Separation can be great for a marriage because it takes the pressure off the system and creates physical space, which can be incredibly helpful in supporting personal reflection and clear decision-making.
This does make sense scientifically, as it has been proven that our IQs actually drop when we are stressed out. Therefore, if one or both people have been experiencing chronic stress for years, it is easy to see how a temporary separation may facilitate clarity of mind.
I want to emphasize that even though there have been many cases where separation has actually deepened and strengthened the marital bond, there have also been cases where separation has fostered more conflict, anxiety, resentment, and unease.
For instance, in couples where there has been infidelity or if one of both partners have a sense of distrust or extreme jealousy, separation may only add fuel to an already rapidly burning fire. Again, this is a general observation, and it is case-by-case for each couple. (As some couples with a history of infidelity have done well with a separation period).
Reasons why the couple wants to separate
Taking the time to honestly reflect and get in touch with what each partner truly wants is essential. I want to make a distinction here between reflection and rumination.
When I say reflection, I am not talking about creating a pro’s and con’s list or replaying over and over again, the chronic “mindloops” of negativity that many couples get stuck in. I am speaking more about the reflective capacity every human being has for insight.
When couples get stuck in cycles of rumination, it is not only unhelpful, but blocks the evolution of the relationship. This occurs when each person is so caught up in their habitual thinking about their spouse and marriage, that there is little room for a fresh thought or creative solution to come through. Client’s express that being stuck in this mode is like being in a ping-pong match, where one day they feel like they love this person and want to make it work, and the next they feel that they can’t stand him/her.
So, the first step is to reflectively assess where you are truly at. Usually, one partner has a stronger inclination to want to separate or divorce than the other. Therefore, if one of the partners has truly already made up his/her mind that “it is too late, he or she does not want to try to make the marriage work”, a separation is unlikely to be helpful.
On the other hand, if the general sentiment of both partners is “I don’t know if I want to stay together” or “I do want to try everything to make this work”, separation can be a helpful tool in evaluating the future of the relationship.
Here are some helpful questions to ask oneself:
1. What are you reasons for wanting to separate?
2. What are your reasons for wanting to stay in this marriage and make it work?
3. Do your reasons for wanting to keep the marriage going have anything to do with your partner?
If your reasons for staying in the marriage are because of the children, because you are concerned of what other people think, or out moral obligation, taking the space to reflect on your own needs and wants can be quite advantageous.
There is a lot of cultural pressure and ideas put on the importance of staying together in the same house for the sake of the children, for reputation, etc., so be prepared that your partner may not be open to the idea initially.
One thing that can be extremely helpful when you start to notice your spouse becoming particularly emotional about a certain suggestion like separation, to say “Ok. Why don’t we go back to that later?” Often, when the spouse is in a different state of mind, he or she will consider different options.
Is separation good for a marriage?
It depends. The biggest hindrance I see is that people let their sense of urgency and emotional stress hijack their thinking and actions, instead of waiting until he or she has clarity on how to move forward. All emotions do pass, even the uncomfortable ones.
Sometimes the process of gaining insight or clarity on what action to take in your marriage takes longer than folks want it to, but it is well worth the investigation and wait.
Believe it or not, the human capacity for resilience shows up in remarkable ways even in difficult situations like separation and divorce. Every member of the family, including the children, are only one thought away from a creative, practical solution and no matter what, everyone has the potential to access their innate resilience.