Can a Separation be Healthy for a Struggling Marriage?
- 2006 1 Apr
Dear Dr. David:
My wife asked for a separation recently because of ongoing conflict between us. I was very reluctant to go along with it, and threatened her that if she got a separation she might as well get a divorce. She was very angry for my position. But, it was the way I felt.
Now that we are separated, all of my fears have come true. She is making friends with both men and women and doesn’t want to go to counselling with the pastor. She wants her “space” and wants to be left alone to think about things. I say she is using the time to play around. How long should I wait for her? Should we be allowed to have friends of the opposite sex while we are still married? Help. --Dan
Many men, and women, make an unnecessary threat when one mate wants a separation to think things over. They let their fears run rampant and try to exert control in various ways, seldom with any productive impact. They threaten to get a divorce if their mate seeks a separation.
I have seen these fear-based threats backfire so many times. A temporary, time-limited separation can be a healthy process if conducted with clear and appropriate guidelines. But, both must adhere to those guidelines. Let’s consider what those might be.
First, the separation should be done under the leadership of someone trustworthy, such as your pastor, to ensure steps are taken to make the time apart productive and not divisive. A weekly check-in time should be done with this person to make certain you are using the time as effectively as possible.
Second, it must be made clear that this is going to be a “therapeutic separation.” As such, everything about it is done for the purpose of ultimately restoring the marriage. While there may be a “time out” from one another, the “time out” is set up to strengthen weaknesses in the marriage so that you can come back together stronger than ever. Counsel should be sought, both individually and as a couple, to heal wounded areas. Books on communication and healthy conflict could be read and discussed to strengthen the relationship. Each party must take full responsibility for their failures in the marriage.
Third, during the “therapeutic separation,” there should not be alone time with members of the opposite sex, for obvious reasons. It is simply too tempting to engage in quasi, or overtly sexual behaviour, out of a need for attention and affection. Hedges of protection must be built around the marriage. It is very normal for the grass to look greener during times of intense conflict—don’t be swayed into thinking this is reality.
Finally, I believe a therapeutic separation can be a time to get alone with the Lord to determine His will in your life. It is a time to let go of your pride and ask for wisdom into the key areas needing attention. It is a time not to focus on how you have been wronged, rehearsing wounds perpetrated against you, but how you have been less than the Godly spouse you are supposed to be. Let the Lord minister to your needs and assist you in restoring your marriage, if possible. Pray together as a couple, seeking humility to be the best mate possible.
The Apostle Paul encourages us: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4: 2-3)
Dear Dr. David:
I have been married to a wonderful man for nearly five years. He was previously in a marriage where his wife cheated on him multiple times. Even after he found out about her infidelity, he tried to make things work for them and their three children. Finally, she ended their marriage.
My problem is that he is still emotionally connected to her through excessive financial support. Not only does she expect child support and maintenance, but calls repeatedly to ask his advice on unnecessary issues. Sometimes she calls to talk about their children, and that seems appropriate. At other times she will call to talk about her job or other personal problems.
I am wondering how we can create a life together when she still controls him through finances or through the children. I feel like my life is controlled by another woman. He says I am being overly jealous and that there is nothing to really worry about. Can you help me understand what are my responsibilities and what he may be doing wrong that could help our marriage? --Tammy
I sense your frustration regarding this controlling woman. While you are not clear about how she controls things, it appears clear that she still wants some kind of emotional involvement with your husband though was unwilling to be faithful to him in the first place. She chose to leave him and now must be willing to make a clean break of it.
However, she apparently is entitled to child support and maintenance; these are probably not negotiable. She is not, however, entitled to call up for a sounding board on personal matters. These are signs that she wants to stay emotionally involved with your husband and is unwilling to make a break from him. It is your husband’s responsibility to let her know that he is available to discuss critical issues pertaining to the children, but even those discussions must be done at reasonable times. He has moved on and has new responsibilities to you and her involvement obviously causes emotional interference. It reflects poor boundaries on her part.
Regarding the issue of your alleged jealousy: I disagree with your spouse. I think you are being protective of your marriage. You want to set boundaries around it and stop her from interfering in your new marriage. The line between inappropriate jealousy and healthy boundaries can be a fine one—in your case, I say you are being appropriately protective. Sit down with your husband and clarify that the time for her to ask personal counsel from you is over. She relinquished that right when she divorced him. Keep in mind though, that it is important for him to continue to be emotionally involved with his children from this union. But in regards to her, let it be enough that he does his legal part to support her while fulfilling his role as a father to his children. Encourage him to invest the balance of his resources in his marriage with you.
Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com
David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, Saying It So He'll Listen, and When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest book, When the Man in Your Life Can’t Commit, will be released in February, 2006. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.