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7 Things to Do Before You Separate

Separation is never easy. What you need to know to make the best of it.

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"I'm outta here!" she says, as she throws a handful of clothes into a bag and stomps out of the house. While this is the stuff of Hollywood drama, and unfortunately sometimes real life, for most of us, the decision to separate is less impulsive, usually the result of weeks and months of anguished contemplation. Here's what to do to make this transition as smooth as possible:

1. Know where you're going. Yes, if it's a crisis, if there is violence, you, and maybe you and kids, need just to get out. Get in the car and go... somewhere. But if this is more deliberate, know where you are going to. Crashing on a friend's couch may work for a few days, but you need to have something lined up for the long haul.

Do your research: Talk to your brother who has a spare room in advance and really is happy to take you in; find a place that fits your budget and needs; and if you are in an abusive relationship and lack resources, check out, talk to, and line up space at emergency shelters in your area that are open to people struggling like you. Be proactive and talk to your work supervisor in advance about needing to take time off from work.

Having a solid housing plan in place will reduce the stress of an already stressful situation.

2. Know why you're going. Why are you leaving? Not all separations have the same goal.

You may need just to have some physical and emotional space to sort out how you feel and what you want. It may be to have the experience of being on your own or being alone. It may be the first step towards a divorce that you've decided is your ultimate goal. Knowing your goal helps you stay laser-focused on what you need to accomplish.

3. Get legal advice. Is leaving the house considered abandonment? Will my leaving potentially affect my having custody of the kids? If my partner is unemployed because he is between jobs, am I liable to pay alimony?

Even a brief consultation with an attorney in advance—either with a private lawyer or legal aide—will again reduce your stress and help you develop the best plan. If these are not options, research online about the laws in your state.

4. Decide what you want your partner to understand most about your leaving. Knowing why you are leaving also helps you be clear with your partner. Once you've figured out for yourself the purpose of the separation, decide what the number-one message you want your partner to understand is. This is not a time to flood your partner with a lot of over-explanation, a detailed history of your angst and anguish. Your partner is likely to be emotionally in no position to process what you are saying, and the conversation will probably only lead to an argument.

Keep it short and clear. If face-to-face is difficult, write a note or email. No texting—that all too easily gets misinterpreted. Once the emotional dust has settled a bit, you both are in a better space to have a more thorough conversation.

5. Talk to your kids. Unless it is a crisis, map out what you want to say to your children. The rule-of-thumb is to give your children about a week's (for teens up to two weeks') notice if possible—this dilutes that shock of the change, gives them time to both absorb what you are saying and circle back and ask you questions. Too long a timeframe, or a vague one—weeks, sometime in the next couple of months—will leave them feeling anxious and wondering whether you've changed your mind, or what they need to do to change it.

What do you say? Say what you know. It is not appropriate and even harmful to do a diatribe about all your complaints about the relationship. This only leaves kids feeling confused, feeling like they have to take sides, or feeling like that need to take care of you—all not good.

What kids most care about, even teens, is what is going to change in their world—focus on them. How and when will they see you? Are they going to go to the same school?

Let them know what you know without dragging them into adult issues. Ideally, map out this discussion together with your partner so that they get the same message. If you can't, map out your own and do your best to mop up and clarify later.

6. Decide on the rules of engagement with your partner. What are your ideas about children and visiting? What kind of contact do you want to have with your partner—daily phone check-ins regarding the children, weekly dates, no contact at all?

Here you want to go proactive rather than being reactive. Start with the ideal, and then decide on your bottom lines, what you are willing to negotiate. Map this out so that in your desire to leave or because of your guilt, you don't just accept what your partner offers. Here your legal advice can provide guidelines.

7. Line up support. This is probably the most important step. Families can be supportive—your brother takes you in—or not. They may be critical of your decision; they may feel torn between you and your partner and feel caught in the middle; they, too, worry about the kids.

Decide who and what you want to say, but also find family and friends who truly are in your corner and can offer you the emotional support and guidance you will need. Consider finding a therapist if you don't already have one.

Separation is never an easy step to take, but with the right preparation, you will be able to move through this transition successfully.

Facebook image: Paul Vasarhelyi/Shutterstock