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Saving a Marriage after Separation

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Relationship Doctor
  • 2008 5 May
Saving a Marriage after Separation

May 5, 2008

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There is little more painful than the day a couple separates. There is something frighteningly final about a separation, usually coming after months and perhaps years of conflict. With a separation comes the imminent threat of divorce—which in most cases is completely final.

The separation experience is different, of course, depending upon whether you are the “dumper” or “dumpee.” Both usually experience sadness, though the one being “dumped” often also feels intense fear, regret and bewilderment about their future.

Separation is like many other transitions, with feelings of confusion over the future. This is often uncharted territory for both parties, and emotions run high. Because of these intense feelings, impulsive decisions are often made. These decisions are frequently detrimental to the possibility of saving the marriage.

Consider this recent letter illustrating this issue.

Dear Dr. David. My husband and I have been separated for several months. We had lots of problems leading up to our separation, which I didn’t want. We were only married for several months before I found out I was pregnant. We also had serious illness in our family, we both worked, and we had financial problems.

I knew something was bothering my husband, but he would never talk to me. When I tried prying things out of him he became angry. He began spending more and more time with friends. I became angry with him, and have since regretted how I handled things. I am wondering if I pushed him away with my possessive behavior and angry feelings.

My husband and I have talked (mostly me) about things in our relationship that have made us unhappy. I have gotten everything of my chest and am ready to take the :next step. He isn't making any effort to do any thing as far as I can tell. I see things I have done and I pray that God will help me change them. I also ask God to keep revealing to me things I am not aware of. I am to the point were something needs to happen. I can't keep playing this charade with him. I am ready to move on either with him or without. I don't want to be with him if he is not willing to work on changing things in our relationship.

I pray to God for guidance, strength, courage, and comfort. I don't know what else to do. I know divorce is wrong, but I really feel that my husband is waiting for me to make the first move because he doesn't want to be "the bad guy." I don't know what to do. I feel like going and filing for divorce tomorrow and just getting it over with. Can you please help?

This woman is in a very challenging place, emotionally and spiritually, which I talk about at length in my book, Love Lost. Living in the chasm between marriage and divorce is a troubling place, filled with uncertainty, fear and loneliness.

A separation, however, doesn’t have to be the final warning before a divorce. If handled correctly, and prayerfully, a separation can actually be a wake-up call for both parties, with opportunities to come back together healthier and happier than before.

Sound too good to be true? Consider these action steps if you’re in the middle of an unwanted separation.

First, go slowly. Impulsive actions are often driven by emotion, and usually end in disaster. A harshly spoken word drives a deeper wedge between you. A passive-aggressive action meant to get even only adds fuel to the fire. Be thoughtful, careful and deliberate in everything you say and do.

Second, meet your mate at their point of need. In other words, try to give your spouse what they are asking for. If they want space, give it to them. If they want solitude to reflect on the marriage, help them get it. If they want tenderness, show it to them.

Third, create healthy boundaries. Being kind doesn’t equate to being foolish. Being sensitive doesn’t mean you tolerate anything. For example, strongly request on there being no romantic alliances during this time.  Make clear agreements on how finances will be handled. Set and adhere to clear boundaries regarding the children.

Fourth, remedy problems. It took serious problems to lead to a separation. Seek to remedy those problems. Listen to what your mate is saying about why they insist on a separation. Seek information that will help you become a better person. Though extremely difficult, embrace this opportunity to change and grow.

Fifth, control anger and blame. It does no good to spew hostility on one another. Anger is divisive and leads not only to increased resentment and problems, but propels you toward the divorce. It doesn’t help to rehearse all your mate has done to you. Seek peace and cooperation.

Finally, build upon the positive. Look for opportunities to interact pleasantly with your mate. Find opportunities to treat your mate with respect and kindness. Help them remember why they fell in love with you in the beginning.

I’d love to hear from you. What has helped in managing the difficult emotions of separation? What has hurt the process?


David Hawkins, Ph.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 books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.