Can A Separation Really Save A Marriage?

150 150 Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D.

Saving a marriage by separationWere you watching the Today Show this morning?  After a Wall Street Journal article, a segment on how a separation saved a marriage was on.

Which means that countless couples this morning are contemplating separation.  Some are hoping it will save their marriage.  Others simply want justification to get out (“let’s separate and see if that helps”).

The stories noted above are about a couple that wrote a book about how their separation saved their marriage.  The danger is in the extrapolation:  “it can save your marriage, too.”  And in a VERY limited number of cases, they may be right.  But in the vast majority of couples, a separation is exactly what I have been calling it for years:  “a dress rehearsal for divorce.”

Let me be a bit more blunt:  not everyone dies from cancer.  Many survive.  That doesn’t mean I want to take a risk and get cancer!  I’d rather avoid it altogether.

That said, I have worked with couples that have separated and gotten back together.  It is just my opinion that this is really a last ditch effort.  Sometimes, one person insists and there is nothing more that can be done.  The separation is going to happen, and one has to bend to the will of the other.

In that case, I have a few suggestions.

1)  If possible, opt for an in-house separation.  That means that you stay in separate bedrooms, and create boundaries of separation.  For example, you may agree that after dinner (or after work, or whatever you decide), you will go to your “neutral corners.”  That often gives the emotional distance necessary to cool off, but it keeps the family intact.  It also avoids the substantial costs of the second household.

2)  If you do separate, be clear about how and when you will maintain contact.  If you decide to break off contact, you are taking a huge leap toward the dress rehearsal.  But if you are intentional about maintaining contact, then there is somewhere to move toward.  Schedule phone times, time together, etc.  And be specific about it.  No generalities.  There is too much room for avoidance in generalities.

3)  No dating during the separation.  Some people argue that you should date.  I would argue that during a separation, you are still married.  You have vowed to be faithful, and being otherwise only multiplies the problems and divides the chances at reconciliation.

4)  Have a specific time-frame.  No need for a minimum, but definitely a maximum.  For example, you may say “we will separate for no more than 3/6/9 months, and then sit down and decide where we are.”

5)  Try to keep the family routine as normal as possible.  At this point, the children need to feel that life is normal and not falling apart.  Dealing with marriage issues is one part.  Dealing with family issues is an entirely different piece.

6)  Be civil.  Kindness and politeness makes a huge difference.  If you are trying to reduce the conflict, and that is the reason for the separation, then reduce the conflict.  Make a conscious effort to be civil toward each other.  But go one more step and look for the positive in the other person.

Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D.

Dr. Baucom is internationally known for his methods and approaches to saving marriages. For over 25 years, Dr. Baucom has been helping people around the world to save, restore, and create the relationships they desire and deserve. He is the author of the book, How To Save Your Marriage In 3 Simple Steps, and creator of the Save The Marriage System, as well as numerous other resources.

All stories by: Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D.
  • Jon

    My parents legally separated for 6 months in the early 90s, and they are still together today. That being said, they are the ONLY couple I know who got back together after a separation like that.

    During the lowest point in my marriage, I went to stay with family for a week, thinking it would help, and it only made things worse. My wife was filling out divorce papers when I came back. Not good.

    I like the idea of the “in house” separation, but only in the worst of situations. As long as there’s no abuse or chronic infidelity, a mature adult couple should be able to work things out. It’s not easy, but my wife and I are doing pretty well now, and even enjoying the road to “recovery” in some ways.

  • Andy

    A timed separation seems about as effective as the President saying the war will end on this exact day. The enemy only needs to lay low until the expiration date and resume operations.

    Your spouse is not your enemy, but spouses will pace themselves and be polite until that day comes, then the second you move back in together the fighting resumes shortly after. There is no need to *rush* and resolve our issues or talk openly or honest with each other because I can just be really polite, get my spouse to move back in, and then discuss it *later*