Today we’re going to be looking at therapeutic or trial separation- the idea of spending some time apart to heal your marriage. For many couples who feel like their marriage is at the end of its tether, this kind of separation might be something to consider. But you need to be aware of the risks and possible outcomes going in.
I think we should state very clearly that our vision is to help people create thriving, passionate marriages. At the same time, we realize that folks often come to our podcast or website or to us for counseling in a great deal of distress. So when we’re talking about therapeutic separation today this is with the goal of restoring your marriage, as long as it is safe to do that.
On the safety note: if you are in an abusive situation a different approach is necessary — please see our shows on abuse starting with episode 123. You may still pursue separation but you will not likely be safe to do so in the way we’re about to describe.
What Is Therapeutic Separation?
Let’s start by laying out what exactly a therapeutic separation looks like. A marriage and family counselor called Patrick Ward[i] sets out a helpful framework for a trial separation and the circumstances under which it may be useful.
A therapeutic separation is defined as a fixed period of separation, during with time the decision to divorce or stay together is postponed. In other words — a therapeutic separation is not a preamble or step towards divorce or even a trial of what it would be like to live without your spouse. It always set up with a view to restoration.
That has to be a sincere commitment for both parties.
The objective of a therapeutic separation is to address the negative feelings that one or both of you might have about staying in the marriage. Sometimes it can also be used as an intervention if one spouse is not really accepting the reality of their own addiction problem or if they are not willing to address their own hurtful ways of interaction with their spouse.
Possible Reasons that Make a Therapeutic Separation Appropriate
There could be a wider variety of reasons than this, but here are some common areas that may prompt a therapeutic separation:
- Extreme or persistent marital conflict
- One or both spouses feeling high levels of frustration or lack of satisfaction from the marriage
- Harmful patterns of interaction such as abuse, addiction, neglect or control
- Indecision about whether one or both spouses want to remain in the marriage
Ways Therapeutic Separation Can Help
Some possible benefits may include:
- Acknowledging the seriousness of problems. It can be helpful or validating for both spouses to see that you each willing to go to extreme lengths to try and save the marriage. Separation can create a “crisis point” which shakes the couple out of denial and forces them to take action to save the marriage.
- Relief from unproductive conflict and negative cycles of interaction. If left untreated, daily conflicts and bad habits can end up damaging a marriage more than being apart for a time. Separation can help break this cycle
- Breaking the tendency to take each other for granted. Spouses get to see how hard life might actually be if they separated. This can be a reality check to think about the positives and stop taking one’s spouse for granted.
- Gaining a sense of independence and self-control. Sometimes if couples are unhealthily dependant on each other, separation can teach them some valuable self-reliance and allow them to reunite as stronger, more differentiated individuals.
Those are benefits identified by one researcher[ii]. Here are some other possible benefits:
Perspective: separation can provide a “cooling off” period for couples who see their difficulties as insurmountable. The time apart can allow spouses to deeply reflect on the marriage more objectively, without the pressure of being in conflict all the time[iii]. By gaining new perspectives, and new life experiences from living apart, couples may come to change the way they act and the way they feel about each other, leading to a successful reconciliation.
New Learning. Away from the stress of conflict, couples can use separation as “a period for new learning and values clarification in which to explore other options… and to acknowledge there are choices.[iv]” Couples can also learn to identify their own needs more clearly, allowing for more constructive communication when back together. Couples can therefore come back together with a renewed sense of how to move the marriage forward.
Separation may also be a time for individuals struggling with personal issues such as addiction, abuse or mental disorders to work through these issues in a more peaceful environment.
We often recommend therapeutic separation as part of the treatment protocol for sex or porn addiction. It can be very difficult to work your own recovery and try to manage the fallout at the same time. On the betrayed spouse’s side, you may be so triggered and traumatized that you just need the space to create some calm and safety and reground yourself.
I think a very important point to note here is that there may be a temptation to flee the relationship to avoid the pain that is coming from your marriage. What folks do not realize is that there is an incredible amount of pain ending a marriage too — a therapeutic separation gives you a safe place and period of time to really assess where you are at and what you need to do to move forward.
On that note, this whole idea of therapeutic separation is something you should discuss with a qualified marriage counselor such as myself or one of our associates here at Only You Forever. It’s certainly not something you should rush into without serious thought, guidance, and preparation.
