Waiting too long to address marital problems creates polarized thinking. Relationship Bliss… or Divorce.  If I don’t love you… I must hate you.  If you’re not willing to make me happy… you will just make me miserable.  All variations on a theme.  Teaching divorce class gives me opportunity to see many relationship dynamics that don’t work. When they get so polarized it’s hard to bring them back. Not impossible, but far more difficult than addressing issues as they come.

I’m surprised how many people ignore relational issues, stuffing feelings away as if they are poison to the relationship. They’re not. They are signals that something wants to change. My former spouse and I spent 30 plus years stuffing things away. The pile of stuff under the proverbial rug was so tall  we couldn’t even see each other. In the end it was beyond our willingness, and even our ability, to deal with it all. We walked away. But maybe you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

A Time for Healing

Before you call it quits you might try a structured separation.  Give the relationship some breathing room to discover what’s wrong, become the people who can solve it, and, over time, create an even better relationship. Time by itself does nothing except postpone the inevitable. A healing separation, on the other hand, allows you to structure that time into a productive and healing effort. Utilizing boundaries to limit further hurt, it gives both of you enough room to feel your own feelings and think your own thoughts. If done carefully, it can also take the pressure off the children if there is a lot of tension in the home.

How Long Will it Take?

If this seems like a useful idea there are a few things you will want to agree on ahead of time. One is the length of the separation. Usually one of the couple needs or wants more time than the other. The time needed is usually longer than  spouse-in-waiting expects, and that needs to be honored. The partner waiting may want to separate for not more than a month and wonder why the heck it has to take so long, while the disenchanted spouse wants, and likely needs, several months to a year. One thing you don’t want to do is to force closeness. That will set you back even further. I’ve seen couples take up to two years to change things to the way they want them. Be patient.

I don’t recommend a separation of more than 6 months without outside support. I do recommend working with a relationship systems coach during this time. I’ve not seen marital therapy to be very helpful, and sometimes it is even detrimental. Judging by the number of therapists people in my divorce class tell me they’ve seen (7 is the highest so far, and I hear that often), I suggest trying an entirely different approach.

You will need to discuss several other items to set yourself up for success. If talking about these things is difficult because of the tension between you, please enlist supportive help. This step is not to be missed if you want to set yourself up for success.

Set Yourself Up for Success

For Living arrangements, there are several options:

1) Continuing to live together in the same home:

Pros:  Keeps living expenses down.  Children don’t experience a house shuffle.  Eliminates potential trust issues by limiting outside influences in the relationship.

Cons:  Will likely dilute the separation experience.  Doesn’t allow for a break from the tense emotions.  May limit the possible personal growth experiences.

If there are children you might consider a nesting arrangement where the parents move in and out of the home rather than requiring the children to shuffle back and forth.  If you will be sharing living space you will need to agree on important key areas such as:

  • Who is allowed into the home, and what activities will be allowed.
  • The level of orderliness that will be kept in the home (no dishes left for the other parent, etc.)

2) Living in separate spaces:

You will need to discuss who is staying in the home, who will take residence in the new space, and how both moving and rent/mortgages will be financed.

Structuring yourselves financially is vital. I suggest yours, mine and ours checking accounts for all couples, and especially during a healing separation. It is imperative that you each have your own money that the other has no say over or claim to. This eliminates hurt feelings, spying, and competition. If you decide to keep a joint account discuss ahead of time what will it be used for, who will contribute what, when, and how much. For motor vehicles, who will drive what? How will the payments, maintenance and fuel costs be managed? There is no need to change ownership or titles during the separation period. You also need to discuss who will be responsible for paying the ongoing bills, and make agreements around significant assets. If you have significant assets I suggest that you speak with an attorney together about preserving those assets as they are until the separation time is complete. You want to make sure neither of you isn’t able to stash the goods if you have a heated argument.

The personal aspects.  You may want a third party to help you determine the amount of time to spend together. Deciding ahead of time eliminates expectations and hurt feelings. If you have a long history of unworkable behaviors I suggest limiting the amount of time. You will need time to learn new skills and view each other differently. If you go back into the ring without the property equipment you will just hurt one another in the same ways, which is often more discouraging than hurting in new ways. When you so want things to change, and you see evidence that they have not, you may falsely assume that things will never change. Give yourself some time and space to make those changes without further damage to the relationship.

Growing and Changing

Giving yourselves time allows for personal growth experiences for both of you. Reading a book is not enough. Talking with a close friend is not enough. Your relationship is in ICU and you need many resources to bring it back from death’s door. Sorry to be so graphic, but I want you to hear the urgency. This is important.

One or both of you are probably up against a growth step that you will need to make whether you are married or decide to divorce. If you don’t take that step now it will follow you wherever you go. If you get into a new relationship that growth step will be sitting there waiting for you, just like your unleashed dog who beats you back to the house and waits on the doorstep.  “Oh, goody. You’re home. Let me in.” A structured separation makes allowances for both of you to have the time and the space to make those required growth steps without dismantling the entire relationship, and many times the family, in order to do so.

I have a Healing Separation Agreement that I’ve created for couples who think this might be a useful situation.  If I can be of service to your relationship, let me know. Don’t let it get to the point of no return.