Couples’ Separations – A Tragedy or Opportunity

A “Shut Down” Partner

After ten years of marriage, Jen informed Joe she wanted a separation. They have two beautiful children, ages 7 and 9, and comfortable incomes, but that is not enough for Jen. She continually complains that Joe is not engaged in their relationship and has not been for many years. Jen complains that she is responsible for most of the household duties and the primary caretaking of the children. Joe hardly talks to her and affection and sex have dropped to an all time low. She has tried to talk to Joe to the point of total frustration with no response. They have even tried a couple of marriage counseling sessions with no lasting results. Jen feels she is sinking into a deeper depression and has built a large wall of resentment toward Joe. Now Jen believes the only answer is a separation.

Joe was angry and shocked when Jen told him she wanted him to find a place to live. He questioned how she could just “throw” the family away and how much this will affect the kids. He also said that she made a decision to separate without talking to him and he felt blindsided!

Will this couple’s separation end in a tragedy or opportunity for change?

Why do couples separate?

Couples separate for many reasons, but usually because one partner is unhappy and not fulfilled for what they believe is long enough. Some couples are engaged in a continual open warfare. There is a “defensive volley” where each partner’s position and comments are returned with resistance and anger. More passive fighters live with dead silence and distance as each partner harbors internal anger and resentment toward the other. Sometimes, an unhappy partner has already disengaged and has become involved in an affair. The disclosure of an affair can precipitate enormous emotion and a physical separation. Before someone moves out of the home, couples are usually already separated emotionally and physically and sleeping in separate bedrooms or on the couch.

Can more space for an ailing relationship help?

The answer is… it depends! As a couples’ counselor, I assess how invested and committed each partner is to their relationship. At one end of my Relationship Investment-Commitment Scale* are those partners that are highly invested and committed. The next level is where at least one partner says there must be change or at some point she will consider the relationship over. The scale continues when one partner is either “at the door” or has already left and has little to zero commitment. This scale helps me measure how much effort partners are willing to put into their relationship.

Is a separation the first step to divorce or breaking up?

Again this depends on the motivation and determination of the partner wanting the space.

I have worked with couples on the road to divorce that changed their minds even at the last minute. The work that happens during a separation is a major factor.

During a crisis or perhaps a stuck time in a relationship, a requested separation can act as a major “wake up call”. When couples are engaged in ongoing and unresolved conflict, space can allow partners to gain some distance from the way they relate. This can allow those bruised, hurt and angry feelings to lessen as the relationship pattern is interrupted. A physical separation can draw new energy into an ailing and unhappy relationship.

Space alone may not fix what has not been working. I have heard many couples say, “We tried a separation and it didn’t work!” On further questioning, I discovered that they truly believed that all they needed was time and distance from each other to change their relationship. Upon reuniting and after a brief “honeymoon” period, discouraged couples reported that they once again slipped back into their old patterns of relating. It is the work that happens during a separation that may move couples closer or further apart.

What are some common mistakes that couples make during a separation?

  1. Often couples do not focus on what they want to accomplish during a period of separation. Individual and relationship goals are not established. Without clear goals and shared responsibility, partners return to their relationship with the same expectations and behavior that have gotten them stuck repeatedly.
  2. A primary oversight of separating couples is that conflict is not managed. Even though there may be more physical space, the conflicts continue and communication is strained. For these couples the initial goal of a separation is to manage the conflict. Without learning to manage conflict and improve communication, the effort remains on putting out the “fires” of anger and resentment that result from a couple’s inability to agree on necessary tasks like: finances, sharing children, household chores, and levels of intimacy in their relationship.
  3. One type of separation does not fit all relationships. Often couples decide on a “trial separation”, where one partner leaves the home for a period of time with uncertainty about whether the couple will ever reunite. There are several different types of separations including: in house; brief; trial; pre divorce; psychological and therapeutic** that offer more choices to couples.
  4. Also, couples that engage in passive conflict and who are disengaged will not necessarily improve with more physical space alone. They must learn newer ways of dealing with avoiding conflict, communicating and reinvesting in their relationship. They already know how to take time and space from each other.

A new view of separations

Whether separations end in reconciliation or breaking up, much can be learned. During separation the stuck pattern of the relationship is temporarily broken. This can be a time to reflect on how well you manage on your own. Some partners are very fearful of being alone. With distance you may be able to see your relationship and partner more clearly. Getting partners to decide and develop what each need to work on during a period of separation allows a focus to develop. The separation itself can create the “right stuff” to make you stretch and grow. A positive and proactive view of separations can help you examine who you are and what you want. Even if you decide that a relationship is over, you can learn a great deal about your contribution which can help you make a more informed decision about your next relationship. Separation can be a true opportunity for change and growth either way…if you reconcile with your partner or decide to challenge life on your own.




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