When One Spouse Wants A Separation

Dr. Wall discusses 3 types of separation and recommends if a couple is going to separate for more than several weeks that they work through a Controlled Separation with their counselor.

Love is patient…is not selfish…bears all things…endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4,5,7

Once in a while one spouse may become so distraught, so confused, so depressed, so disconnected that he or she considers a divorce. The person doesn’t know for sure, but divorce is starting to look like an attractive alternative. In this kind of situation, a separation between the couple where they both live in separate quarters may be a way to buy the couple some time to heal and to work on improving the marriage so that the marriage can ultimately be saved.

Or not. Separation can also lead to divorce. But sometimes it doesn’t, so it’s a better alternative by far, than the distressed spouse just up and leaving and that’s the end of it and here’s the Sheriff with the papers.

Separation can sometimes buy us some time for wounds to heal. Emotions take time to heal. People do heal. People aren’t always a mess like they are today. Time does heal wounds. So do self-care and reducing stress and naps.

So let’s think this through a minute, so that if a spouse is in such disarray we don’t have to crash and burn and self-destruct and become another statistic.

There are three kinds of separation:

Willy-Nilly Separation: This is where one spouse says he needs his space and he (or she) up and leaves. There are no guidelines, no agreements and plenty of reasons to feel hurt. Where’d he go? When’s he coming back? On what circumstances? Is he having an affair? Is he filing? Is he going to hurt himself? Is he going to pick up the kids from school tomorrow like he normally does? Is he going to stop the automatic deposit of his check? How will I pay the bills? No questions are answered and the spouse at home is left with filling in the blanks and usually these blanks are NOT filled with love and tenderness and best wishes. A Willy-nilly separation is NOT recommended. Unless it’s just a few days, it can often lead to divorce. There’s too much room for misunderstanding.

Legal Separation: This is where lawyers draw up the rules for the separation. Here’s a simple principle:

If you need a lawyer to protect you from your spouse, your spouse is going to need a lawyer to protect him from you.

Lawyers are under ethical obligations to protect YOUR rights. Not your wife’s. Not your husbands. YOUR rights. The lawyers will know the ins and outs of the law, what can and cannot be done to damage your position in the event of a divorce. These ins and outs have NOTHING WHATEVER to do with reconciling and working things out and letting leveler heads prevail and I’m sorry and maybe we could work this out and you know I think you were right about such and such and would you like to go to the game with me on Saturday night? NOTHING. A lawyer will give you advice that will give you a better position in divorce court. THIS INFORMATION HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH WORKING THINGS OUT!

Here’s the deal. I’m a marriage therapist. I can’t compete with lawyers. They have their ethical obligation and sphere of influence. I have mine. You want a lawyer to protect your butt? Fine. Then you don’t need me. His advice will trump mine every day of the week. I don’t have one card I can play.

The third type of separation is Controlled separation. This where a therapist like myself mediates a separation agreement between the husband and the wife, so that each party knows what the expectations are during this very insecure and unsettled time. A separation is going to create much uncertainty. There are no rules. Well, there’s one:

If you separate you become fair game for all the single, unattached or unsavory characters in your world and all of a sudden all these vultures will become very interested in you.

The attention is flattering, particularly if you are an emotional basket case already. We’re definitely going to need a map to get us through such uncharted waters or we’ll be lost at sea and have no idea where the harbor is.

This is where I come in. If a separation is going to be more than a couple of weeks, I recommend we work through some basic ground rules, basic understandings, to mitigate against the couple crashing and burning. Without these ground rules couples can end up divorcing simply because of all the hurt that happened between them while they were separated.

We go through twelve items in a therapy session where we discuss and negotiate between the parties. Primarily, the party that wants the separation is the one who determines the parameters of the separation. That’s because the one who wants the separation is temporarily in the driver’s seat. This isn’t how the marriage is going to work if we reconcile, but it’s what’s going to get us through these brief rough waters. Soon the sun may come out and wind may die down and we’ll be fine. So let’s not self-destruct in the middle of the storm. Crazy, weird, hurtful and scary times pass.

So I become this coach. Here are the rules: Who’s going to stay where? For how long? What do we do with the money? What about lawyers? What about people of the opposite sex? What about the kids? How often do I see them? How often do we see or talk to each other? What can we talk about? Will we date each other? Will we be sexual with each other? Will we be going to therapy? What happens if my car breaks down? Or there’s a family emergency? Or the furnace goes out? Who picks the kids up from childcare now? What do we tell the kids, our family, and our friends and colleagues?

This isn’t an easy thing to navigate, particularly for the spouse that doesn’t want the separation. It feels like his control has been taken away. And it has! Temporarily. We’re letting the spouse with the most emotional distress call the shots until that person is able to put herself together.

It is a trial divorce without the legal hassles.  Divorce is pretty permanent.  Ninety percent of people who divorce stay divorced from each other.  The 10% that remarry will have lots of struggles because divorce rips your heart out.  The Controlled Separation buys some time so that clearer heads can prevail.

