All too often, couples will make the decision to separate out of frustration, pain, and an inability to determine a better solution for their current relational problems. They know they don't want to remain in conflict, but maybe ending the relationship isn't a decision they are ready to make yet.
Although separation may reduce the level of conflict, without managing a deliberate process of separation, it will likely do more harm than good. I would like to present 4 aspects to consider when couples decide to separate.
Separation should be a mutual decision
The choice to separate should be decision that both partners agree upon. This is important because any disagreement at this juncture will result in in a difference in the separation experience, as well as the result of the separation. Both partners must believe that this is the correct choice to make at this time in the relationship, which then allows them to work together as to how to correctly setup and maintain the separation.
Establish strict separation expectations
Separation should mean just that, separation. While this can be accomplished while living under the same roof, it can be easier if one person has a separate residence for the time being. Please seek legal counsel prior to actually leaving, as this may have unforeseen consequences if the relationship ends in divorce. During separation, there should be an absolute minimum of communication. Managing children, paying bills, and major life decisions should be discussed, however, couples should attempt to reduce communication by approximately 90% during this time. This includes all forms of communication, including verbal, non-verbal, text, email, etc... This step is important, because the purpose of separation cannot occur if the couple doesn't actually separate in communication.
Focus on yourself
Once the separation is implemented, each partner must focus on themselves. Without the expectation of communication and interaction, each person can consider for themselves what has worked in the relationship, what isn't working in the relationship, and what they want to do regarding the relationship. Typically, the first few days can feel surreal, as the dynamics which produced separation are placed on "pause." After about a week, each individual is adjusted to the separation, and can really focus on what they want. After about two weeks, they become more clear on what they want. By the end of the third week, people can begin to solidify their decisions, and by the fourth week, they should be ready to share their decision with their partner.
Often, when couples seek separation, they fear that the relationship is destined for divorce, so they begin to give up. While they may feel the best decision is to discontinue therapy and focus on the legal aspects of dissolving the relationship, the best advice I can give is to remain in therapy, no matter the decision produced by the separation. If a couple chooses to stay together, they will need clinical assistance as they work on repairing and redefining the relationship. If they choose to continue the separation, then they will need continued guidance, and a place to process what they are experiencing. If they choose to terminate the relationship, they will need clinical help through the process of divorce adjustment.
Anthony T. Alonzo, DMFT, LMFT, CFLE