—THE ILLUSIONS AND PITFALLS
Remember the old adage: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”? Well, MAYBE!
In the first blog about separation, I made some observations about things that could be important to have in place to make a separation successful in restoring a marriage. But now let’s consider some of the things that might make it counterproductive, again, in no particular order. I would also remind you that I am talking about separation in which BOTH partners are genuinely choosing this strategy as a tool toward reconciliation, not the first step toward getting out of the marriage. And again, these thoughts are not based on a lot of research nor is the list exhaustive; these are simply the things I have observed through my years in ministry.
- There is an "artificiality" - built into separation. It is a state of being “not quite” a marriage, but also “not quite” a divorce. A separation can provide some respite from ongoing tension, but in some ways it is an artificial stress reliever. Because the daily pressures and contacts have been drastically altered, it can make one or both spouses feel like things have gotten better, when in fact nothing has changed except that the problems are being avoided through lack of contact. It is important to realize that a separation in and of itself is NOT progress; it is merely an altered state.
- Another difficulty of separation is the idea that the couple can step out of the pressures and tension of daily married life, so that they can instead try to focus on their key problems and issues without having to deal with additional daily stressors between them. However, by being removed from those daily stressors, the urgency to work on the problems lessens. Instead, one or both spouses might be so contented with the stress release, that going back to honestly face and work through the issues becomes less and less attractive. In my observations, that is often only ONE of the spouses who comes to feel the release; the other is left to struggle with the daily grind and waiting for his/her partner to get around to working on the marriage. This kind of experience becomes counterproductive, and can create a great deal of resentment.
- Separation also creates a kind of illusion of what it would be like to be divorced or single again: going where you want when you want with whom you want, being freed from having to communicate and cooperate with a difficult spouse, etc. But again, this is not a reality. Divorce is not at all the same experience as being separated. There is not a temporary aspect to divorce…it deals in finality. Divorce does not leave one thinking they can go back anytime they want, but separation implies that notion. Divorce involves feelings of failure, rejection and deep hurt. Divorce means that each partner is now permanently embarking on a new path in life on their own, so while compromises and consideration take place, both spouses makes those choices in an atmosphere where they have to secure their own future apart from their spouse. Divorce also means loss of control, as the courts step in as the final decision maker in the dissolution. Sure, the couple may make agreements through mediation that the court will honor, but the decision itself is ultimately the right of the court, and a judge may or may not agree with what the couple chooses, assuming the couple is even able to COME to agreement at all.
- Suppose a couple decides to use a trial separation, and each one works on some of the issues in him or herself in that environment. For instance, perhaps one spouse is irritable and short tempered, and so begins to focus on that while separated. That individual may find he or she learning how to not get irritated or how to handle anger in more appropriate and less hurtful ways. The person may even sense a great deal of progress. But the progress can give a false impression of HOW MUCH progress has actually been made. It is much easier to be less irritable when you are not in the presence of the person or thing that irritates you! Learning to handle irritation when the source is present is another matter. When this happens, the person who gets irritated can too easily decide that, since they don’t get irritated when the other person isn’t around. The conclusion can become, “I don’t have any problems, because I don’t get irritated when my spouse isn’t around, so the problem must be that my SPOUSE behaves in irritating ways and needs to change!” Yet, if someone never learns how to handle irritations when the irritating factor is present, then really all that is happening is that the person is practicing avoidance and placing the blame on somebody else, instead of honestly seeking personal growth.
Don’t get me wrong, a person can make great strides in growth given the time to be apart and seriously look oneself in the mirror. But the evidence of the growth is found in context…and growth in how a person handles things by him/herself is not the same as growth in how that same person handles him/herself in a relationship! And it doesn’t count that you have learned to get along better with other friends, because other friends are not sharing your bank account, your home, your future, your responsibilities with your children—in short, you aren’t MARRIED to your friends. It is the MARRIAGE relationship you are supposed to be working on, remember?
As the last entry today, let me also make one more observation about a potential pitfall or illusion in trial separation, and that is the possibility of self-deception. Do you remember what Jeremiah 17:9 says about our hearts? It says,
“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it? (NASB)
Many times when a couple separate, each one will say they are doing it not as a step toward divorce or to get out of the marriage, but as a tool to help them get things worked out. Sometimes that really is what they are doing. But there are other times when it appears that this is more what they are TELLING themselves they are doing, but are actually not being honest with themselves or have been deceived by their own heart thoughts. Once off in separation, the deeper intent starts to rise and instead of working on the marriage, the individual gets too busy to go to the counselor, or is too exhausted to talk about the problem anymore, or any of a multitude of avoidance excuses the demonstrate the TRUE intent in that person, which is to not have to deal with his/her spouse any longer. And that means the agreed upon purpose for the separation was based on a lie; the separation will doom the marriage to failure.
Well, those are some of the traps I think of, and have observed. I haven’t yet decided whether this will end the series, or if I want to add some final thoughts on the topic. Perhaps there is something in particular you would like addressed, and if so, feel free to make a suggestion in the comments, or via email, and I will take it into consideration. In the meantime, if you are considering a trial separation, tread carefully and wisely!