Many couples who are struggling with marital issues ask, “Would it be helpful if we separated?” The answer depends on the nature of the problems as well as the plan for the separation. Unfortunately, most separations occur as a stepping stone to divorce.
A separation may make sense in some circumstances. For example, if your partner has a substance abuse problem and has not been willing to address it, you may decide you can’t live with that anymore. If you separate under the condition that you can reunite if your partner seeks help, the separation may be helpful. This can be true of other addictions too, such as a gambling problem.
A separation can only be helpful if both people are willing to establish a clear plan for the separation. How will you decide what each of you is going to work on while you are apart? For example, if you want to work on learning how to ask for what you need, while your partner works on a serious anger problem, it would be important to determine this prior to the separation.
A goal should be established for the separation as well as what steps you will take to reach that goal. For example, one spouse may agree to attend an anger management group, a parenting class, and individual therapy. The other person may decide to attend individual therapy as well as a self-help group.
There also needs to be a plan for how you would reunite. Under what conditions would you be ready to reunite? What sort of help would you receive? For example, the couple may decide that once their individual therapists have decided they have made enough progress, couples therapy could begin.
It is important to discuss how you will note your progress and your partner’s progress. For example, will you go on a weekly date to discuss matters and to problem-solve? Sometimes setting a timeline is helpful as well. A timeline may say, “let’s work on these problems for six months and then re-evaluate where we are at.”
When a separation is made impulsively and without a plan, it is much less likely to be helpful to the marriage. It is important to establish some rules and expectations about the separation prior to it happening. This can help you decide how you will continue to grow during this time without growing so far apart that you cannot reconcile.