As a starting point, if you would like some help defining the terms of your separation by starting to think through the practical aspects of what that would look like we do have a worksheet that we’ve designed to go along with this episode.
Defining Your Therapeutic Separation
This guide helps you review things like duration, objectives, how you will communicate, counseling you will get, children, money, etc. This is not a simple decision, you need to thoughtfully process these things with a marriage counselor, but this worksheet will help you begin to make sense of all that’s involved. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Therapeutic Separation Can be Risky
You also need to know that there are some potential risks.
For example, in some cases, there may be a higher risk of infidelity while spouses are physically isolated from one another. There could also be the possibility of drifting further apart rather than coming back together[v].
Then there is always the possibility that you will fall back into the same patterns when you reunite. That begs the question, how are you going to make this truly therapeutic?
You also have to be careful not to spend the entire separation ruminating over past hurts and upsets in the marriage. If you do this you will convince yourself that your spouse is the enemy who is causing all your marital problems. This is particularly relevant if you move in with your parents or with your friends who will support you and not support your marriage. So you may wish to have some clear conversations with your closest support people. Just tell them that you need their support but you want them to support you in favor of your marriage, not just support you selfishly.
A big question for anyone considering this option is, does it work? can a therapeutic separation help you restore your marriage? I have some statistics from one study. Remember: these are just numbers. Your situation is unique. But, just to help you be informed I have these stats.
A study in 2003[vi] found that 50% of couples who decide to temporarily separate end up getting back together. These rates are true even of couples who enter a therapeutic separation with the intent of remaining married[vii]. Of those that get back together, 50% end up later divorcing. So only 25% of couples who separate end up staying in the marriage long-term. The researchers argue that it is essential for couples to use the separation time for personal growth, to learn about themselves and to re-evaluate their marriage. Otherwise, the separation achieves nothing and the couple fall right back into their old habits as soon as they reunite[viii].
Again: that’s why we are not talking about separation. We are talking about therapeutic separation. There has to be a difference in your planning and execution of this.
Be aware of the risks. However, if you have reached the point in your marriage where separation is something you are seriously considering, doing nothing will almost certainly lead to a breakdown of the marriage. When looked at this way, separation actually offers a significant improvement to your chance of saving the marriage.
If you do not want to separate: do you have a better option? I’m not saying you need to separate, I am just saying that if it is so bad that you are considering a therapeutic separation but you do not want to then make sure you come up with something better: a couple’s intensive, serious commitment to marriage therapy… something!
Specific Success Factors for Therapeutic Separation
So while a therapeutic separation is certainly a long way from a sure-fire way to fix your marriage, researchers have identified several points that can help you make it work.
Couples need to clearly define the details of the separation, such as the length, how often they will be in contact, contact with children etc, and then stick to those agreements[ix]. Just working out the practical details can make the whole process easier, allowing you to devote your time to the personal work that needs doing. Again, our bonus guide can help you with this.
A study in 2005[x] notes that bringing in lawyers or legal proceedings to define the rules of the separation can make the process much more “adversarial” as both spouses try to compete to get the best terms from the agreement. Keeping it as a personal agreement (rather than a legal one) helps couples to avoid blaming each other and trying to “score points” off each other.
Many spouses fail to consider the practical details of a separation, and this places much more strain on the process[xi]. For example, many husbands are not used to spending time with the children alone and are inexperienced in childcare, and some wives may not be used to handling their finances independently[xii] . Before deciding on a separation couples need to think through all of the details of living apart and decide how to make it work.
Most couples would benefit from continuing to see a marriage counselor during this time. This is often done individually but could also be done together[xiii].
So there are some points to make sure you consider. Again, I would remind you this podcast is only a self-help tool and should not be used in place of working with a qualified marriage therapist. If you already have a therapist please talk to him or her about this or if you are in need of someone who specializes in this please reach out through our website and we’ll get you set up with an associate in our practice who would be most qualified to help your situation.
[i] Patrick Ward, ‘The Structured Separation Agreement’, 2011 <http://www.patrickwardphd.com/2011/01/24/the-structured-separation-agreement/> [accessed 20 April 2018].
[iii] Ira D. Glick, Ellen M. Berman, and John F. Clarkin, Marital and Family Therapy (American Psychiatric Pub, 2003).
[iv] Michele Harway, Handbook of Couples Therapy (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
[vi] Glick, Berman, and Clarkin.
[viii] Glick, Berman, and Clarkin.
[xii] Glick, Berman, and Clarkin.