Can you provide some guidance on how to navigate a marital separation? Our marriage has been plagued by conflict and emotional pain for a long, long time. As a result, we've come to the conclusion - sadly and reluctantly - that we need to get away from each other for a while. I honestly don't know if our relationship is going to survive, but for the sake of our kids and our own sanity I want to go about this process in the best way possible. Who should we tell? How should the two of us interact while separated? How do we handle finances and other practical matters? What other issues do we need to consider?
Before getting into the practical "housekeeping" aspects of managing a separation, we want to urge you to think carefully about what you're doing before moving ahead. Press "pause" for a moment and spend some time looking at your reasons for taking this step. Apparently you've given the matter some thoughtful consideration and have come to the conclusion that separation is your only alternative. We respect your decision, but we also feel strongly that it would be a good idea to re-evaluate, especially when there's so much at stake. For a detailed discussion of this side of the question, see our Family Q&A Things to Consider Before You Separate.
If after submitting yourselves to a rigorous process of self-examination you still think it might be beneficial to separate for a while, we recommend that you come up with a formal plan of action. Remember that marital separation is best understood as a strategy for healing a hurting marriage. As Gary Chapman puts it in his book Hope for the Separated: Wounded Marriages Can Be Healed (a resource we highly recommend), "separation is not necessarily the beginning of the end." On the contrary, we'd advise you and your spouse to approach it as an opportunity to avail yourselves of some marital triage. Be intentional in the way you go about it. Put your heads together and write up a list of the goals you hope to achieve by spending this time away from one another. Decide on a time-frame. Make a commitment to work on your issues during this hiatus in your relationship, both as individuals and as a couple. Document all these decisions so that you don't forget about them and end up straying from the path.
How you manage the practical logistics of living apart will depend on a number of factors. One is the extent to which you feel you can trust each other. If, for instance, you consider your spouse negligent or potentially abusive, you probably won't want him or her to spend much time with the kids. If he or she is financially irresponsible, it would probably be wise to close out your current bank accounts, open new individual accounts, and do whatever else you think necessary in order to protect your own economic well-being and ensure that the needs of your children are met. In both cases, you may want to consider the option of a legal separation as opposed to an informal agreement, especially if the relationship with your spouse has taken on an adversarial tone. An attorney can help you decide on the best course of action. For legal advice and assistance in finding a lawyer, contact the Christian Legal Society.
Another factor that needs to be weighed carefully is the age of your children. You'll want to equip them with some understanding of what's going on, but the amount of detail you provide will depend to a great extent on their level of maturity. Little kids need a sense of security. They want to be reassured that their physical needs are going to be met, that they're going to have a place to live, and that life is going to go on as usual (at least to some extent). They should probably also have an idea of the time-frame of the separation and what to expect in terms of their day-to-day routine. Pre-teens and adolescents have a greater capacity to grasp the concept that Mom and Dad are having difficulties and need to take some time to work through their differences. Share your concerns with them as you see fit, but be careful to stay sensitive and discerning. Don't berate your spouse or create a situation in which the kids are forced to choose sides. As a general rule, you can count on children of all ages to come to you with questions of their own. In that case, you can dispense the relevant information as needed.
On the whole, it's best to provide children with as much structure and stability as possible during a separation. If necessary, eliminate some of their ongoing weekly activities as a way of reducing stress. Check in with them regularly to see how they're handling the situation. If there are any teachers, coaches, mentors, or counselors who occupy an important place in your kids' lives, let them know what's going on and see if you can enlist their help. Do everything in your power to maintain a normal schedule and preserve your children's sense of normalcy and security.
To that end, we'd also suggest that it might be best to let the kids stay in your home while you and your spouse rotate in and out. This arrangement is far more conducive to their well-being than shuttling them back and forth between Mom and Dad. That's especially true if the two of you are seriously working on your marriage and planning to reunite after a pre-determined period of time. If, on the other hand, you have no such intention, or if you're dealing with an abusive situation, it might be better to ask the offending party to keep away from the house until your marital issues are resolved. In that case, "playing house" will only add to the children's confusion.
Meanwhile, don't neglect to do the self-care necessary to keep your own cup filled. Your most important job right now is to stay available for your kids, physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Pull together a small support group of carefully selected friends and reliable confidants who can be counted on to stand beside you during this difficult time in your life. Make sure that each one of them is worthy of your trust. There's no need to share the details of your situation with any additional people if you don't want to. Seek out the assistance of a trained Christian counselor. Get the rest, exercise, and nutrition you need in order to keep yourself in tip-top shape. Above all, don't succumb to the temptation to "dump" on your children, to lean on them for strength and reassurance, or to treat them as "surrogate spouses." Remember, you are the parent. They need you to stay strong for them until the storm passes.
What's healthy in terms of the amount of time you spend together and the kind of interaction you maintain during this period? This, too, will be determined largely by the nature of your struggles and purpose of your separation. You will almost certainly have to consult with one another from time to time about the needs of the children, household affairs, and other practical matters. Much of this can be handled over the phone or via text and email, but if you're involved in counseling (as we trust you will be), your therapist may give you some "homework" assignments that require you and your spouse to meet in person once in a while. We highly recommend that you do this in a neutral public setting – some place like a coffee shop or a restaurant – where you won't be tempted to behave improperly or to take a loud and angry tone with one another. Take steps to ensure that everything will be conducted in as genial and as businesslike a manner as possible.
Here at Focus on the Family we have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. They can also refer you to reputable marriage counselors working in your area. If you'd like to discuss your concerns with one of them, you can call our Counseling department for a free consultation.
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