The question of whether or not to separate from your husband or wife is gut-wrenching. It involves meanings and consequences which can easily get beyond your control. So, let’s talk about whether or not a marriage separation is the right thing for you to do.
(Note: If you are a victim of domestic violence, nothing in this article applies to you. Your physical safety is your number one priority. Call a domestic violence hotline now.)
The first thing to consider is what outcome you expect from separating. All of the various possibilities can be grouped into two major categories: your marriage continues or it ends. That may sound simplistic, but it’s true. Whatever specific outcome you want fits into one of those two categories.
If you want your marriage to get better, ask yourself: “How are things going to get better between us if we’re apart?” You need to interact, and that’s hard to do when you are not with each other on a daily basis. Still, you might be thinking that some time apart may be the answer. A cooling-off period. Or a chance for you or your spouse to realize that the marriage really is worth saving. You’re operating under the assumption that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
However, if you separate, the issues you have between the two of you will likely become more difficult to resolve. This is because in separation you have removed the urgency to resolve your issues. Without the confrontations and arguments, the peace you feel is very appealing. Interrupting that peace to meet up with and talk to someone with whom you don’t get along is very undesirable and unlikely to happen.
Don’t mistake that sense of relief or peace as a sign that you are better off without your spouse. As Gary Chapman points out, “Such peace is the result of removing yourself from the scene of the battle. Naturally you have peace; you have left the conflict! Retreat, however, is never the road to victory. You must come from that retreat with renewed determination to defeat the enemy of your marriage.” 
At the same time, your spouse, who may not have wanted to separate, can become very distressed. The emotional damage caused by your decision to separate can negatively impact your relationship for a very long time, even when you choose to reconcile and remain married.
Some people say that a marriage separation can strengthen your relationship in the long run. A social worker wrote that it has to be done carefully and with the guidance of a professional. And I believe that is true. But with all of the caveats she includes, I seriously question any counselor’s chances of getting a separated couple to reconcile.
Here is a case where marital separation worked, and the couple did reconcile. Jeanine and Mark Earnhart wrote about their separation in a book called Marriage Works. What made their separation successful was that there were no grave circumstances involved. No infidelity, no substance abuse, no financial disaster, no out-of-control children. Their problems were just not very serious (relatively speaking); it only seemed that way to them. Yes, their issues needed to be resolved, and could have gotten much worse had they not been. This couple could have ended up divorced.
Fortunately, because their problems were not too serious, the separation led to reconciliation. But, the separation caused a lot of unnecessary emotional pain. Pain which can’t be forgotten. Pain which will be remembered the next time things get a little tough. The couple would have been better off avoiding separation by finding better ways to improve their relationship.
Sometimes, people go into a marriage separation with the intent of never getting back together, even if they don’t admit it to their spouse (or even to themselves). This is what happened to me. She left, didn’t say whether it was temporary or permanent, didn’t file for divorce (it took over two years for her to decide on that), didn’t make any effort to reconcile, and wouldn’t go back to counseling. Time has shown that subconsciously she intended to leave and not return. I cannot stress enough the harm you will cause by separating under such circumstances.
This “intent” also happens in marriage counseling. Having either consciously or unconsciously decided to divorce, some do marriage counseling so that when it fails they can (dis)honestly say, “Well, I tried.”
Is that you? Is that your intent? Do you really want to end your marriage? If so, have the courage to grab real happiness by taking the “narrow path.” Stay with your spouse and resolve the issues between you. Without that courage, you will most likely end up repeating the same mistakes in future relationships.
If your spouse is thinking about separating, you do not have a way of knowing for sure, at this time, of just how committed your spouse is to your marriage. Commitment is demonstrated by actions, not words. And the reality is that contemplating a marital separation is the active first step in reconsidering one’s marriage commitment. So, let’s be clear. Most separations end in divorce (according to one study, 79%). You need to steer your spouse away from thinking about a marriage separation. You have some pretty good arguments against separating in the section above, and here is another.