The basic ground rules are that neither will date anyone else nor tell people of the opposite sex about our problems. No lawyers will be consulted or hired. Keep the money as is. We’ll have one date a week and one family time a week and see each other in therapy. We’ll talk to the kids every day and each see the kids most every day, sometimes every day. We’ll live in separate places (not in the same house), we’ll attend therapy together and leave our problems in the therapy room (for now). We won’t discuss our relationship problems and neither will pressure the other to do thus or so. We’ll honor our agreement.

I’m often asked if this actually works? Do any of these couples reconcile? Yes, they do. I don’t have the hard statistics, but I would estimate that in my practice half of the couples work things out and half divorce. The reason I don’t know the exact numbers is that some of the couples quit coming to therapy after we’ve worked out the separation agreement. I’m guessing that most of those are not reconciling and they are seeking advice from that point from a lawyer, not a marriage therapist.

The others continue to see me and we often eventually work things out. It’s weird how this type of separation works to help marriages heal. I never know what that thing will be that will turn a hurting partner toward their spouse again. It’s often nothing that I’ve said or done that brings the couple back together. It’s usually circumstantial. The kids’ nightmares or instant troubles in school wakes both parties up. The astronomical financial strain (divorce is the number one cause of poverty in our country) causes leveler heads to prevail. One or both actually start missing each other. They start treating each other with respect. A person heals emotionally and starts making wiser decisions. The other finally relaxes and discovers his or her sense of humor. I never know what it will be. Sometimes I’m simply amazed and marvel at the grace of God and the ability of the human spirit to triumph through seemingly insurmountable odds. It makes me a believer in the notion that forbearance, grace and endurance, a little mercy and patience can go a long way.

NOTE: There is one situation where I DO NOT recommend a separation. This is where one party is actively having an affair. We’re begging for trouble then. The separation just presents the affairee with more time to engage with the affair. If your spouse leaves you to move in with someone else, this is NOT a separation to work things out. You’ll need a lawyer more than you’ll need me if that is the case.

NOTE: I do NOT recommended having a separation with both parties in the SAME home. The idea of a controlled separation is a trial divorce without legal ramifications, to let time heal wounds and see if clearer heads prevail.  To do this they need to be in geographically different places, just as if they were divorced.  If they live as separated in the home this just makes them despise each other more, because day after day they are ignoring each other.  Divorce would be more certain in that case.  I would NOT recommend it.


Check out these other blogs by Dr. Wall:

We’ll Have A Nice Divorce!

Dr. Wall rants about the myth that divorce is a step toward happiness.

Living As Roommates: Easy Ways to Destroy Your Marriage

In this first in a series on living as roommates vs. living as husband and wife Dr. Wall takes a sarcastic look at what it’s like to be married, living as roommates. Since this isn’t satisfying, people divorce in spades. Maybe they should have tried living as husbands and wives instead.

Famous Words Before The Divorce: My Kids Are My Number One Priority

This blog is the third in a series on living as roommates instead of living together as husband and wife. In the first article, Dr. Wall spelled out the different ways living as roommates will destroy your marriage. In the second he discussed the effects of cohabiting prior to marriage on being

Marriage: Take the Long View

Dr. Wall mocks the idea that your spouse will never change.


Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

About Dr. Bing

Dr. Bing Wall began Heart to Heart Communication, L.C. (offices in Ames and Urbandale) in 1995 with the goal of applying a strength and mentoring approach to helping people in their relationships through education and therapy. Prior to completing his M.S. and Ph.D. at Iowa State University in the area of Family Studies, Human Development and Marriage and Family Therapy, he was a pastor for 15 years.


2 Responses to When One Spouse Wants A Separation

  1. nxg3410 July 26, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Great post. One question though: what if the separating spouse wants to separate to another location? How do you handle the reconciliation process then? My spouse has been unhappy about the marriage AND about her professional career. Therefore, she’s been looking at jobs in different cities without collaborating with me. So, if she lands a job in another city she will be moving. She has told me several times that she’s uncertain about the future of our relationship, but made it clear that she wants to separate as soon as she finds something to support herself.

    I’m uncertain how to prepare or plan for the future, especially if I plan to follow up for reconciliation later. Would any of these steps regarding the Controlled Separation be useful?

  2. Dr. Bing December 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Thanks for your candid question. This is a difficult situation.

    If someone moves away away with the idea that the spouse isn’t going to go with him or her and the spouse has no say and “I’m going to do this no matter what, but someday we might reconcile,” I’d say, not likely. Separation is hard enough when the spouses are in proximity. If someone is relocating without his or her spouse’s input, he or she is living a single lifestyle, doing one’s own thing. Married partners consult and make big decisions like this together. If the career is more important than the marriage, well, there you go. Let’s call a spade a spade. There’s non-verbal communication going on here and the message is “I don’t want your input in my life.” Just say it, then.

    You can’t make her love you. Your only option is to let her go and perhaps later she comes to see you in a different light. But I wouldn’t try to talk her out of her move and career. She’s already made it clear she’s not listening to your opinion right now. Whether she ever comes to the point where your opinion matters to her again remains to be seen. Given the drastic nature of her decision, I’d say that would be pretty rare.


    Dr. Bing Wall

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