Marital separation is a bridge between the two islands of marriage and divorce. When it begins, many couples don’t really know which end of the bridge they’ll end up on. Reconciliation or divorce? 

Granted, there are those who just need a break with the full intention of coming back together. However, separation for many is about getting the courage to cross the bridge completely and come out with a decision to divorce. It’s a time to reach acceptance for ending the marriage. To go through the stages of grieving. Sadly, letting go is harder than anyone can fathom. 

Separation is not a one and done event. Usually, the person feeling the most distress initiates it. There is a tornado of emotions and sometimes overwhelming indecision, from hopes of repairing the marriage to intense pressure to get out for good. In the best situations, separation is a joint agreement, an acknowledgement that its time to stop, just stop. What’s next though is still unknown.

Who leaves?

Once separation is on the table, the hard part of clarifying what it will look like begins. Will it be an informal or legal separation, who will move out, when, for how long, and how will responsibilities be divided? In most cases where children are involved, the husband leaves the family home. If the wife is the primary caregiver, she stays with the kids. 

Passing through this phase is traumatic, and not just for the initiating party. One of the biggest complications for separated couples is telling apart the leaver from the left. The emotional costs are high for both. 

What makes it even harder are the pressures from extended family and friends, many of whom continue to see the couple as they were before. While their comments are fueled by good intentions, the refusal to acknowledge the couples current relationship usually does more harm that healing.

We are separated, now what?

At its onset, separation gives space to breathe from the war zone of conflict or despair that became unbearable. The physical separation has many wins, some short lived and others long-term. If separation was prompted by abuse of any nature (physical, psychological, financial), being apart offers safety and a time to reclaim individual strength in order to see the future.

A break prompted by other deep seated issues like infidelity, communication break downs, loss of interest or unresolved conflicts, opens up space for the clarity to make a decision to restore or dissolve the marriage. At times separation is an ultimatum to see the commitment to solving the problems in the marriage. If it is, then it may be short lived depending on the couples focus towards reconciling.

What happens when it’s not a legal separation?

In an informal separation with no legally structured way of working out parental logistics and obligations, financial duties, expenses and general family upkeep, the couple may take much longer to decide the outcome of separation. 

Setting interaction guidelines is up to the couple and many times never happens. The couple simply stumbles through it, with one reaching out when they need something from the other. Frequent contact makes detaching harder and is worsened by dependency on financial and other practical needs.

In situations where one spouse is holding on to the possibility of reconciliation or is stuck in limbo, time may need to lapse for any decision regarding the marriage to take shape.  

Either party should consider clarifying responsibilities and ways of interacting. Without this, getting closure may not happen. It may come as no surprise that many well-meaning couples begin a separation with an idea of finding answers and ends up being permanently estranged but never reconciling or divorcing. 

In cultures where divorce is shunned or made impossible to follow through with by individual incapacities, estrangement is common. Sadly, indefinite estrangement keeps the couple in a life-long limbo, only broken by the death of one spouse.

How long then should separation last?

The ambivalent feelings of holding on or letting go are what determines the length. If contemplating divorce, some days the decision is at 85% and at others it dips drastically because of glimpses of the lover of old. 

Sometimes you feel hurt and angry and at others the caring, available partner resurfaces. That in itself causes extreme psychological turmoil and can easily immobilize you for years. The answer to how long will be determined by finding closure in order to make a decision.

Getting closure and easing the way

Considering this challenging transition, here are some ideas to ease the way for decision making.

Do a realistic audit of the marriage and reasons you separated

As separation progresses, take time to reflect on the relationship history. Do a chronological look from the beginning of courtship till now. Writing down thoughts in a journal can be therapeutic and allows you to reread and make sense of things. 

It’s a thin line though between reflecting and ruminating. Reflecting helps in pointing out directions for action, while ruminating leads to a cycle of destructive thoughts with no end. Many people have regrets of how they treated their spouse, but continuing to beat yourself up only serves to keep you stuck. 

Have compassion on yourself. Self-compassion is the ability to feel the pain of marital separation without being trapped by negativity, but instead, noticing and accepting the way things are. Develop a practice of self-kindness even while experiencing emotional pain. Turn regret to forgiveness.

Decide whether you want to seek counseling to repair the marriage. If you do, request to start the process with your spouse. If they are not up for it, perhaps do individual therapy for your own sake. Deconstruct your needs.  Build the strength to accept your situation realistically and over time clarity will surface. 

Give yourself an opportunity to live and love again by setting a deadline

This is a very difficult decision to make, but it may provide clarity if you’ve been separated for a prolonged period of several years. Consider that the longer your relationship is in this limbo, the less likely you are to find permanent solutions to your living arrangements, especially if you depend on your partner in some significant way. 

Perhaps an option is legalizing the separation. This gives both of you the opportunity to see the seriousness of the process and also how the divorce process may look like. Remember that you both deserve a meaningful life going forward with the possibility of finding love again. Staying stagnant prolongs this further.

Create a new lifestyle

Continuing to live as you did may hinder closure. Sharing social networks and maintaining the same personal routine could remind you of life together, especially if the intention is divorce.  Give yourself permission to make the changes needed to walk into a future where the loss of the marriage is accepted by yourself and others. Respect the memory of the valuable and important parts of the marital relationship. 

When sharing parenting, and other responsibilities like continuing to run a business together, a big part of structuring a new way of life is to actively build new habits into the shared situation. For example, you could make parenting practices (picking and dropping off children) routine and businesslike to avoid emotional interactions or reduce the frequency of contact in the case of childless couples.

Marital separation is an enormously emotional experience. The transformation that occurs can threaten to break down even the strongest person. It’s understandable at the onset to not know the outcome, to be at loose ends. As time progresses though, reflecting on the marriage, being kind to yourself and finally setting separation goals minimizes distress and maximizes the possibilities for a happy life regardless of relationship status.

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