Updated: Jan 7, 2021
Couples therapy is intense work.
Back in grad school, I had a professor say: “We’re not in the business of saving marriages. We’re in the business of helping people.”
At the time, I was young, arrogant, and naively idealistic, and I thought: “Well, I’m hoping to save marriages.”
After years on the job, I’ve learned that he was right. While thankfully, most of the time, we do help clients save their marriages, sometimes, we have to support their other choices, and help them navigate them as smoothly and respectfully as possible.
When I’m working with a couple and they begin thinking that divorce might be the best move for their family, I almost always recommend beginning with a trial separation, especially when there are children, (and as long as there are no safety concerns).
Firstly, dissolving a relationship is a life-altering decision. It makes sense to try it out first before making it official. Yes, it makes the process longer and is uncomfortable. Divorce will be both anyway, and this eases the family into it.
Secondly, and this is something many couples don’t realize: Separation can serve another purpose.
When a couple has been running in circles around the same serious issues, and not making any breakthrough progress, separation can offer an opportunity to work on the relationship from another angle. Living in separate rooms or homes gives everyone a preliminary taste of what life apart would feel like. This might be a relief to one or more parties. But it also might shift perspective, give a chance for this distance to make the heart grow fonder, and more importantly, more able to figure out what could help salvage the relationship.
There are many couples who use separation as breathing room to figure out their respective feelings, needs, options, and desires. Often this yields insight different from what they see and feel when they’re together. Sometimes it clarifies the need to divorce, and sometimes it suggests that under all the pain, neglect, hurt and misunderstanding, there is still love, desire, willingness to do better, and potential to heal. The couple can use the separation as a means to cultivating better self-awareness and trying to repair the relationship.
Meaning: Yes, when a couple is seriously considering divorce, and most likely headed in that direction, often the first step is separation. And that’s tough.
But even if they’re not on the brink of divorce, but they’re deeply unhappy, and spinning in a repetitive cycle of hurting each other, a little space to think and try something different can offer real benefits. (This can also sometimes happen when the relationship was on the brink of divorce.)
So if your spouse (or your therapist) brings up the idea of a trial separation, even if it feels scary (it is), take a moment to consider the possibilities. Discuss the above ideas with your partner, and see if this might actually be a smart move to help you see what your relationship really needs.
If you're thinking about therapy to help with this or any other issues, you might want to check this out.