I hear that question a lot. And in this post I’m going to take you deep into the science to answer that question.
For many distressed couples, marital separation may seem like a good idea. And our culture avidly supports this notion.
I have seen websites by All-Purpose Therapists singing the praises for their particular formula for a “therapeutic separation.”
Couples are told that their children will benefit from their separating by learning to adjust to a “new normal.” These therapists also describe practical financial benefits such as health insurance stability, and other commingled financial relationships that are unaffected by a “trial” or “therapeutic” marital separation.
Some therapists have even set up little cottage industries specializing in crafting separation agreements. At the risk of sounding flip, a couples therapist who specializes in crafting separation agreements is like a surgeon who owns a chain of funeral parlors. One internet marriage coach, (with absolutely no mental health training whatsoever) offers a home study course based on his own half-baked ideas, and a few useful ideas he’s lifted from reliable experts in science-based couples therapy.
At the same time, he slams couples therapy as ineffective. His gall is breathtaking.
Unfortunately, many of these all-purpose therapists and coaches have little or no familiarity with the actual clinical research on living apart. But science-based couples therapists do.
Here’s what they don’t know…
Couples really want to know if there is such a thing as a “therapeutic separation,” or if there are “rules” of separation in marriage. They ask me: “is there any hope for my marriage after separation?.
The truth is the notion of “therapeutic separation” is profoundly risky.
An Ohio State University study discovered that nearly 80% of separated couples ultimately divorce. Another earlier study from the late eighties mentioned in the Ohio State research has shown the divorce rate for separated couples as high as 96%.
When it comes to saving the marriages of separated couples, the window for reconciliation is highly time sensitive.
The Ohio State research tells us that the average marital separation lasts about a year or so. When the researchers looked at couples who eventually reunited, they usually did so within the first two years.
After this critical two-year window, the likelihood that a couple will reconcile drastically plummets. We now know that once a couple has been separated for more than two years, divorce becomes increasingly more likely. Most of these divorces occur within the first three years of living apart.
A few couples have more complicated issues, often economic, and their living apart may persist for a decade or more. These couples may have chosen a lifestyle of permanent or semi-permanent separation with neither a move toward divorce or reconciliation.
The most important thing to know about marital separation is that, except in cases of domestic violence, encouraging couples to live apart for therapeutic reasons is highly problematic.
As one of the intake coordinators at CTI, I am often asked if living apart is a good idea. I tell clients that the main issue with do-it-yourself separation is that couples begin to learn how to live apart. While it may be true that nervous systems calm down, couples often decide to live apart with no real plan for confronting their issues.
A calmer nervous system can trick the mind into believing that separation equals happiness. Another issue is that the spouse becomes the designated “problem.” Separation rarely offers an opportunity to reflect on your personal contribution to the marital breakdown. And it makes reconciling after separation more difficult.
It’s become a cultural norm for couples to separate before a divorce. Some states even require couples to live apart before divorcing. Make no mistake…living apart is the superhighway to divorce. This is another example of how research contradicts “common-sense.”
Living apart feels good because things often do get calmer. Couples often pay lip-service to the idea that their separation allows them to carefully consider their options. But few rarely do. Therein lies the problem.
The track record for couples living apart speaks for itself. There is only a two-year window to actively work with a good couples therapist to turn things around.
Despite the constant online hawking of home study courses, if you’re separated, you have a better chance at being your own dentist than being your own couples therapist.
Most marital separation is, unfortunately, chaotic and ad-hoc. The tendency is usually to get away from an unpleasant situation, not to roll up your sleeves to get in front of the growing problem with qualified scientific help.
Separation is typically a trauma for children. Their anxiety spikes and they may feel responsible. Older kids may create a life-long alliance with one parent against another. Children of separated parents often act-out in ways that they hope will lead their parents to reconcile.
If you feel that separation is on the table, discuss it with gravitas and care. Let your children know that you are doing everything possible to keep their best interests in mind. And frankly, that means getting good science-based couples therapy ASAP and diligently working on your issues.
Consider the stress your marital issues are having on your children. Try to keep living apart as a last resort. But remember that the only thing worse than separation is fighting in front of your kids.
Clinical research does not endorse living apart as a first-line couples therapy intervention. And this is where I differ from the aforementioned all-purpose therapists who often lead with separation as a therapeutic tool.
However, at CTI we often work with couples who are already separated. The best way to render an existing separation therapeutic is with the careful input and guidance of a science-based couples therapist.
Therapy while living apart may involve individual therapy as well as couples therapy. Home study courses leave you both wallowing in the same thought patterns and behaviors that got you into this mess in the first place.
Yes, there is hope.
In mindful, therapeutically overseen separations, contact may be minimized so that each partner can get a feel for what living alone would entail, and carefully reflect on the positive and negative aspects of their marriage, and then process those feelings in science-based couples therapy.
When a couple is living apart, there can be many negotiations around a wide range of issues. Issues of fidelity, privacy, child care, and dealing with friends and family are common concerns.
I like to remind separated couples of the critical two-year window, and invite them to consider using couples therapy to reflect on the positive aspects of their marriage.
Science-based couples therapy can also provide a safe space for personal growth. What kind of partner do I want to be? What kind of relationship do I want to model for my kids? What needs to change for me? What needs to change for my partner?
Couples therapy while living apart invites old assumptions and beliefs to be more carefully and systematically explored.
A separation which is rendered therapeutic may prevent divorce and help couples to create a more loving, vibrant and resilient marriage. A qualified couples therapist can slow the process down and invite you both to carefully consider what is at stake.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.