There are three main reasons why couples separate—as a step in the divorce
process; to gain perspective on the marriage
; and the one I will focus on in this post, to enhance the marriage
I am a big believer in the therapeutic value of a separation to strengthen the marriage if it's done in the right way for the right reasons, and if there are clear agreements from the start.
This separation can be done at any time and, indeed, is being done by more and more couples. Yet we still think something is "wrong" if couples live apart, and we usually see separation as something used mostly by couples that have reached the breaking point. They have usually tried various other interventions and tactics to get the marriage back on track and are now at a place where there's nothing left to do but split up, physically separate, and, ultimately, divorce.
Rather than a means to an end, however, separation can be a helpful tool to stay together. This seems counterintuitive when a marriage is in trouble and relations are fragile. Most of us believe that when we feel our spouse slipping away from us, we should merge more, get as close as we can, and do more 'to make the marriage work."
The thought of creating distance at such a time instills a great deal of fear of losing control of your spouse and your relationship. This option is especially challenging if the bond between the two of you has been weakened by a betrayed trust. But employed carefully and skillfully (and usually with some type of professional support), this tool can be quite effective in bringing two people closer together.
Guidelines for an Enhancement Separation
Here are some thoughts on how to go about creating your own Enhancement Separation.
- Get Third-Party Support. While some couples can do this on their own, I highly recommend seeking out some type of neutral third party to help facilitate this process. It can get tricky, especially if this is being done while there is currently some tension or problems between spouses. This can be a therapist, clergy, mediator, or lawyer.
- Set Clear and Reasonable Expectations. Ground rules are a must to maintain a sense of trust between the parties. If one person expects to communicate every day but the other doesn't, this could cause hurt feelings. Knowing what to expect avoids this type of situation.
- Know Your Goal. Don't assume that you both have the same goal. You both really need to agree that your intention in living apart is to enhance your marriage. Again, if one spouse thinks the separation is a step in the divorce process but the other thinks it's a temporary "time-out," this can cause a major rift in the trust between the two. Having the same goal in this exercise is particularly important in making it a successful exercise.
- Maintain Regular Communication. Having no contact at all for an extended period of time may actually begin to hurt the marital connection. Instead of an "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" mentality, it may end up being, "Out of sight, out of mind."
The average length of an Enhancement Separation is about six months, but some couples have enjoyed it so much, they continue it indefinitely.
Who Should NOT embark on an Enhancement Separation
There are some people for whom this tool will not work. It is crucial that each spouse is honest with themselves and honest with each other about why they are doing this exercise: If you or your spouse is trying to make the splitting up process gentler and easier, this is NOT the tool to use. If you don't intend to stay with your partner, the worst thing you can do is pretend to be interested in working things out.
If you are confused about whether or not you want to stay in the marriage, it's important to state that up front. It's far harder on your spouse's heart if you've led him or her to believe that you will be coming back fully committed to the marriage once the separation is over, only to find out later that you wanted to leave the whole time.
Those who have had repeated breaches in trust, or those who have a hard time trusting, should not try an Enhancement Separation. This exercise requires a great deal of maturity and it can raise more anxiety than it's worth for those who are dishonest or insecure.
An Enhancement Separation can be tapered specifically to your needs and your situation and can be implemented or rescinded at any time.
Parts of this article were taken from Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go by Susan Pease Gadoua