Therapeutic Separation for Couples

By Margy Davis-Mintun, LCSW, ACSW

When a marriage/live in relationship feels broken and the zest of the early years seems lost, before jumping to the solution of divorce, why not consider a less drastic yet jarring experience, a therapeutic separation. This type of separation is designed between clients and therapist to increase the possibility of reinvigorating and rediscovering the essence that has been covered by stress, work, children and life’s distractions.

Good candidates for a therapeutic separation are couples who can remember that in the past they experienced pleasure, joy and companionship with each other, and through the years distance has prevailed and loneliness has become the more frequent companion.

What a therapeutic separation is designed to accomplish is to create enough distance, physically, by living apart to really allow the opportunity to feel the absence of the partner. During this time of living apart the thrust is to repair the marriage, rather than move toward divorce. We know that 70% of second marriages end in divorce, a higher number than first marriages. We also know that many relationships can repair provided a concerted and focused effort is directed toward that end so long as both want the relationship to continue. Furthermore, we know that past feelings of connection can be rediscovered provided the purpose/opportunity is designed for such.

In a therapeutic separation, the couple agrees to the terms of the separation, with the guidance and counsel of the therapist. Both are engaged in ongoing therapy and there may be occasion for individual work as well. In these separations, dating becomes the means of contact with each other, and contact is reduced to a minimal level so that each can gain a glimpse of what it would be like to live without the partner and experience the most positive aspect of being together. There are mutual rules established around the terms of the separation, these include and are not limited to such choices as monogamy, dating others, privacy, finance, how to deal with work, family and friends, and if relevant the care of children. The time frame is 3-6 months, anything longer tends to increase the possibility of moving too far apart to come back together, and anything shorter tends to be too quick to actually fully benefit from the time apart..

This separation discourages problem solving (regarding the couple) outside the therapeutic relationship in order to prevent further harm and repeated failure of repair.
The goal is to rediscover the positive aspects of the relationship, to build safety within the context of the couple and to provide space for the individual as well as the couple. In the therapy process, problem solving differences, communication and negotiation skills are enhanced, so that the couple can practice newly learned skills. Assumptions are reevaluated and beliefs are examined. When there are breakdowns in the relationship outside the therapy session, those are discussed and reviewed in the protective environment of the psychotherapy session. The goal is to recreate the positive underlying theme in the couple so that assumptions, if made allow for the benefit of the doubt rather than falling to negative interpretations.

With the support of therapy, and the commitment of couples to find ways to stay together in a more meaningful and rewarding relationship, therapeutic separations have been successful in preventing divorce and in creating stronger, more loving, and healthier partnerships. The key in deciding to try this as an alternative to divorce, is that both partners in the relationship want to remain together, are willing to work toward this end and commit to the process of creating a more satisfying and stronger connection with each other rather than “jumping” into divorce.