When Should a Married Couple Separate?
- Joe Beam President, Marriage Helper
- 2021 26 Apr
It is never a good idea for a married couple to separate, with one exception.
The One Reason to Separate
Based on my experience working with thousands of couples through MarriageHelper.com, I see only one valid reason for a married couple to separate. If a person puts others in the family in danger, separation must occur. At that point, separation isn’t an option, it’s survival. Several years ago a lady told me that her husband got drunk every Friday night and while intoxicated regularly tried to kill her. On one occasion he tried to ignite her hair with a gas burner on the stove. When I asked her why she continued to live with such a dangerous man, she replied that her church leaders told her the only reason for separation or divorce was if her husband committed adultery. They reasoned that because his sin consisted only of drunkenness and attempted murder, but no sexual infidelity, he didn’t give her “Biblical right” to leave him. I urged her to take her children and get away from her sin-sick husband until he found healing from his alcoholism and anger, and that it might be to her spiritual advantage to find another church led by spiritual people with a grain of common sense.
Safety means more than physical security. Some spouses (men and women) suffer from repeated emotional beatings or live in a marriage that causes them serious spiritual vulnerability. They need to flee for protection just as strongly as those experiencing physical abuse.
Reasons NOT to Separate
If a couple considers separation for any other reason than listed above, I recommend that they not separate. Why? Because almost immediately each spouse – or at least one – experiences relief.
They’re not fighting, not hurling or dodging criticisms. There is no sarcasm, no disrespect, and for the first time in a long while, no walking on tension grenades with eggshell detonators. In short, they have something that many times is impossible to overcome; they have a sense of peace.
What they fail to realize is that many times when that “peace” hits, the desire to work on their marriage quickly dissipates. “Hey, I’m finally happy. Not totally happy, but I’m not in constant misery anymore. Why should I try to put together a marriage that caused such agony? I’d rather just stay where I am.”
Please believe me when I tell you that our work in helping couples solve their problems and salvage their marriages becomes far more challenging when they move to different dwellings. If those dwellings are far apart, it gets even worse. For example, when she goes home to her parents and he continues to live in the city where they were together, resolving issues becomes more of a wishful thought than a workable option.
Perhaps the words of Paul have as much practical meaning as theological importance. Could it be that when he told husbands and wives not to separate or divorce, he considered more than law but also addressed the practicality of reconciliation? “A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) Yes, you read that right; Paul tells us not to separate and then goes on to tell us what to do if we do separate. Interesting, isn’t it? It appears that he envisions times when a couple cannot live together, as suggested in the first section of this article. However, unless the continued sin of one spouse prevents reconciliation of the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:15, Matthew 19:9), God’s ideal is that we work out our problems and sustain our marriages.
What If My Spouse Wants to Separate?
The spouse who wants to separate usually does so for one of three reasons:
Fatigue – The spouse who wants to leave feels that he/she cannot take it any longer. The browbeating, arguing, accusations, criticisms, and nonstop drama eat into the individual to the point that he/she primarily thinks of escaping the relationship rather than healing it.
Facilitation – The spouse who wants to leave desires separation to make it easier to pursue a relationship with someone else or a lifestyle that the current marriage prohibits.
Fear – The spouse who seeks to leave does so because he/she fears for the emotional, physical, or spiritual safety of self or children.
If your spouse wants to separate from you because of fear of you, you would do well to find out what you do to cause that fear and then do everything possible to change your behavior to remove that fear. Otherwise, it may well be that your spouse must leave for safety’s sake.
If your spouse wants to leave and you know that the reason isn’t fear or fatigue, then there is a likelihood that it is to facilitate his/her embracing a lifestyle that isn’t good or godly. (Be very careful here not to ascribe facilitation as the reason when the truth is that you refuse to face the reality that your spouse is afraid of you or is fatigued by all the pain in your relationship.) I generally advise a person whose mate wants to leave for facilitation to fight strenuously against the separation. So should friends, family, and church members. When someone wants to leave a marriage so that he or she may abandon responsibility and righteousness for self-gratification or a new relationship, everyone who knows the person who wants to leave should place every barrier possible in his/her way. Will that anger the person wanting out? Sure. But anger may be overcome much more easily than divorce and remarriage.
While understandable for spouses to want to leave because of fatigue, it nearly always is the wrong thing to do, as explained earlier. Instead, find an effective counselor, visit your pastor, or see our web site at www.marriagehelper.com. Don’t run from a painful relationship or you may never do the things that may heal it. If you think it beyond repair, be aware that our success rates for couples in crisis – we love to get the ones that everyone else has given up on – is three out of every four couples who spend a weekend with us.
As Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Don’t let it do it to you. Don’t run. Fight. And by so doing save your marriage and make a wonderful future together, no matter how bad things are now. We see it happen thousands of times a year. Make sure that you see it at least once – in your own marriage.
Joe Beam founded Marriage Helper, an organization that provides marriage help to hurting couples.
Original publication date: October 5, 2007
Image courtesy: ©Getty Images / Vitezslav Viyicil