Sometimes fighting for your marriage means separating for a period of time to allow the marriage to heal.
Side note – This post is not an invitation to debate whether or not separation is a good or bad thing. What it is about is how to do a separation well. I have been counseling for many years and I have seen couples thrive and reconcile after having a structured separation. I know it works when done well, and when the couple truly desires to reconcile to one another and remain married.
Some essential things to keep in mind when considering a marital separation –
1. You will need a third party to help you and your spouse develop the structure for your separation of which all parties must agree to. This role is best filled by a counselor, pastor, or some other subjective/impartial third party.
2. Assess your motives for the separation – are you separating to be “free” from your spouse knowing all along you want a divorce or is your goal reconciliation? As you assess your motives please know that to desire reconciliation is not to say it absolutely will be the outcome of the separation. When a couple arrives at the place of considering separation there is likely to be much hurt, pain, and relational items to be resolved. So to desire to reconcile with your spouse is not the same as “you must reconcile.”
3. Structure, structure, structure – any separation I oversee has structure. I have found this is easiest to achieve by sitting with the couple and creating a contract (or you may call it a covenant) together. The purposes of the contract are to outline what the arrangements, expectations, and commitments each promise to during the separation. It is a document for each spouse to sign as well as the third party you have asked to oversee your separation. Some items to include within this agreement are the length of the separation (I begin the separation with any couple recommending a 6 month separation), amount of contact the couple will have during separation, expectations for what each spouse is to accomplish during this time, an agreement of how each will handle their finances, where each will live, how to handle visitation with children (if it applies), how the couple will communicate their separation to family, friends, and their children (if applicable), and individual and couple counseling frequency. It is also important to ask each spouse what they feel like they need for themselves during this time of separation and to incorporate their needs into the contract when healthy and support the ultimate goal of reconciliation.
Some tips for a time of separation –
1. Don’t do it alone
Create a team (counselor(s), pastor(s), trusted friend(s), etc.) of support. Think of this team as your triage team. This team will be available to you to assist in nursing your marital relationship back to health. Be sure to put people on this team who are for your relationship and not those who will be negative about your spouse.
2. Separation means you separate
Take a relational break from one another and stick to it. Remember the goal is reconciliation … so honoring the separation is essential for this time apart to do its job. Defining the level of contact you will have with one another should be one of the items addressed in your separation contract.
3. Focus on you and your “stuff”
This is not a time for you to focus on your spouse’s issues. Focusing on the issues your spouse needs to work on will not help you address the areas you need to change. Worry about you only and what you need to focus on. If your focus remains solely on what your spouse needs to change and how they are wrong, this should be an indicator to you that you are ignoring some things in your own heart. Pray for them and your marriage, but don’t fixate on how your spouse needs to change.
4. Honor the contract you signed
Do what you agreed to do in the contract you signed. Your separation is not a time to play or to ignore your marriage. It is a time of relational reprieve to allow each of you to focus on your own heart and mind and to ultimately bring about change and healing within your marital relationship. This time is essential for the future of your marriage. Take it seriously. I’m not saying you can’t have fun during this time or still enjoy life, but I am saying that if you see your separation as a chance for fun then this points to a bigger heart issue. If this is you, be honest about it with yourself and your team.
5. Don’t hide
Do not hide your fears, concerns, or your feelings of hopelessness for your marriage. For your separation to have its best chance at allowing you and your spouse to reconcile, you must be committed to honesty and openness.
6. The kid factor
Being separated without kids
Just be thankful you don’t have kids because being separated with kids is hard.
Being separated with kids
Being separated and having your children remain one of the top priorities is hard. You are in the midst of your own confusion and pain, and your stress level is most likely very high. Parenting while living through this hard time of separation may be one of the hardest things you ever do. You must (and I mean must) purpose every day to think about your children and how to protect their little minds and hearts during this time. Just think, if this time is hard and confusing for you, how much more is it for them? A lot more. I would like to suggest you ask, and re-ask, this question to yourself daily, “In all of the decisions I am making while separated about our family, arrangements, how I talk about my spouse, etc., am I making decisions based on what is best for them?” I am not saying that your children should be prioritized over and above reconciling your marriage, but what I am saying is that you need to be keenly aware of where “your stuff” begins and ends and not let it interfere with how you and your spouse care for your children during this time of separation.
-Lianne Johnson, LPC