.).
Why Prolong the Inevitable?
If a separation is so complicated, why even bother? Why not just fast-track it to divorce? For couples in troubled marriages, divorce may seem unavoidable. But that is not always the case. A major study by Linda Waite at the University of Chicago found that in so called unhappy marriages, almost 8 out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.
Benefits of Separation
A separation can provide a crucial “cooling off period,” allowing you to more objectively assess the strengths and weakness of a relationship. The time apart may help you remember your spouse’s better qualities, the qualities that made you fall in love. The separation can also give you a clearer perspective on any unhealthy aspects of the relationship—manipulation, co-dependency, etc. Meeting with a marriage counselor can help clarify if and how the marriage can be rebuilt on healthier terms. Individual therapy or marriage and relationship education (MRE) workshops may also be useful.
Separation doesn’t have the same clearly-defined parameters as either marriage or divorce. Accordingly, you and your spouse will have to determine how your separation will be structured and what it means to you. Some issues to discuss…
Dating Other People
Is seeing other people part of the separation? If so, think through how this might impact the possibility of a reunion with your spouse. Should you reconcile, will there be lingering jealousies? If you hope to salvage your marriage, casual dating may not be worth it. One alternative is to date each other—albeit in a limited way. Living apart doesn’t mean you have to cut all ties with each other. Going on dates once a week can inject romance back into your relationship, while allowing sufficient time and space to process through problems.
If you pursue this course, decide in advance what dating your spouse will look like. It may be beneficial to focus on rebuilding emotional intimacy, rather than physical intimacy, during this time. Sex can have an anesthetizing effect—dulling the pain in the relationship while doing nothing to actually address the root issues. As the emotional aspects of your relationship progress, so too can the physical aspect.
Some couples pursue a legal separation; others simply move out. Legal separation provides a formal process for outlining financial and living arrangements, as well as child support. The costs and processes involved in a legal separation are similar to those of divorce.
If you have children, be mindful of how the separation may affect them. A separation can disrupt a child’s basic sense of security and stability. Learning to co-parent effectively and communicate respectfully with your estranged spouse can help reduce the emotional strain on your children.
How will you and your spouse work on the problems in your relationship during this time? Jointly identify the specific issues that are causing conflict. Regardless of what happens with the marriage, these issues will need to be addressed. Merely finding a different partner will not erase old heartache or radically alter how you relate to a significant other.
If an affair triggered the separation, trust will need to be rebuilt. This process will require both time and effort. Take advantage of the many affair-recovery resources available—counseling, support groups, etc. If finances are creating problems in your marriage, set a strict budget and consult with a reputable credit counselor. Inability to communicate, lack of emotional connection and addiction are other common (but resolvable) struggles.
Ending the Separation
Some couples remain separated indefinitely, often due to religious or moral objections to divorce. Unless these are your convictions, a prolonged separation is probably not ideal. Set a timeline that is realistic for the severity of your relationship issues (3 months, 6 months, etc.). Schedule a date in advance to sit down together and discuss the future of the relationship. If progress has been made, you may want to consider moving back in together. Ongoing professional care is beneficial, perhaps even necessary, in the recuperation of your marriage.
A separation can be a time for healing in your relationship. Couples can—and often do—emerge from this period with stronger marriages. Those couples who actively work to restore healthy relationship patterns are likely to see the greatest progress in reviving their marriage.