For many distressed couples, 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” separation. Some therapists have even set up little cottage industries specializing in crafting separation agreements. Unfortunately, many of these therapists have no little or no familiarity with the clinical research on living apart.
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.
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 have 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 chance 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 likely. Most of these divorces occur within 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.
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.
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.
The track record for couples living apart speaks for itself. There is only a two-year window to actively work with a couples therapist to turn things around. But, unfortunately, most marital separation is ad-hoc. The primary goal is usually to get away from an unpleasant situation, not to roll up your sleeves to get in front of the growing problem.
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 therapists who sometimes 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 guidance of a science-based couples therapist. Therapy while living apart may involve individual therapy as well as couples therapy. In these mindful, therapeutically overseen separations, contact may be minimized so that each partner can get a feel for what living alone would entail, and mindfully reflect on the positive and negative aspects of their marriage.
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 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 explored.
A separation which is rendered therapeutic may prevent divorce and help couples to create a more loving, vibrant and resilient marriage. The essential idea is to slow the process down and carefully consider what is at stake.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.