While reconciliation is God's desire for struggling couples, there are all sorts of situations that can bring a marriage to the crisis point. Whether it's suffering physical or verbal abuse, living with an alcoholic or discovering that your spouse has been unfaithful, there are times when separation can be an act of love for a couple in distress.
Before making the decision to separate, Dr. Gary Chapman advises: "Don't go to that length, don't go to the separation step without spending time with a counselor, a pastor … somebody [who] can help you assess that. Don't make that decision on your own because once you make that decision, you're going to need somebody you can process your emotions with afterward."
Dr. Chapman highly recommends soliciting the help of a Christian counselor. Too often he's seen friends and family members who have listened to the stories of pain in a marriage, and they've simply confirmed a spouse's right to leave the relationship. A Christian counselor, on the other hand, will identify with the pain but can also offer hope as he or she shares about seeing others in similar situations recover. It's important that a spouse considering separation understand that he or she has a great deal of power to change the marriage — the power of influence that needs to be exerted before giving up hope.
Although Focus on the Family advises against separation in most cases, sometimes it becomes essential as a step of survival and an act of love. If you feel you're reaching a breaking point or have been betrayed, it's best to verbalize that your marriage is in serious trouble and you intend to do something about it. Find a godly counselor and a good support system, and then inform your spouse of your plans to get help, welcoming him or her to join you.
For those who find themselves in a time of separation, Dr. Chapman encourages couples to be intentional about doing the hard word of restoration. In his book Hope for the Separated, Dr. Chapman unpacks a list of guideposts that he feels are essential in taking constructive action during a time of separation. Tips to consider include:
- Guard your attitudes and actions; keep them positive.
- Avoid or abandon any romantic relationship with another adult.
- Understand that divorce will never lead to personal happiness.
- Move slowly in completing any legal separation papers.
True love involves looking out for the best interests of the other person. It's not natural to want to serve another; it's natural to love and be kind to the people who love and are kind to us. But Dr. Chapman believes that, with God's love, couples can do the hard work during separation that leads to an ability to show unconditional love to a spouse. By choosing to love, husbands and wives can become instruments of God to touch each other's hearts.
Establishing boundaries, trusting God and doing the hard work of moving toward reconciliation will not be easy, but they are essential at this point in your marital journey. Although there are no guarantees that separation will prove to be a new beginning in your specific situation, Dr. Chapman offers hope:
Over and over again I've seen couples that when I first encountered them, I was so empathetic with them — I felt the pain. I understood why they had no hope. But nine months later, I saw them walk out of the office holding hands with each other, having settled some major issues and now having some tools of communication and an understanding that's going to lead them to a lifetime of a happy marriage.
If you or someone you know is in the midst of a marital separation, the Focus on the Family Help Center counselors are here to listen and pray with you, as well as provide initial guidance and resources to help. Call 1-855-771-HELP (4357) Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain time.
Pam Woody is the marriage editor for Thriving Family. Dr. Gary Chapman is a family counselor, radio host, associate pastor and author of several books, including The Five Love Languages and One More Try.