For too many people, separation is a prelude to divorce. Taking time apart from a loved one is often thought of as the end of the relationship. But after 53 years together, and helping to guide thousands of couples, Joyce and I view separation as a sometimes vital necessity in a relationship that could very well end without separation.
In our first book, The Shared Heart, we wrote a piece called “Separation into Oneness.” The whole point of separation is to find yourself again, to reclaim your oneness, to fill the cup of your heart and soul. Too many people lose themselves in their relationships, seeing themselves through the eyes of their partners rather than through their own eyes. Of course, there is no guarantee that separation will bring two people back together again. That is the risk of separation. But finding yourself through separation dramatically increases the odds of a future, and healthier, relationship.
“But,” you say, “Separation is too difficult. We can barely afford the house we live in.” Or, “We work together, and there are daily decisions we need to make.” Or, “It would hurt our children too much. They need us to be together.” The excuses can be many, but it all boils down to the same thing: fear. So, what are we afraid of? Here are four of them:
1. We are often afraid of being alone. We may have lost so much of our sense of self, that the thought of being alone is frightening. Yet, if we are not willing to be alone, to become our own best friend, how can we expect to be someone else’s best friend?
2. We are often afraid of hurting the children. We need to understand that coexisting in a loveless relationship hurts the children much more than separation.
3. We are often afraid of failure. Somehow, living separate from our mate means we have failed the relationship. This is not true. Rather, it’s the failure to keep our heart open, the failure to love, and the failure to fully be ourselves. If we are not doing these things while living together, we are failing in the relationship. If we do these things while living apart, we are succeeding in our relationship.
4. We are often afraid of losing our partner forever. The thought that our partner may end up happier without us can be terrifying, and cause us to hold on to the togetherness with a tight grip. But this very clinging just pushes our partner further away.
Of course, separation is not necessarily the initial solution to relationship difficulties. It is not a reason to avoid professional help or an escape from dealing with the challenges. But even couples counseling is sometimes not enough. Joyce and I see couples who may even seem to have significant breakthroughs in our counseling sessions, but then soon lapse back into unhealthy patterns after each session. It is at that point that we recommend separation.
Other reasons for separation include a partner who refuses to look at their responsibility for their half of the problems; a partner who is addicted and refusing recovery or help; or a partner who is either emotionally or physically abusive.
Okay, so what does a conscious, healthy separation look like?
1. It is not living together. Sleeping on the living room couch does not provide enough separation. Going on a trip, for work or otherwise, even a long trip, does not equal separation. You’re still coming home after the trip. Of course, a short or long time apart may bring the needed growth. But if things go back to the unhealthy way they were before the trip, then separation is the next step.
2. Ideally, there is no sexual activity. We have known couples who have separated, but periodically get together for sex, rationalizing that their sexual relationship was never the problem. However, if you don’t love, or even like, the person with whom you are having sex, this constitutes sex addiction. It will never bring lasting happiness.
3. Separation also precludes emotional intimacy. Emotional attachment to your partner may tempt you to drop by the house to make sure they are okay, or call them to talk about your latest insight into the relationship. This may delay the benefits of being alone because there is no real space.
4. There is no time limit. It doesn’t work to say something like, “We’ll give the separation 30 days, and then we’ll live together again.” A time limit makes the separation artificial, and often puts off the real growth that is needed. We have heard people say, “I’m giving this relationship ________ amount of time. If we’re not living together after that, then I want to divorce and move on.” This is just manipulation. You, or your partner, don’t know how much time will be needed for real growth in each of you.
5. Communication in general must be very limited. People often make the mistake of calling each other to discuss business decisions, problems with the children, the house, or whatever, and then falling into their old patterns of arguing. A healthy separation may need complete abstinence from voice contact. The details of life can be communicated by text or email, and strictly avoid the barbs like, “Why can’t you ever remember to pay those bills?” Or criticisms like, “You don’t really care about the children.”
6. Intimacy with another partner is destructive. Emotional or sexual intimacy with someone else may temporarily distract you from your pain but, in the long run, it will prevent you from receiving the gifts that aloneness can bring. It will also prevent you from healing your relationship with your original partner.
In the end, real separation can bring clarity if you let it. There are no guarantees in life. The clarity may bring new love into your relationship, or it may bring you a more conscious good-bye. Either way, this clarity will bless you in your life ahead.