The gray area between staying married and divorcing is separating. What does this mean and what does it look like? There are more variations on this theme than any other, but most people don’t usually opt for separation as a long-term solution. When we hear that a husband and wife are separating, most of us think that they are on their way to the divorce court. Couples who have reached this point have usually tried various interventions and tactics to get the marriage back on track, but nothing has worked. The marriage is in a state of disrepair, so now there is nothing left to do but split up, separate, and then divorce.
However, rather than a means to an end, separation can be a helpful tool to stay together. This seems counterintuitive when a marriage is troubled and relations are fragile. Most of us believe that when we feel our spouse slipping away from us, we should merge together more, get as close as we can, and do more to “make the marriage work”.
The thought of creating distance at such a time instills a great deal of fear of losing control of your spouse and your relationship. This option is especially challenging if the bond between the two of you has been weakened by a betrayed trust. But employed carefully and skillfully (and usually with some type of professional support), this tool can be quite effective in bringing two people closer together.
In this article, we’ll explore the three main reasons why couples separate: to enhance their marriage, to gain perspective on their marriage, and to take a first step in the divorce process.
Separation to enhance the marriage
Separation between spouses does not always have to be incorporated just when the relationship is heading south. It can be used as a tool to improve relations. We’re living in a time when there are many more variations on marriage than the traditional ideas we learned about in fairy tales or from older TV shows like Father Knows Best. Contemporary trends include couples living in separate towns for part of the time or living in the same town but in different homes.
Tom, a college professor, leaves his wife Laurie every September to teach the fall semester at a college in another part of the country. When he finishes teaching, he returns home to Laurie. Both Tom and Laurie cherish this arrangement because they have enough alone time to feel autonomous and enough togetherness to feel married. They describe their marriage as very strong and state that it would probably not be as good if they lived together 365 days of the year. Living apart enhances their relationship.
Another couple, Jane and Sam, live in northern California. This couple seriously considered divorce because of different parenting styles. When Jane was offered a job in Los Angeles, she took it. Unsure whether marital dissolution was going to be the end result, Jane was reluctant to completely move out of their home in Napa, so instead she rented an apartment in Los Angeles. She stayed in Southern California Monday through Friday and commuted home to the wine country each weekend to be with Sam and the kids.
What they soon discovered was that, even though their parenting styles never quite meshed, there was less conflict, because Jane was away most of the time. Sam, who was a househusband, had charge of the kids during the week, and Jane wasn’t there to contradict his parenting style.
There are other married couples who choose to live in separate residences, whether a town away or down the street from each other, to simultaneously maintain individuality and partnership.
Living apart doesn’t absolve either party from having to work on the relationship. What is crucial to understand is that these arrangements succeed only when there is good mutual communication and honesty about what works and what doesn’t. Each spouse trusts the other and shares the same expectations. They both enjoy a sense of autonomy while sharing the goal of creating a healthier connection with each other.
Separation to gain perspective on the marriage
In 1999, Joan Anderson wrote a book called A Year by the Sea, in which she tells the autobiographical story of living by herself at her summer house for a full year to determine whether or not she wanted to remain in her marriage. Ultimately, she decided to reconcile with her husband, and the clarity she gained by taking care of herself in this way had a positive and powerful impact on her and the rest of her family.
Sometimes couples actually gain this perspective through their willingness to let go of the relationship. Living apart allows them to step out of the muck and mire, and get onto higher ground.
Couples can choose to implement such a nuptial time-out informally and on their own, or more formally and with professional guidance. In her book Should I Stay or Go? therapist Lee Raffel helps couples create what she calls a “controlled separation.” Following particular parameters (not unlike how an actual divorce situation would look, complete with temporary financial support, child custody.visitations, and separate living quarters), each person agrees not to file for divorce during the controlled separation and to give the other as much distance as needed to get perspective or to heal past hurts. At the end of the agreed-upon term of separation (usually six months), the couple can reassess their goals with the hope of getting back together.
Of course, not everyone undergoing a controlled separation arrives at the decision to reunite, but it is a different spin on resolution that can be quite helpful to many couples.
Curt, the husband in a couple I worked with, told me that after his wife, Dianne, moved out, he felt such a sense of relief and renewed energy from being apart from her that he had no idea how he had lasted in the marriage for close to 30 years. For him, the break validated that leaving the relationship was the right decision.
The internal reactions people have to separating can be quite varied. However, this process will almost certainly bring you valuable information and insights about yourself and your relationship.
Separation as a step toward divorce
This is the form of separation that most people are familiar with. Couples who know they want to divorce have often lived with a great deal of discomfort or lack of fulfillment — and usually for a very long time — so being apart from their spouses can be welcome relief.
The split may be prompted by the fact that one or both partners have changed (or not changed), they are no longer in love, they no longer share common interests, a trust has been betrayed, or a crisis has caused them to reexamine their relationship.
These individuals or couples have crossed an invisible line of no return. While they may struggle with the “shoulds”, such as “We should stay together because of the kids,” they know in their hearts that the relationship is over.
When asked if there is any chance of reconciliation, they will give it anywhere from a 10 to 30 percent chance. It is a rare occasion when someone says that there is zero possibility of turning things around.
I surmise this, because with every major decision in life, there is a list of pros and cons that comes with the territory. Getting divorced is not necessarily a clear-cut or easy decision, even when there is tremendous abuse or neglect. Most people understand that they are trading in their uncomfortable “knowns” for some “unknowns”, with no guarantee of any more happiness than the situation they are letting go of, but it is a chance they are willing to take to be more in alignment with their truths.
Once a couple is on the divorce track, the separation is not implemented with the purpose of getting a better perspective on the relationship (although this can happen); rather, it is part of the natural course as each party prepares to go his or her individual way. This is the “in-between” stage of the process.
Sometimes, living apart is necessary. The husband and wife can no longer reside under the same roof due to the level of anger, distrust, or animosity between them. Sometimes it just makes sense to begin the separation process by having one person move out. It can soften the contrast between being married and being divorced.
While not all couples live in separate dwellings during divorce proceedings, most do. In areas of the country where the cost of living is relatively high, some spouses have to live in the same house for economic reasons. This is often a temporary situation, and it’s a rare couple who can actually continue living together after their divorce is finalized.
One housing option many parents choose these days to minimize the upheaval for their children is commonly referred to as “nesting”. This is when each parent rotates moving in and out of the family home, while the children stay put. Each spouse may have his or her own apartment, separate from the other’s apartment, or they may share the same apartment (since they aren’t living there at the same time).
When you are considering ending your marriage, it is important to imagine what life might be like once the divorce actually happens and both spouses move on. Be as honest as you can with yourself and your partner, and try to maintain good relations. However, be aware that trying, at any cost, to preserve the sense of family to avoid hurting someone or maintain constancy for the kids can come back to haunt everyone later on.
Susan Pease Gadoua, LCSW is founder and executive director of the Transition Institute of Marin, an agency that provides coaching, therapy, and workshops to people who are at some stage of marital dissolution, in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. This article has been edited and excerpted with permission from Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (New Harbinger Publications, 2008).
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