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Why Separation Might Be The One Thing That Could Actually Save Your Marriage
Written By: Mark Smith

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I think in our culture separation is generally negative in regarded as the beginning of the end, as the final painful hump in an inexorable march towards divorce. However, at Family Tree Counseling Associates, we are actually huge believers in the curative power of separation. Separation is not divorce. Separation is stepping back from a dysfunctional, stuck and unworkable situation. It is taking a much-needed break. It is a consequence for unaccountability. It is an intervention. It is probation time for a spouse who might need that time to figure some things out. We have seen separation many times be the key turning point in the healing of a marriage.

In the real world when someone is not doing their job correctly, they are held accountable. Their very serious minded boss sits them down and discusses the particular areas in which they are not cutting the mustard. A plan is put into effect that will hopefully remedy the problems. The underfunctioning employee is written up, put on notice and placed on probation. If the needed changes are not made by a predetermined time, then they are terminated from their positions.

However, in matters of the heart, common sense, real world rules frequently are thrown out the window. Frankly, it hurts too much to separate. The separation is usually just as hard for the spouse who asks for it as it is for the one who leaves. There is a tendency to desperately cling on to each other in spite of the marital misery. It is embarrassing to have the neighbors, friends and family members know your personal business. It is brutal on the kids. It is also a financial nightmare. There is also great pressure coming from well meaning family and clergy members who stress that the family must be kept together at all costs. So people sit by passively putting up with ongoing disrespect, abuse, infidelity, alcoholism, workaholism, gambling, drug use, etc. for years in the name of family togetherness and protecting the kids. This type of lacking of boundaries and coddling of acting out spouses is actually terribly harmful to children as well as ultimately being the death nail in a divorce. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

In another example of a non real world agreement, pro athletes many times are granted guaranteed, no cut contracts. They are going to get their millions if they work hard and play well or not. This sometimes turns out disastrously for the owner of the franchise. I believe that a no cut contract is as bad of an idea in marriage as it is in sports. Did I really write that? Challenging "blank check" lifelong commitment in marriage is like questioning another unhealthy myth - "unconditional love." Love has conditions and it has responsibilities. If you don't hold up your end of the bargain, you can and should be cut from the marital team. Arrogant unaccountable addicts need to know that they can and will be cut from the team. Life has consequences and marriage should too. That is the beauty of separation; it is not the final cut, but it has a great deal of the painful consequences of a final marital cut.

When we sit down with a new couple we are assessing each of them individually with our five criteria of therapeutic workability. A marital therapy client who has the following five qualities will make a great deal of progress. If both members of the couple possess these qualities in spades, given time, their marriage is guaranteed to be rebuilt into something solid and workable. The first quality is Motivation. While that motivation can start as motivation to salvage the marriage, it has to shift eventually to a motivation to work on oneself. It is clearly seeing one's own ugly issues and then wholeheartedly committing to a lifelong program of recovery for those issues. If spouses are just doing time "trying to save the marriage" many times that is just not enough. Teachability is the 2nd needed characteristic. Know-it-all types do not do well in therapy. Most people operate under a great deal of misconceptions regarding marriage. Humble open minds and hearts are needed if any progress is going to be made. Pain is the 3rd necessary attribute. In our culture we are trained to avoid and medicate pain at all costs. However, our pain is there to teach us something about ourselves and what we are doing wrong. Because we want people to feel their pain, we rarely encourage the use of any form of anti-depressant. To make progress in therapy, one must commit to cooperate with not only life's current pains, but with previously repressed childhood pain as well. A thriving therapy client must also be able to #4 Trust the process of therapy. Some people are so trust damaged that they simply cannot open up in front of anybody. The final needed ingredient of effective therapy is the ability to be Trustworthy. Follow through in reading assigned books, attending couple sessions, sticking with group therapy, etc. is vital if any progress is going to be made.

We strongly recommend a separation if one of the spouses has all five qualities while their partner has very few of them. Without enough of the five qualities, there is no real hope of change. Separation is many times the only strong enough intervention to reach even the most unworkable of spouses. I can't tell you how many times that I have received urgent calls from repentant, newly separated husbands who all of a sudden can't sleep, can't eat and who can't wait to sit on my couch. These were the same unmotivated, unteachable, numbed out, distrustful squirrelly fellows who refused to darken my door before the separation. Living in a dumpy apartment away from the comfort of his home, wife and children has a way of breaking a man.

Don't get me wrong; we don't push people to separate. We help to get them strong and healthy enough to do what they know they need to do when they need to do it. Many times it takes a year or more of therapy before the "working spouse" is ready to make the commitment to separate. We always recommend a great book on the subject of separation. If you are considering the merits of a separation, it is a must read. The book is Should I Stay Or Should I Go? How A Controlled Separation Can Save Your Marriage by Lee Raffel, M.S.W. The author advocates the use of a written contract that spells out every aspect of the separation agreement. The contract is not drafted by lawyers, but rather by the couple with guidance from the therapist. Issues like dating others (there is none of that), finances, child visitation, length of the separation and the areas of change that need addressed are spelled out in great detail. My experience has shown me that a year is a good benchmark for an effective separation.

I want to share a very recent example of how separation can result in an almost miraculous turn around in a marriage. Marilyn came to see me by herself several months ago. She explained that her husband, Dave was extremely financially and emotionally withholding. She was basically poverty stricken while he thrived financially independent of her situation. She could not come to sessions very often because she could not afford to come. She was fed up with men who did not meet her needs. She had spent many years being ignored and stepped on by a previous alcoholic husband and she was just not going to put up with neglect any longer. Dave came across to her as highly defensive, know it all and he was unwilling to come to therapy. I encouraged her to seriously consider a long-term separation. Dave's initial reaction to Marilyn's news that she had signed a yearlong lease was to immediately file for divorce. I guess he thought that a good offense was his best defense. She didn't bat an eye. She still loved her husband, she did not want a divorce, but she was not going to cave into his pressure and manipulations to stop the separation. When Dave saw that his bluff had been called, he had a complete change of heart. He decided that his marriage was too precious of a commodity to lose. His arrogant heart broke. As with the Biblical story of the prodigal son, Dave's heart came home only when he was psychologically put out into the fields to slop pigs. He contacted me for a session. Given Marilyn's description of him, I was shocked and delighted to discover that Dave actually had all five of the needed qualities for therapeutic progress. I encouraged Dave to open his heart and his wallet up wide to Marilyn. What has taken place over the past 6 weeks has been truly amazing. Dave has been kind, generous and open minded at every opportunity. He has been making up for lost time to nurture and take care of Marilyn. She is a different woman. In our last session, I likened her to a plant that had shriveled up to near death due to a lack of water that has now been completely revived due to Dave's outpouring of love and generosity. The woman is actually glowing these days. She seems soft and feminine and happy. Here's the point though - this miracle would NEVER have happened without the separation. They would have definitely gotten a divorce instead. Do you get it? While these types of incredible results are certainly not guaranteed, I have seen similar results many times.

You are going to need a lot of help. You can't do this alone. You need to get to work on your own issues right away if you are going to eventually get strong enough to pull the plug on the marriage and pursue the life changing intervention of separation. Give us a call today at 844-2442 and we will get you hooked up.

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This article was authored by Family Tree Counseling Associates, a marriage, individual and family counseling center serving the Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville communities in Indiana. If you would like to contact us, please fill out a contact us form or call us at 317-844-2442.
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