A marriage separation would need some serious “ground rules” in order to be effective, that is, lead to reunification. The time has to be spent in reflection and getting feelings down on paper. It is not a time to spend with friends (who will always take your side and against your spouse, thus driving a wedge between the two of you). It is not vacation time, nor a time for new experiences, and certainly not a time for dating others. Dating means you are looking for a replacement relationship.
Because at least one of you is likely not the kind of person who explores and analyzes his/her feelings deliberately, not all of the ground rules will be followed. Even if they all are followed, chances are the separation could drag on for a long time, and one or the other spouse will get upset about the lack of progress in reconciliation. A separation as a way to improve your marriage just makes a difficult process more difficult.
If you want your marriage to continue and your spouse plainly says he/she wants a divorce, the question becomes: can you get your spouse to change his/her mind with a separation? Think about what marriage is at its core. It is a relationship. Right now the relationship is not good. Again, how is it going to improve if the two of you aren't together? How are you going to figure out what's really wrong between you if don’t see and talk to each other every day? It is almost a sure thing that neither one of you truly knows what your real problems are. You may not be able to figure it all out together; you may need a counselor. But it is nearly guaranteed that your marriage will not get better if you are apart.
Those who separate and those who divorce often say that their children will adjust, they’ll get over it, or they will be just fine. If you are saying this, or anything like this, you are lying. Parents are far too often blind to both the short-term and long-term effects their separations and divorces have on their kids.
Children in one-parent families obviously spend less time with the absent parent. But, as Linda Waite reports in “Does Marriage Matter?”, they also spend less time with the parent they live with, and so get less parental supervision, less help with homework, less help with personal problems, and less parental interaction overall. They are more likely to drop out of school. When they grow up, children from one-parent families have less contact with their parents, and the quality of these relationships is much lower than those raised in intact families.
And children of divorce are more likely to have unsuccessful marriages themselves.
It is imperative, for the sake of your children, that you learn to love, respect, cherish, and be happy with your spouse.
You may think that a marriage separation, even a temporary separation, may be the thing to do. And in the next instant you feel anxiety or fear at the prospect of separating. Some might say that the fear or anxiety simply stems from uncertainty about the near future, about being alone, about anything. But essentially, it is that God or your subconscious or your gut is telling you that you’re considering the wrong course of action and there are better alternatives.
Having given you things to think about in regard to separating, I want to end with a thought about divorce and your own future. If you are considering divorce as a viable option, then think about this. Wedding vows are the most serious promises you can make. Someday you will want to get married again. How could any future spouse possibly trust you to keep your promises when you have demonstrated that vows don’t mean anything to you? A marriage relationship requires a great deal of trust so that intimacy can flourish. And you will be going into a second marriage having convicted yourself of being untrustworthy. I know that sounds harsh, but these matters require that lines be drawn and issues made explicitly clear. Understand what your actions mean.
As Gary Chapman says, “The choice for reconciliation is not popular in our day. “ Have the courage to see that both a marriage separation and divorce are the wrong solutions. Demonstrate and honor your commitment by resolving your issues and aiming for a better relationship with your spouse. Have the courage to work through this dark time in your life and find real happiness in your present marriage. Others have done it; so can you. As Lee Baucom puts it, move from a “you and me” to become a “WE.”
Gary D. Chapman, Hope for the Separated: Wounded Marriages Can Be Healed, Moody Publishers, 2005. E-book Location 136.
Jeanine and Mark Earnhart, Marriage Works: A Guide to a Happy, Long Lasting Marriage. No publisher information.
Sharon Jayson, “Splitting? 79% of Marital Separations End in Divorce,” USA Today, May 6, 2012. Retrieved on Sept. 28, 2013 from usatoday.com.
Linda J. Waite, “Does Marriage Matter?” Demography, Vol. 32, No. 4, Nov. 1995. P. 494-495.
Leslie Doares, “Is My Marriage Doomed if My Parents Got Divorced When I Was a Kid?” Retrieved on Sept. 28, 2013 from psychcentral.com.
Chapman, E-book Location 1172.