When Amy told Jake that she wanted to separate, that she needed some space to figure out how she felt, he wasn’t shocked but was a bit surprised—they had been struggling as a couple for several months, but he never thought it was that bad. Amy rented an apartment; they worked out ways of splitting time with the kids. While Jake felt he was trying to not push her too much, he did keep restating that he wanted to work things out, that he thought they should do some counseling, but Amy resisted, said she wasn’t ready, needed more time, As the months passed, and though she continued to spend equal time with the kids, she had less and less contact with Jake. A year later they were divorced.
This is a familiar pattern no matter whether the leaver is male or female, and if you look at the stats, Amy and Jake are following a norm: It’s estimated that 80 percent of marital separations end in divorce. The question is why?
Here’s what I’ve observed from my clinical experience:
By the time they separate, Amy has already made a heavy investment in her decision.
Separations in marriages or seriously committed, longer-term relationships are different from the breakups you have might have when you’re dating. Dating breakups are often more impulsive—the big argument on Saturday night leads to someone stomping out in a huff and sending the breakup text the next day—or there is a more gradual realization or a final honesty that there’s a simple lack of compatibility—all understandable.
In longer-standing committed relationships, that initial compatibility is no longer a question (or they never would have become a committed relationship): the couple has generally learned to navigate and move beyond those early dramatic episodes, and they've usually had a history of having a solid working foundation as a couple—this is what surprises Jake.
But the problems infecting the couple are more longstanding, a reflection of growing cracks in the infrastructure, and this is what Amy has been chewing on. She likely has generally been obsessing about the relationship and toying with the idea of separation for some time, weighing out her feelings, her bottom lines. She may have talked to a divorce attorney or a financial advisor, or been secretly saving up money for an apartment.
The point is that while Amy's decision may seem sudden and surprising to Jake, it's not that at all for Amy—she's made a heavy emotional and psychological investment in her decision. And from my experience, with so much investment in place, it takes as much time to undecide a big decision as it took to make it. If it has taken Amy six months to decide to leave, it will take her at least that long to change her mind.
The situation has gotten progressively worse.
Likely fueling Amy's decision is her feeling that things have gotten increasingly worse in recent months, weeks. Why? Because of cognitive dissonance: Your past and present always need to be in synch. If you are thinking about leaving, you start to view your past through a new lens: You mentally rearrange events from the past so that they are more line with your present feeling: You become more sensitive to those irritations and annoyances that you were able to shrug off a year ago, you focus more and more on what you don’t like, what is not working—and overlook or dismiss what’s been good or better—that last weekend you all actually a good time, that you both had close and satisfying sex last week.
The result is that at the time you leave you are myopic, acutely aware of what is wrong, what you need to escape from.
Amy feels relief.
Amy leaves and she feels… great, or at least so much better. She’s away from all that tension, away from Jake’s control or criticism, she’s her own person in her own place and she can do what she wants for maybe the first time in many years or even decades. And because she has taken the bold and scary step of actually leaving, she feels empowered. What’s not to like? A hard act to follow.
Contact stirs old wounds, pain, guilt.
Amy and Jake have some family dinners together with the kids, but they are awkward; the focus is completely on the children. They go to a friend’s wedding and it’s even more awkward as they are either forced to sit together or explain why they are not. Amy talks to her parents and siblings about the separation and they say the right stuff, but she worries about feeling judged. And the kids are struggling—it's painful to do the drop-offs on Sunday night—and Amy dreads Jake’s questions about “Where are we at?”; she wants to avoid having this conversation because she is unsure or afraid where it will lead.
And so Amy pulls back—skipping dinners or future weddings; drop-offs are perfunctory. And as she does, Jake vacillates between walking on eggshells, periodically exploding, or seeming desperate and depressed. All this stirs Amy’s old wounds, her guilt, and she pulls away even more.
Amy begins new relationships.
After a few weeks or months, Amy's friends drag her out for a girl's night out and she has fun and a taste of what it is like to be unattached. Or a few months into the separation Amy stumbles upon one of her old high school boyfriends on Facebook and they start chatting, and she consciously or unconsciously compares him to Jake. While it may or may not go anywhere, it gives her a sense of what a new chapter, a life without Jake, may be like.
All these events and factors can help explain what makes reversing course around separation difficult, but it doesn't mean that reversals can't happen. What is needed is a clear and concrete understanding from both partners of what are the rules of engagement—about counseling, for example, or about dating or family time. It requires each taking a hard look at their own level of commitment—what does each believe they need to do to feel they have given the relationship a good shot—and a willingness to keep the door open after the initial relief or shock of the separation has worn off.
Finally, it’s about stepping back—both partners, not just one—and looking at the big picture: what is the moral of the story of their relationship so far, what it is that they each need in their lives right now, what are their bottom lines, where do they get stuck running their lives and realize it is more about them than the other guy.
This is difficult stuff to sort through, but important. If they can, if they can commit to breaking old patterns and changing their stories, they have a chance of turning it around.