Sure commitment and a good sense of reality are the glue that is meant to hold together relationships, to keep us from flying apart at the smallest slight. And every relationship requires healthy doses of tolerance, patience, and willingness to “work it out” when the going gets rough.
But there are times when separation may be the best thing to do. Here are 4 inter-related good reasons to consider it:
1. Emotional and / or physical abuse. Nuf said, you’d think. But obviously it’s not so simple. Millions of partners tolerate high levels of abuse for years. For practical reasons, for psychological ones. The practical are having no where or means to get away. The worry about children. The fear of being tracked down. The psychological causes are often two: A learned high tolerance for abuse because it’s what you grew up with. You may hate it but your also wired, through no fault of your own, to tolerate it. You magically think if that you just do the right thing at exactly the right time, solve the Rubik’s Cube that is your partner, the abuse will stop. But this is like solving a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded and there is no right solution.
The psychological cause is the intermittent reinforcement – the most powerful form of conditioning. There’s abuse but then unexpected niceness. What keeps you off guard and hooked is that there is no consistent pattern. You mistake kindness for permanent change rather than the blip it is.
Abusive people tend to blame others for their abuse rather than owning it. If she or he does acknowledge having a problem, that's a good sign; help them get into treatment and stay there (not go twice just to get you off their back). If they are not willing to take responsibility and action, get out any way you can. Don’t stay trapped and victimized.
2. Get off the fence. I’ve met many couples who perpetually sit on the fence regarding their relationship. Both acknowledge that it is lousy, both come to therapy to complain and complain, but they make little effort to actually change anything.
What is the problem is not the relationship so much as their ambivalence and the antidote to ambivalence is decisive action – either sincerely working hard on making concrete behavioral changes while together, or separate so you can see how you truly feel.
3. Have space to sort out your thoughts. In the drama and web of dysfunctional patterns that can contaminate a relationship, separation can work like an isolation room to focus and discover the sources and strands of your own emotions and thoughts. You’ll find out pretty quickly whether you miss the other and what you miss. You’ll have time to naturally reflect without being pulled away by crisis. Think of this like going on a meditative or spiritual retreat where you have the time and space to uncover those deeper feelings and perceptions.
4. Experience being alone. Many have been with someone for what seems like forever – serial relationships with little or no time between, decade-long marriages with not much more than a couple 3-day business trips of apartness. A separation can give you a chance to see what it feels like to be truly on your own.
In addition to sorting out your feelings, you have the opportunity to gauge yourself by yourself, to discover that you are stronger than you think, that you can actually make good decisions on your own. You have a chance to stop going on autopilot and have the creative experience of shaping your day and time your way -- to do what you want rather than only what you should. Like the spiritual retreat, this alone time can bring unexpected insights not only about the relationship, but about the core of you.
Finally some guidelines:
Give it time. If any of these reasons seem strong enough, if you do decide that a separation makes sense, be sure to give it enough time. A long weekend can be a respite but won’t accomplish much else. I usually suggest to couples that they do 3 months minimum. It takes about that long for the novelty to wear off and for the experience to truly settle in. And separation means separation – while you may decide in advance whether you will do date nights, etc. or not check in, what you don’t want to do is essentially do what you have been doing albeit while sleeping in different places. Don’t come over after work and stay till 11:00 and then go home to sleep. Do the separation.
Expect some switching of emotions. There is always one person who is more excited about the notion of separating, one more reluctant. The excited one will be exactly that for a while; the reluctant one will likely feel abandoned and lonely and sad. But by giving it enough time things may switch – the novelty for the excited partner will dampen and they will begin to feel lonely, the lonely person will come of their depressive fog and begin to feel better. Or not.
That is after all what you are trying to discover.