Sometimes couples’ problems seem so intractable to them that the question of separation arises. When I’m asked that question during a counseling session I get the feeling of standing on a very high precipice. Emotionally I hold my breath for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Separation is a make-or-break kind of maneuver and therefore must be handled very carefully, like nitroglycerin.
When handled carelessly and flippantly separation makes things worse. Oftentimes, in the heat of the moment, someone storms out of the house and is gone for a night or a few days. After they cool down, they return home and things are better – for a while. But eventually the precipitating problem rears its ugly head again and the arguing starts all over. It’s a very predictable, destructive cycle.
Over the years I’ve adopted what I call The Four Rules of a Separation. If they are followed, separation can be an effective, therapeutic tool.
Rule # 1 – Both parties are very clear on why they are separating.
This requires that the couple sits down and spells out in very plain terms why they feel separation is the best current option.
Rule # 2 – Both parties define what needs to change during the separation.
If nothing is going to change during the separation, then why separate in the first place? This rule is about defining expectations in concrete terms. If the couple doesn’t share with each other their expectations of what will happen during the separation, then things will likely blowup very quickly when they get back together.
Rule # 3 – Decide how much contact you will have with each other during the separation.
My consistent recommendation on this point is that the couple have as little contact with each other as is humanly possible. The only communication that has to occur is sharing information regarding bills or the children. Other than those two topics, no information has to be passed.
This rule is the one that some have the most resistance to. The complaint is, “How can we work on our marriage if we’re not talking to each other or seeing each other?” My answer is that talking has apparently not worked to this point and now a brand new technique is being considered.
It’s inherent in the term “separation” that the couple be separated. I’ve known couples who separated and ate evening meals together regularly, talked daily by phone, had sex a couple of times a week, etc. Certainly no one could realistically describe that as a separation.
Will conversations and communications have to happen before the marriage problems are resolved? Absolutely. But if separation is a technique you want to use, then for the time being communication has to be severely restricted.
Rule # 4 – How long will the separation last?
There are no hard-and-fast rules on this. It is an arbitrary number that the couple must agree on. Whether it is one week, one month, or one year is completely up to the couple. But it is a number that must be stuck to.
Whatever length of time is agreed upon, it doesn’t mean that at the end of that period the couple will move back in with each other. It just means that at the end of the agreed upon time the couple will sit down and have a conversation. There will be a sharing of what each feels has been good and bad about being separated.
Then a decision can be made as to whether they want to continue with the separation or if they feel modifying the four rules would be helpful or if they are ready to move back in with each other.
Other than in cases where physical violence is present I never advise people to separate. My standard line is, “I don’t tell people when to get married or when to get divorced. And I don’t tell people when to separate or not.”
But if a couple has made the decision to separate, I advise them to follow the above rules. Those who do so have oftentimes been able to make significant strides in improving their marriage.