Coping with Marital Separation

When the luster of the initial infatuation between couples begins to wane and life challenges pit married pairs as adversaries and as their enthusiastic connection becomes a luxury of the past, some couples elect to separate to alleviate their acute disenchantment and unhappiness. How can couples cope more effectively during their stressful separation?

Once couples separate, they may alleviate their acute discontent with each other but they continue to mentally relive, rehearse and rehash the causes, reasons and responsibility for this decision and ponder about their role in the collapse of their relationship.

In his book,  “Marital Separation” Robert Weiss describes the couples’ analysis of their “erosion of love and the persistence of attachment” as they engage in “endless rehearsal of the scenes that happened and those that did not happen to develop what he terms their account, the history of their marital failure that assigns blame and creates a sequence of accountability to arrange the plot in sequentially manageable unity.”

This process of reviewing all the factors leading to the separation beleaguers most separated individuals. They seek to create a plausible and bearable scenario that exempts them from the guilt-ridden responsibility for the break-up.

Some separated couples with children continue to functionally relate well to each other as they harbor painful emotions of loneliness, anger, hurt, disappointment, rejection or blame that may persist for years. For some, being separated is harder than the discontented marriage they had endured. It takes some couples years to extricate themselves from this unhappily intertwined state of transition toward reunification or divorce.

Researchers Dmitry Tumin and Zhenchao Qian of Ohio State University reported, “Most separations last one year or less, but a few drag for a decade or more before ending in divorce, while other separations stay unresolved.” They also found that “The average length of a first separation is about four years. For respondents who divorced after separating, it’s three years. And for the small number who reunited the average separation was two years. Women with children younger than age 5, had an increased likelihood of separating rather than divorcing right away. Yet, Seventy Nine percent of those who separated ultimately divorced.”

Psychologically, the separation period may be a necessary transitional time to assist couples in deciding whether to reunite or part. It is also an emotionally and practically painful time of self-reflection, relationship re-assessment and careful re-evaluation of their past choices and future relationship options.

In therapy, separated couples who restored their marriage report that their separation, though painful, provided an opportunity for introspective assessment of themselves, their mate and their marriage. Those who eventually divorced recalled the separation as a lonely period of indecision. Couples who separated without the assistance of counseling regretted going through it alone.

Before separating:

  • Realize that separating will be followed by a painful and temporarily lonely time of emotional distress.
  • Seek counseling to alleviate your pain, gain clarity and receive emotional support during this crucial decision-making period of your life.






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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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