By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
I’m a fan of your blogs and have come to the conclusion that my husband of fifteen years and I are at a stalemate. Honestly, he’s a great guy but we just have tough chemistry. Our pattern is quite destructive and hard to break. We go through a few days where we’re okay and then things flare up over little things and we spiral downhill for a few days.
For example, we came home from a trip recently and got into a ridiculous argument when I misplaced my keys as we were approaching our home. There was the usual blaming and critical comments on both of our parts and we both went to bed mad. I woke up the next morning feeling frustrated and defeated once again. My husband usually wants to start fresh the next day but it’s not easy for me to forgive and forget. He doesn’t seem to get that his sarcastic comments hurt me deeply when we argue.
I’m an adult child of divorce and don’t want to repeat the pattern that I grew up with but I also don’t want to expose our two kids to constant bickering. A close friend of mine suggested we try a trial separation. What should we do?
The answer depends on your goals. For some couples, it makes sense to take a break if they use the time to honestly evaluate the relationship. If a couple assesses their commitment and decides that their marriage is worth saving, a cooling off period can be an effective way to give each other some much needed breathing space. Keep in mind, it’s highly beneficial for couples to have a timetable for the separation period and to agree upon goals.
One thing is almost certain. If you or your husband don’t change, then the relationship will not improve. Since your relationship doesn’t seem to be meeting either of your needs, agreeing to take a break might be a good way to work on your problems. Since you’re in a long-term relationship, you might believe your investment of time and energy into the relationship is a good reason to try to work things out.
For some couples, a separation may be a reasonable alternative to divorce if both partners are willing to work on themselves. A planned marital separation can sometimes save a marriage. According to author Tinatin Japaeridze, what some refer to as one’s “need for space from a partner” is a legitimate cry for just that – space. She posits that both men and women sometimes need quiet time to find what’s vital to their relationship.
Based on my counseling experience, marital separation can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, it can allow a couple time to deal with the issues that are pulling them apart without the emotional intensity that comes with living together. If planned in a thoughtful way, they can agree to meet regularly to work on their issues and air their grievances. Implied in this approach is hope that the relationship might repair and continue if both partners are on the same page. Some refer to this break time as pressing the pause rather than the stop button.
However, time apart can cause some people to further detach from one another and be disappointed when they reunite and find the same patterns of annoying behaviors exist. This is especially true if one or both partners don’t take responsibility for their part in the breakdown of the relationship. Many experts advise that taking a break only delays the inevitable. Only you know what is the most likely outcome for your situation.
Truth be told, a break can be a healthy antidote for you and your husband if you both commit to working on your relationship with the intention of dealing with the issues that divide you. The phrase absence makes the heart grow fonder characterizes couples who don’t have extremely high conflict or abuse and are receptive to counseling to work on their communication and connection patterns.
8 Tips for taking a break from a relationship:
- Be specific, honest, and vulnerable about your concerns and what the break will look like. Don’t worry about pleasing your partner because this is the time to assert your needs.
- Set boundaries and expectations. This includes ground rules and expectations such as talking about the duration of the break. Discuss whether you can date others. Can you text or call each other daily? Is it okay to have sexual intimacy with each other? Is it okay to stop by each other’s residence unannounced?
- Make an agreement to have regular counseling sessions – focusing on working on your relationship patterns will greatly enhance your chances for success. Your counselor can help you decide how often you should see each other, if sexual activity is acceptable, etc.
- Don’t assume that your partner wants the same things that you do. Remind yourself that your relationship broke up for a reason and people don’t change overnight.
- Talk to your children honestly but don’t give them too much information or false hope. If your children are younger than age twelve say something like: “Mommy and daddy need time to figure out how to get along better so we’re going to try living apart. We both love you and will make sure that you see a lot of both of us. Kids older than twelve can handle a little more information, such as: “We’re not sure if we’re going to work things out but we want to give it a try.” Never express negatively about their other parent or bad mouth them.
- Don’t date other people while you’re living apart. It’s impossible to build trust – an essential aspect of intimacy – if you’re romantically or sexually involved with someone else.
- Recharge your battery and take time to learn more about yourself so you can view your relationship with a fresh perspective.
- Stay optimistic and connected with your partner. It’s important to stay in touch with your partner in old and new ways such as cards, letters, and/or a weekly dinner out. A planned separation needs to be a reprieve from bickering, disagreements, and frequent communication.
Give your husband space if you want to test out whether absence will make your heart grow fonder. In fact, respecting each other’s boundaries is crucial to finding out if divorce is a better option than separation. Setting a tentative timetable can help both people evaluate whether taking a break has caused them to feel more optimistic about building a life together.
Consider taking a break as a time to determine whether your relationship is worth saving. It can give you and your husband a chance to respect one another’s view of your problems – even if you feel that they’re wrong or shouldn’t feel the way they do.
Let’s end on Tinatin Japaeridze’s words: “Both time and distance have been known to refuel love and longing for one another. Simple but true. Again, absence does make the heart grow fonder. On the other hand, if during this time apart, you realize that you hardly ever miss your partner, if might be a clear sign that you may, sadly, be approaching the end of the long and winding road. Letting go may no longer be an option but instead, your only viable solution.”
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.