Is there any hope for my marriage after separation?

I hear that question a lot. And in this post, I’m going to take you deep into the science to answer that question. For many distressed couples, marital separation may seem like a good idea. And our culture avidly supports this notion.

I have seen websites by some therapists with a wrong way of thinking, that praises “therapeutic separation.”

Couples are told that their children will benefit from their separation by learning to adjust to a “new normal.”

These therapists also describe practical financial benefits such as health insurance stability, and other commingled financial relationships that are unaffected by a “trial” or “therapeutic” marital separation.

Some therapists have even set up small cottage industries specializing in drafting separation agreements.

One internet marriage coach, (without any of the clinical training) offers a home study course based on his own half-baked ideas, and a few useful ideas he’s lifted from reliable experts in science-based couples therapy. At the same time, he slams couples therapy as ineffective. 

Unfortunately, many of these “general practitioner” therapists and coaches are not familiar with the actual clinical research on living apart. But science-based couples therapists do.

Here’s what they don’t know…

What research reveals about couple separation

Is there hope for my marriage after separation?

Couples really want to know if there is such a thing as a “therapeutic separation,” or if there are “rules” of separation in marriage.  They ask me: “Is there any hope for my marriage after separation?”

The truth is the notion of “therapeutic separation” is profoundly risky.

An Ohio State University study discovered that nearly 80% of separated couples ultimately divorce. Another earlier study from the late eighties mentioned in the Ohio State research has shown the divorce rate for separated couples as high as 96%.

When it comes to saving the marriages of separated couples, the window for reconciliation is highly time-sensitive.

The chances of reconciliation after separation dramatically drop after about 24 months

The Ohio State research discovered that the average marital separation lasts about a year or so. When the researchers looked at couples who eventually reunited, they usually did so within the first two years.

After this critical two-year window, the likelihood that a couple will reconcile drastically plummets. We now know that once a couple has been separated for more than two years, divorce becomes increasingly more likely. Most of these divorces occur within the first three years of living apart.

A few couples have more complicated issues, often economic, and they're living apart may persist for a decade or more. These couples may have chosen a lifestyle of permanent or semi-permanent separation with neither a move toward divorce or reconciliation.

Is there hope for my marriage after separation?

The calm comfort of living apart

The most important thing to know about marital separation is that, except in cases of domestic violence, encouraging couples to live apart for therapeutic reasons is highly problematic.

As one of the intake coordinators at CTI, I am often asked if living apart is wise. I tell clients that the main issue with do-it-yourself separation is that couples begin to learn how to live alone.

While it may be true that nervous systems calm down, couples often decide to live apart with no real plan for confronting their issues.

A calmer nervous system can trick the mind into believing that separation equals happiness. Another issue is that the spouse becomes the designated “problem.” Separation rarely offers an opportunity to reflect on your personal contribution to the marital breakdown. And it makes reconciling after separation more difficult.

It’s become a cultural norm for couples to separate before a divorce. Some states even require couples to live apart before divorcing. Make no mistake…living apart is the superhighway to divorce. This is another example of how research contradicts “common-sense.”

Living apart feels good because things often do get calmer. Couples usually pay lip-service to the idea that their separation allows them to consider their options carefully. But few rarely do. Therein lies the problem.

The track record for couples living apart speaks for itself. There is only a two-year window to actively work with a good couples therapist to turn things around.

Despite the constant online hawking of home study courses, if you’re separated, you have a better chance at being your own dentist than being your own couples therapist.

Most marital separation is, unfortunately, chaotic and ad-hoc. The tendency is usually to get away from an unpleasant situation, not to roll up your sleeves to get in front of the growing problem with qualified scientific help.

Is there hope for my marriage after separation? Think about your kids

Separation is typically a severe stressor for children. Their anxiety spikes and they may feel responsible. Older kids may create a life-long alliance with one parent against another.

Children of separated parents often act out in ways that they hope will lead their parents to reconcile.

If you feel that separation is on the table, discuss it with gravitas and care.

Let your children know that you are doing everything possible to keep their best interests in mind. And frankly, that means getting good science-based couples therapy ASAP and diligently working on your issues.

Consider the stress your marital issues are having on your children. Try to keep living apart as a last resort. But remember that the only thing worse than separation is fighting in front of your kids.

Is there reconciliation after separation? Only if it’s a mindful separation

Clinical research does not endorse living apart as a first-line couples therapy intervention. And this is where I differ from the aforementioned all-purpose therapists who often lead with separation as a therapeutic tool.

However, at CTI, we often work with couples who are already separated. The best way to render an existing separation therapeutic is with the careful input and guidance of a science-based couples therapist.

Therapy, while living apart, may involve individual therapy as well as couples therapy. Home study courses leave you both wallowing in the same thought patterns and behaviors that got you into this mess in the first place.

Yes, there is hope.

In mindful, therapeutically overseen separations, contact may be minimized. Each partner gets a sense of what living alone would entail. This helps them to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of their marriage, and then process those feelings in science-based couples therapy.

How to rebuild your marriage after a separation

Here are a few ideas on how to save a marriage after separation:

  • Be mindful to look your best, and not just on the outside. I’m not just talking about the apparent issues of personal grooming. If you have kids bouncing back and forth between you, make sure your private spaces are orderly. If you’re both in negative sentiment override, you don’t want to feed your spouse’s dark imagination that you are a hot mess. Surprise them by holding it together.
  • Hold your horses. Don’t seem to much in a hurry to get back together. Don’t pressure or guilt-trip your spouse. Take it slow. Show respect and do your best to be emotionally regulated. That means stop criticizing and blaming. Talk less. Listen more.
  • Get good couples therapy to identify and work on essential core issues. But don’t attach strings. Too many partners say they’ll only talk about this issue or that. This can sound like, “I’ll talk about how we can get back together, but I don’t want to discuss the idea of getting divorced.” You may need Discernment Counseling first. Be open to it. Sometimes the best way to rebuild your marriage after separation is to demonstrate the courage to discuss painful issues in therapy.
  • Collaborate on the ordinary. You’re separated, but life still goes on. Let minor irritations become fights about nothing. Stop bickering and indicate your willingness to cooperate with the mundane tasks of running your family.
  • Agree on what’s ok and what’s a problem for either of you. Good boundaries are essential. Some therapists may extend this into absolutes. But you both know what you’re comfortable with. Share that information.
  • Dates are a good idea, but don’t insist. If you’re the leaning-in partner, focus on all opportunities to show your best self. Somes that’s a fun date, and sometimes it’s paying the gas bill on time.

Show your partner a different side of yourself

When a couple is living apart, there can be many negotiations around a wide range of issues. Issues of fidelity, privacy, child care, and dealing with friends and family are common concerns.

The best way to save a marriage after separation is to show your partner something different.

Surprise them in a clever way. But don’t invite them to notice by calling attention to yourself and what you’re doing differently.

I like to remind separated couples of the critical two-year window and invite them to consider using couples therapy to reflect on the positive aspects of their marriage.

Science-based couples therapy can also provide a safe space for personal growth. What kind of partner do I want to be? What type of relationship do I want to model for my kids? What needs to change for me? What needs to change for my partner?

Couples therapy while living apart invites old assumptions and beliefs to be more carefully and systematically explored.

A separation that is “therapeutic” may prevent divorce and help couples to create a more loving, vibrant, and resilient marriage. A qualified couples therapist can slow the process down and invite you both to carefully consider what is at stake.

Are you separated… But want to try again?

Originally published June 2, 2018

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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