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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Would a Trial Separation Work?


I recently received a pretty interesting inquiry.  After reflecting on it, I gave the writer a bit of a response, but decided that the topic was important enough it was worthy of a blog, so promised him I would have a blog for him today that begins to address the topic more fully.  I decided to invite you, my readers, to eavesdrop.  

Let me begin by sharing the contacting note with you, minus the identifying features—

I just read your 7 day seasons of divorce bible plan on my Bible app. It was very encouraging. My wife and I have been married 4 years and have two small children. What are your thoughts on trial seperations (sic)?

The blog will focus on the question raised about trial separations, but I wanted to make a couple of simple comments about the situation first.  However, let me first say, I don’t like the term “trial” separation because in a trial of a product, it is with the understanding that if we like the product we will make it permanent.  Implicit in the term “trial separation” is that we are trying separating to see if we like it.  I prefer the use of the term “temporary separation,” which implies that the goal is reconciliation.  It may not seem like much, but the words we use can often shape the way we think.

Sometimes people enter marriage and in a relatively short time conclude that it was a mistake and headed for divorce.  Having been both a pastor and a wedding photographer over the years, I have seen this happen many times.  Probably the record time was one couple who were split up after only a month!  Others begin to question their marriage within a few years.  I have known some individuals seeking divorce who discovered soon after their wedding that they had married a person who was abusive, an addict or had some other serious character flaw he or she is unwilling to face, which creates a very difficult situation.  But there are others who simply ran into disillusionment or found marriage was more difficult than they expected, and chose to get out of the relationship.  In those cases, they MAY have missed the possibility of the kind of great marriage that can come through commitment and hard work.  

In addition, I want to comment on the presence of children, especially small children.  (And let me add that it isn’t surprising a couple with small children might consider separation or divorce…though there is lots of joy with small children, it is also a time of much stress.  The good news is that the related stress does not last forever.)  I have known in my life many children whose parents got divorced, including my own children and step children.  It is a tragic thing to see.  If you have children in your home, and you truly love them, I would strongly encourage you to do everything in your power to make the marriage work (not just continue, but actually WORK), because of the impact it will have for the children.  One of the best gifts we can give our children is to truly love their mom or dad.  

At the same time, I do not believe it is healthy for children to grow up watching mom being beaten by dad (or vice versa!), or to constantly see a parent strung out on drugs or booze, especially if mom or dad also beats the children.  Short of that, I believe in the long run, doing the serious work and self-examination required to turn around a failing marriage will pay big dividends in the lives of the children and your relationship with them.  Yet there are times one partner refuses to even try, and though sometimes a partner will pray and wait until their spouse comes around, more often the unwilling partner just chooses to leave.  

I certainly would not claim to be an expert, so in responding to the question, I emphasize that the individual asked simply for MY thoughts about separation.  Out of curiosity, I decided to run a quick search to see what evidence there is on the internet as to how frequently separation saves or finishes off marriages.  What I found, as one often finds on the internet, is that the answers are all over the place, with people strongly advocating all kinds of opinions.  The better articles that I found tended to make some of the same kinds of suggestions I usually include, so I decided to merely offer my own thoughts and observations from what I have seen over the years.  This will take 2 or maybe 3 installments to address well, so below I offer what I think are the first 4 priorities (not in any particular order):  

  1. The first thing is purpose.  It seems to me that the couple needs to determine (and find agreement on) on what their purpose is in having a trial separation.  Is it for safety, to protect a partner who is being abused?  Is it to be a relief valve, providing opportunity for the heat of anger to dissipate and more rational thought to prevail?  It might be to remove the pressures of daily living, so that the couple can instead focus on working on the larger issues together.  However, sometimes it is done with one or both spouses figuring it is a preliminary step toward divorce…which, barring radical change of attitude will, of course, result in divorce.  Some might use it to provide opportunity for one or the other spouse to “test the waters” by dating and comparing their spouse with other individuals out there.  If the purpose is truly an attempt to save the marriage, then there needs to be some careful plans laid for the separation.

  1. The second thing is to plan for regular communication.  More than electronic contacts, there needs to be a plan for regular face to face, or at minimum phone communication with one another.  In extreme cases, this may occur only weekly and may have to be in the presence of a mediator, counselor or pastor to assist the conversation.  But there needs to be ongoing contact, and it needs to also include communication that is NOT about the problems and issues, focusing instead on staying in touch with one another and sharing personal thoughts and feelings.  Since trust likely will have degenerated already, that sharing may be rather surface at first, but keep the contact, and find ways to take risks to move to a deeper level of sharing.  I would also encourage a nighttime and morning contact…”good night,” “good morning,” “hope you have a good day,” “I miss you,” “this is really hard for me,” “I do love you,” or “I know I loved you once, I want to be there again.”

  1.   Third is the need to agree upon clear boundaries.  This can go lots of directions.  If your separation is in the same home but different rooms, establish how you want to set up personal space, and whether certain spaces are off limits or restricted to certain times.  (There are real advantages to staying in the same home…but sometimes it may not be the most practical or realistic option.)  If you are in separate homes, then one of you will likely be in the family home in which you both lived.  What are the ground rules for the outside person to be able to come inside to pick up needed items, or to share bedtime stories with the children, etc.?

Boundaries should also be established in terms of relationships with others.  In a separation working toward reconciliation, I think it would be most wise to not permit one-to-one contact with members of the opposite sex, even if they are just friends or married themselves.  Such contact will almost inevitably begin to fill a void that ought to be filled by your spouse, which can serve to drag you further apart, rather than provide insights that bring you closer together.  It may be true that you could handle yourself appropriately, and that your friendship is different.  But if you are trying to save your marriage, why take the risk?  Or why set up something that might create false impressions and could complicate the process on down the road?  Why have a relationship about which your spouse is going to have to just “trust you” that it is strictly platonic?  Especially since trust is likely already a problem, otherwise the marriage wouldn’t be on the skids!

There are other boundaries that need to be agreed upon:  time with and responsibilities for the children, contacting one another at work, who the appropriate people are with whom to share the struggle, how to handle contacts with other family members…you have to decide what all is relevant for your situation.  If something pops up later and you realize you missed one, negotiate it when you recognize it is there.

  1. Commit to pray:  for God to help you see where you need to change and grow and to be more understanding of your spouse, for God to work to save your marriage, for God’s blessing and good for your spouse, and for God to use this time to help you both build the foundation for a strong and healthy marriage. Don’t only make the commitment, make sure you actually DO pray.  God is always the key to help us with any problems in life, and especially for marriage.  After all, marriage was God’s idea in the first place!



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