In the past few days, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones announced they are separating. Reportedly, the reason for the separation is to “take some time apart and work on themselves.” The 13 year marriage has endured Douglas’ throat cancer and Zeta-Jones’ diagnosis of suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder. The same report also notes that there has been no legal action.
Which raises the question: can a separation save a marriage? That is a simple “yes, it can.” The more complicated question is “will a separation save a marriage?” The answer to that is “not necessarily.” In fact, research shows that at least 50% of couples that separate do not make it. They end in divorce. Does that number look suspiciously similar to you to the number of marriages that end in the general population?
This is true for one simple reason: separations are not a panacea, and should really be seen as a “last-ditch effort,” not a starting point.
From my experience, separations are more generally “dress rehearsals for divorce.” A marriage, and marriage issues, must be addressed by the two people. Being separated generally brings relief from the pain of the struggle. . . but that does not necessarily mean that any real change is taking place. If I take my hand out of a hot stream of water, I will feel relief from getting my hand out of the heat. That does nothing to change the temperature of that water.
Too often, a separation serves one of two purposes:
1) It allows one person to begin the process of distancing from the other person. In other words, it is a half-step toward divorce.
2) It allows both people to escape the tension of their current situation, but without any resolution or change.
So, yes, a separation can be a part of a marriage finding healing, but only if it is used appropriately.
Here are some guidelines to use a separation as a way to save a marriage:
1) Use separation in separate locations as a last option.
Separations within a home can be a better starting point. It can give the needed distance to stop the hurts and anxiety of a relationship crisis.
2) Before separating, be very clear about how you will stay connected.
You may hear people say that you should have NO contact during the separation. First, if there are children involved, this is impossible. Second, it leads to both people building their own individual lives, at which point it becomes the dress rehearsal for divorce.
The real problem in the relationship is the disconnection. Further disconnection does nothing to heal that, but does usually increase the disconnect.
3) Set up regular meetings to discuss the practical issues that come out of a joined life: schedules, finances, etc.
Having a regular time to touch base and address those issues will lessen the anxiety for both people.
4) Set up regular times to just be together — with NO talks about the relationship or your problems. Just a chance to be together in a lighter mood and place.
Set up a regular lunch time, coffee time, walks, or other times to be together with little expectation. This begins to heal the disconnect that likely led to the marital issues.
5) Commit to yourself on how you intend to improve yourself.
Marriages often lead to stagnation in self-growth, and a separation, if one is intentional, can be a way to begin your own growth process. It may mean meeting with a therapist, coach, or trusted friend.
What is important during this time is to not be derailed by the hurt of the separation. Focus on what you can control: yourself and your direction. Move in the direction of growth and development. Move in the direction of connecting with your spouse, when possible.
6) Avoid acting in spiteful, angry, reactive, or vindictive ways.
Don’t try to teach a lesson, or try to incite a reaction. This is not a time to make a point, but to establish an alliance and reestablish a connection.
If you choose to react in angry or vindictive ways, you are most likely to merely confirm your spouse’s reasons for needing a separation. It will not convince your spouse to reconsider, nor will it teach your spouse any helpful lesson — other than a confirmation of the need to stay away.
7) Resist begging, pleading, or cajoling the person into coming home.
Once a decision has been made to separate, the separation needs to be ended by a decision to reconnect. It should not be made under duress, shame, or guilt.
8) Resist using the children as a bargaining chip.
Children will be the losers in this. Children are the innocent parties that have nothing to do with your relationship, so don’t use them as a bargaining chip. Simply put, children need access to both parents, without feeling pulled or being a part of the struggle.
9) For a constructive separation, decide on a sensible time frame.
Open-ended separations are difficult for both parties. “I don’t know how long” is a tough answer on both sides. How does a separation end? All the issues will not be solved, so that is not the end-game. Suddenly feeling ready to be back together is also a stretch, as there will be some reluctance to re-enter a previously conflicted space.
But having a time frame (and I suggest NO MORE THAN 3 months), then at the end of that time, you have arrived at the time to end the separation. The separation is, then, a structured break, with a designated end.
If your spouse will not agree, then don’t allow that to be another point of struggle. Remember, you can only control your end of the situation.
10) Begin the separation with the end in mind. Start with an understanding that the reason for the separation is to move beyond the problems, to secure a stronger and more connected relationship.
While I am not in favor of separations, I know they happen. So, if a separation is unavoidable, then build it in a way that will benefit your relationship. Don’t let a separation derail your relationship.