Relationships evolve over time, along with individual needs. If there's a lack of alignment between partners, sometimes considering a separation is necessary. A separation is a time when spouses live apart while still being legally married, and usually it's a time when the couple is considering whether the marriage can continue or if they should proceed with a divorce. Separation is a sensitive issue, and while it's a process that creates distance, it is one that will take patience, understanding, and communication.
Is separation good for a marriage?
Separation is often viewed as something negative, but it doesn't have to be. There are three types of separation: trial, permanent, and legal. While a permanent or legal separation usually means the relationship is over, a trial separation is usually a period of time when the couple is deciding whether to stay together or break up. It's a matter of looking at a relationship holistically to evaluate whether a couple is still on the same path and willing to compromise, explains licensed psychotherapist Zi Wang, Ed.M., LMHC.
Separation helps to create space and relieve feelings of conflict, disappointment, anger, or sadness. When those feelings are pervasive in a relationship, it can be emotionally and physically exhausting to continue in that space, adds licensed clinical psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown, Ph.D. So, separation may be necessary to think clearly about the direction a marriage is heading. Robinson-Brown says a separation can even be good for a marriage "if people have similar goals while separated and are either actually doing things to work on the marriage and repair whatever ruptures have occurred or working to divorce amicably."
Marriage separation rules: do's and don'ts.
There are several steps one can take to make a period of separation healthy and effective:
1. Do have guidelines.
This is not the time to bad-mouth your partner or pull any tricks, says Wang. You must be transparent about what you're OK and not OK with, and clearly communicate that to the other person. "Think of it more as you and your spouse against this issue of how to best separate and come up with the best plan, instead of you against your spouse," suggests Wang.
Robinson-Brown agrees that guidelines are essential when deciding on any type of separation, not just for the individuals in the relationship but also for children and extended family. The more structure a separation has, the less likely those affected will feel anxious, angry, and sad. Here are a few things Robinson-Brown thinks guidelines should cover:
- The extent of contact between each other while separated. How often will you talk, when, and through what types of communication (e.g., texting, phone calls, in person)? And what's OK to talk about: Are you limiting discussions to kids and household matters, or are you hoping to continue conversations about the state of the marriage?
- Whether dating or sexual intimacy with other people is allowed. It's important to also discuss how dating apps and engaging on social media plays into that.
- If kids are involved, how the separation will be explained to them, how their time will be split, and what the new living arrangements will be.
- What will be shared with family and friends about the separation and your relationship.
2. Don't pretend that this is going to stay a secret.
People are going to talk. It's inevitable, but by acknowledging that fact, you're able to reposition what's important to you and your partner: your relationship. "If you're trying to make decisions based on external factors, you'll most likely never be content or happy with your own lives," warns Wang. "You and our spouse's overall well-being is not about pleasing others who are not in the middle of this process themselves.
3. Don't forget to consider other factors tied to your marriage.
Does religion play a part in your marriage? Are there cultural limitations or rules related to ending a marriage? Are there health issues, benefits, and insurance plans to consider? Once you're married, there is so much more to consider than just two people, reminds Wang. It's everything that was brought into a marriage and created during it. Consider your unique situation and move accordingly.
4. Do take as long as you need.
Everyone's timeline is different, and some people may need more time than others. "To force reconciliation or reunification before the necessary work has been done is setting a couple up for either further separation or divorce," Robinson-Brown emphasizes. What she recommends is identifying a time frame and then checking in around that time to see how things are going.
5. Don't put pressure on yourselves to find an answer right away.
You'll know when you know. If a separation is working in favor of reconciliation, Robinson-Brown says signs will include improved communication, decrease in conflict, an openness to making adjustments to improve a marriage, and a willingness from both parties to engage in couples therapy—if warranted. On the other hand, signs that a marriage is headed for divorce usually include ongoing or escalating conflict, struggling to rebuild trust, struggling to view your partner in a positive light, and an unwillingness to work on the issues that led to the separation.
6. Do allow yourself to grieve.
In many ways, a separation is a loss and thus should at least partially involve a grieving process. As Wang points out, it's a loss of dreams for the future, a steady life, friends, family members, and financial stability. But more so, it's a loss of trust, "of losing hope and a sense of direction in life." Allowing yourself the space to mourn your losses and treating yourself with kindness will be crucial to your healing process.
How to tell your partner you want a separation:
1. Never talk about separation in the heat of an argument.
Both Wang and Robinson-Brown believe that weaponizing separation will only lead to negative outcomes and take you down a path you won't necessarily be able to find your way back from.
2. Block out time to sit with your partner.
Strategically pick a time and place to sit down with your partner and communicate that you need space. Pay attention to their body language, facial expressions, and emotional cues, so you can better gauge how to proceed throughout the conversation.
3. Don't come from a place of anger and resentment.
Doing so will only turn the discussion into a blaming game. Do your best to catch yourself when you fall into the easy trap of criticizing your partner or pointing out their flaws. "A separation is really about you getting what you need to figure out your relationship versus attempting to punish the other person," Robinson-Brown explains.
4. Use "I" statements to express your feelings and what you need.
For example, "I feel like X is happening" or "I think I want to try Y." It's important to show your partner that you're only speaking for yourself and your own impressions. You don't know their side of the story, so don't speak for them.
There's a misconception that the person who initiates the separation feels better than the one who is being delivered the message, says Wang, but at the end of the day, it's an emotional process for everyone involved. Move slowly, be thoughtful, and prioritize peace as you move through this time.
Amari D. Pollard is a writer and audience development strategist. She is currently a Roy H. Park Fellow at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and previously worked as the Head of Audience Development at The Week. Her writing focuses on politics, culture, relationships, and health, and she has been published at Bustle, PopSugar, Reader's Digest, and more. She has a degree in communications and creative writing from Le Moyne College.