Marital Separation: How it Helps and Hurts

Marital separation: how it helps and hurts

The conversation about Separation is really one about distance in a relationship; both in regards to physical distance and emotional distance. For the purposes of this article, we will be discussing the use of a physical distancing while maintaining emotional closeness in the effort to achieve overall benefits to the relationship. Therefore, the achilles heel to any separation of physical distance is to maintain, preserve and eventually increase/improve the emotional closeness between two committed individuals.

A caveat

Let me say that the idea of separation within the above context is fluid. It can range from the more traditional definition of separation to a more simplistic leaving of the house in the middle of a heated argument to “cool” yourself down. If any marriage is to be successful, it must master the use of separation/distance at the exact right times as much as closeness and intimacy.

A couple that has mastered the use of distance in their relationship has developed an intrinsically beneficial tool for the longevity of their union. On the other hand however, a couple that cannot tolerate the occasional physical distance from one another is almost always bound for doom.

The other end of this is also knowing and sensing when the best times are to use the technique of physical distancing/separation. Certain wedding traditions where the Bride and Groom sleep in separate locations the night before the wedding and don’t see one another until the ceremony has begun; is a perfect example of this principle at work. Retreating to oneself prior to engaging is potentially one of the most life altering experiences within the human realm. This is both necessary and beneficial to the process of a wedding and marriage overall. In this time the reflection, deep contemplation and reassurance that the soon to be newlyweds are making the “right” decision is a valuable asset to moving forward with a life long commitment.

Notwithstanding the elements of physical distancing to achieve greater emotional closeness as described in the previous paragraphs, the rest of this article deals more with the traditional sense of a marriage separation. How this separation is defined is somewhat fluid but a few necessary components must be established to help our discussion.

The marital separation that we are dealing with here always involves:

  1. Some form of physical distancing and
  2. A finite and agreed upon period of time that is to be endured.

The physical distancing can occur in many different forms ranging from sleeping in separate beds and occupying different sides of the house to one moving into a different location altogether. The agreed upon time can range from a chronological time period to a more fluid “we will know when we get there” sense.

How separation can hurt

The reason I want to start with the cons of Marital Separation is because it is a very precarious proposition. It should only be used under the most extreme circumstances. Those of which I will discuss later. The main reason why it is dangerous is because of the unnatural circumstances and false sense of hope it can give a couple.

How separation can hurt

It is the principle that stems from what we have learned regarding long distance relationships. They are great as long as the couple maintains the physical and consequential emotional distance from one another. However once that gap is bridged the overall relationship dynamic is significantly altered. Often times many such as these either don’t survive or one/both partners form extremely maladaptive methods to maintain the distance constant. Those methods could range from taking a job involving a ridiculous travel schedule to addiction to chronic extra-marital relationships.

Therefore the couple that comes back from a temporary separation faces the same potential issues that the couple bridging the gap from a long distance relationship does. However, in this situation because marital difficulty preceded the separation; once the reality of the past problems (and potentially new ones depending on how long the separation was) resurface, it can jolt the couple into nihilism about the relationship. The latter state is more difficult to recover from than had the couple worked on its issues intensively while not invoking a separation.

Marital separation also carries the inherent risk of potential extra marital affairs. I cannot tell you the damage I have seen caused by individuals to themselves when they cycle constantly in and out of emotionally intense relationships with little to no alone time in-between. This time is necessary for one to not only get the previous relationship out of their system but also to repair any damage that said relationship has caused.

Theoretically, spending some time completely to oneself and not dating anyone or actively exploring the possibilities of a new relationship is the best way to transition from one relationship to the next. However, for various reasons, the average person usually does not take enough time between relationships to restore themselves to a point where they even have any business considering the prospect of a new relationship.

Many times this is due to loneliness. Loneliness is bound to rear its ugly head in one form or another with one or both of the spouses who are separated. Due to their commitment to the separation and most likely negative emotions towards one another that led to it; they are most likely to reach out to the comfort of another to rid themselves of the loneliness they feel. It usually begins by only wanting to have someone physically present in the absence of their now separated partner but as is the case in many of these situations, sooner or later they become attached to this new (other) person. And that other person has now infiltrated their marriage. The couple that falls victim to this plight is far worse off than the one who “stuck it out” and never ventured into the murky territory of separation to begin with. This is another reason why separation is sometimes not a good idea.

How separation can benefit

The only circumstance that I think Separation is helpful and maybe even necessary is when the risk of physical danger exists. Now one might ask themselves; “Shouldn’t that marriage just be terminated if it has gotten to the point of physical violence?” My answer is that there is a clear difference between a chronically abusive situation and a potentially dangerous one. Furthermore, the decision of whether two people should continue together is solely upon the parties involved. However, if the law has decided that they cannot be in each other’s presence due to a legal order of protection then that is an entirely different circumstance altogether. Therefore, non-potentially law breaking and/or life harming circumstances withstanding; separation where the potential for violence exists is highly recommended to help rid a relationship of such danger.

How separation can benefit

In such a case, the separation is happening with the best interest of the children in mind as to limit or eliminate their exposure to witnessing physical violence. During a separation of this nature it is imperative that both and/or one party seek mental health treatment. It is not the separation itself that does the healing but the treatment in addition to the separation. The principle of the vacation/spiritual retreat applies here. In other words, at times, in order for a person to deepen their understanding of themselves or their life, it is sometimes necessary to remove themselves from their daily routinized environment.

In this situation a physical change of scenery is not the only technique that could promote increased awareness but also the distance between partners and the escape from their monotonous routine. However, unlike a spiritual retreat and/or vacation, the change of scenery/distance from one another is to last longer than a week or two. The minimum standard requirement is one month. The extreme would be six months (law permitting). The moderate and thus most optimal would be three months. However, this must be made clear, it is not the measure of time that matters as much as the amount of personal growth achieved during the said time of separation. A life altering experience or epiphany has the power to change an individual in an instant more so than years of seeking said change through conventional therapeutic and/or self help group methods. The same is possible with Separation. If the separated individuals have experienced something life changing then that takes precedence over chronological time.

The take-away

In essence by utilizing varying degrees of distance in a marriage, a couple can achieve many different breakthroughs and ultimate longevity in their relationship.

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Mendim Zhuta
Psychologist, LMFT
Mendim Zhuta LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over a decade of experience working with couples from a myriad of diverse backgrounds. He prides himself on offering a unique approach to marriage counseling at Therapy Now serving the ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse population of lower Fairfield County. In addition to his professional experience, Mendim has extensive personal experience with various facets of marriage. Growing up in a home with domestic violence prepared Mendim for the work he would later do in life to help couples through various issues.

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