Would you advise separation for married couples who feel that they've come to the end of their rope? For years our marriage has been plagued by destructive patterns of behavior and deep hurts. Under the circumstances, I'm wondering if it might be best to live apart for a while, if only as a temporary measure. At the same time, I worry about how this might affect our children. What do you think we should do?
We're glad you asked. Marital separation shouldn't be taken lightly. As you've rightly discerned, it's almost certain to have a huge impact on your children. For that reason alone, we think it's well worth taking as much time as you need to re-examine your motives before heading in that direction. It's always a good idea to re-evaluate, especially when there's so much at stake. All things considered, you don't want to separate unless you absolutely have to.
As we see it, marital separation should be employed primarily 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, it's best understood as an opportunity for struggling couples to avail themselves of some marital triage.
In our view, there are three scenarios in which separation becomes a reasonable option. The first is when a spouse is abusive and the family home has become an unsafe environment. If that's your situation, we'd urge you to take your children and find shelter somewhere else right away. In cases of domestic violence, your first priority is to protect your kids and ensure your own safety.
Separation can also be useful in cases where one spouse has become apathetic and or unrepentant regarding his or her behaviors that are destructive to and threaten the marriage relationship. In such instances, the other spouse – the one who genuinely cares about the marriage and wants to save it – may decide to move out of the house for a while as a way of "creating a crisis" or issuing a "wake-up call" to his or her partner. Such action should be taken only after the spouse initiating the separation has searched their own heart and honestly evaluated their motives and own shortcomings.
The only other time we might encourage separation is when it's entered into purposefully, for therapeutic reasons, and with a positive, proactive goal in mind. This type of separation can be viewed as a productive "time out." It gives spouses a chance to step away from each other temporarily in order to work on their respective personal issues, always with the objective of coming back together again. It's a kind of "marital boot-camp" where couples can go clear their minds, clean house, get re-trained, and perfect new skills for resolving conflicts. Ideally, it should involve therapy with and take place under the guidance of a professional counselor for both partners.
If you're contemplating separation for any of the above reasons, we'd advise you to move ahead cautiously, but only after bathing the matter in prayer and seeking the counsel of a pastor, a professional marriage therapist, and your most trusted friends. If, on the other hand, you're not sure about your reasons for taking this step, or if you suspect that you're simply looking for a way to escape your problems or avoid conflict, we'd urge you to stop and think again.
A good way to assess the validity of your motives is to ask yourself some pointed questions. How much effort have you actually put into reversing the "destructive patterns of behavior" and "deep hurts" that have characterized your marriage up to this point? Do you or do you not feel that the relationship is worth saving? Have you talked things over with your pastor or the leadership of your church? What percentage of your married life has been devoted to therapy, professional counsel, and a serious attempt to overcome your difficulties? Fifty percent? Twenty? Ten? None at all? It's always possible that you haven't been trying as hard as you think you have.
If you've come to a place where you simply don't feel "happy" about being married anymore, it might be a good idea to re-examine your initial expectations. Did you enter into matrimony believing that marriage, in and of itself, could bring you happiness? If so, it's time to rid yourself of such unrealistic assumptions.
If you're disgruntled with your spouse, we'd suggest that you try taking a closer look at yourself. Have you ever wondered what it's like to live with you? Remember, marriage, in the eyes of God, is meant to be a sacred and inviolable trust – a permanent commitment in which two people vow to bear with each other's flaws and failings come what may. If you keep this in mind, you may begin to see the challenges you're facing in a different light.
If you need help sorting all this out – or if you'd simply like to discuss your concerns at greater length – call us. Focus on the Family has 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.
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