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4 Reasons to Separate

Separations don't always have to be a step before divorce.

Key points

  • Separations can be a final step before divorce, but often they are a way to reboot a relationship.
  • Separations can be a way of lowering the emotional temperature and deciding how you really feel and what you each need.
  • Be clear about the goal of the separation, and if children are involved, let them know in detail how this will impact their everyday lives.
Source: Renan_Brun/pixabay

While a majority of separations end in divorce, some don’t. Often, by the time a couple separates, at least one of the partners is done; they have invested a lot of effort and mental energy to get to that point, and now changing course is like trying to turn around a barge.

But, for some, separations can provide the break needed to reboot the relationship. Here are four ways to think about and use relationship separations:

1. Lower the Emotional Temperature

This usually happens when you have a terrible argument on Saturday night, and one stomps away, drives away, and sleeps on their sister’s or friend's couch for a night or two. This is about lowering the temperature, everyone taking a few hundred deep breaths, settling down, and regrouping.

But, for some couples who essentially argue non-stop, one partner will feel that it's time to call a halt. Here, the separation isn’t two nights on the couch but moving in with a sister or mom or getting a month-to-month furnished apartment for a few weeks or months. It’s about getting out of all that tension.

2. Clear Your Head

When I see couples who are on the ropes and one is talking about separation, one reason they give is that they just need space. Sometimes it’s about lowering the temperature, but often it’s about being away from it all, having space to figure out where you are and what you want.

3. Sort Out How You Both Feel

Maybe this isn’t one step before divorce but a few steps back. Here a separation has the feel of a divorce, but the intent is to see how you feel about the other once you both step back from all the conflict and tension.

The pattern I’ve noticed is that the person who is more invested in separating feels great for a few months—they have a sense of not only relief, but freedom. Often, it is the first time since they’ve been in the relationship that they have time on their own and can do what they want. They feel great. Meanwhile, the other person who feels left is miserable for days, weeks, even months.

But then they may switch. The person who enjoyed the freedom is now feeling lonely; the other is rebounding and starting to feel like their partner felt a few months ago. Or, they both realize that they miss each other, or don’t.

4. Ease Into Divorce

This is the trial divorce, fade-away style. They have family dinners, but they become less frequent as the weeks go on. The kids start moving between houses, and as parents, you see how they adjust. It’s about wading into a new life, seeing how it goes, finding the trouble spots, or theoretically letting the other down easy—a slow death that gives everyone time to adjust and get closure rather than a quick, traumatic one.

There’s no avoiding the fact that separations are painful. To do this, consider these guidelines:

Be Honest

Be honest, really honest, about what the separation is about. If you’re done, don’t do the slow death. If you really need space because you feel confused or have mixed emotions, say so. What’s hard about separations and even harder about divorce is you now need to do what you often have struggled to do in your relationship—avoid arguing, be sensitive yet assertive, and be honest. Now is the time to start doing it.

Work Out Rules of Engagement

This means talking about expectations. Yes, we’ll have dinner with the kids every night, or on Sundays. We’ll talk on the phone twice a week or not at all. It’s okay to date someone. These are challenges because you each need to be clear yet willing to compromise.

If you’re doing an in-house separation with one parent moving down to the basement, this is even more important to nail down. Dinners, for example, are easier to do together. Helping the kids get off to school in the morning may be less of a hassle. But you need to be clear about what makes separation feel like a separation. Figure it out for yourself, then talk about it together.

Work on Kids and Logistics

Children are obviously going to be upset by separation, though, if they're older, also might appreciate the relief of tension. But mostly they get upset about changes in their world. As parents, you need to agree on the details about these changes—visiting on weekends, getting picked up by a different parent, seeing friends. You don’t want to get in the weeds with them about your adult relationship, but be ready to answer their questions, honestly.

Get Help

If all of this seems like too much, get help—sit down together with a minister, mediator, or counselor. You want to avoid being emotionally driven and sending mixed messages to each other. Instead, be clear about what you want.

Yes, this is undoubtedly why you are struggling in your relationship, but time to try to do it differently.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.