You know the reasons that you have arrived here. A hopeful start of relationship has, over the time, morphed into the question: "should we stay together or not?"
As you read this, you may be feeling many things. Fear. Anger. Disappointment. Hope and relief? Over all, an internal sense of conflict. You never intended for your love story to reach this point - but here we are.
In the therapeutic environment, my hope is that you have a completely unbiased space where you (and your partner, if you are coming together), would be able to ask the hard questions. Truly explore all options so that you can make a fully conscious, informed, wisdom-based decision.
Now, here's where you and other readers may differ: why you are considering a separation or divorce. The "why" is a critical part here - so take a second and pause to see if you can articulate your "why". I'd even venture to say there are two different layers of your "why": (a) the event(s) that made you doubt commitment to your partner, and (b) what you hope to accomplish in separating your life from theirs.
Understanding Your Why Behind a Separation
This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but here are some reasons that could be fueling these different layers for you:
(A) The event(s) that made you doubt your commitment to your partner
an affair (sexual, emotional)
a breach of trust (patterns of lying/deception, overt and/or covert)
family issues and how you've navigated them together
repeated disrespect or dishonoring
abuse (verbal, psychological/emotional, physical, sexual)
not recovering from a previous issue that occurred years ago
explosive or damaging communication styles
neglect, lack of love or affection
shift in values or beliefs (i.e. religious, lifestyle, etc.)
lack of attraction
they aren't committed to you/ they are the one initiating separation conversations
(B) What you hope to accomplish in separating your life from theirs
clarity: to understand how you feel
action: discerning next steps for the relationship
peace: a de-escalation of conflict or turmoil
complete break: a lack of desire or willingness to invest in the relationship anymore
safety: establishing boundaries in order to preserve mental or physical health
trust: rebuilding trust in a less-intense manner, without daily triggers
consequence: a direct response to your partner's destructive or hurtful behavior
freedom: a desire to live another life (location, lifestyle, childfree, fewer responsibilities etc.)
dating: a desire to end this relationship in order to begin another
reunion: managing conflict in order to come back together for healthier union
This list could go on...but as you can see, "why" is rarely a simple question to answer. Still, I hope this list sparked some thoughts for you. If you could be full honest with yourself, what layers are influencing your current decision?
What to Do Next
I'm assuming that, if you are reading this, you have not already decided to divorce. For some, divorce is not an option. You are deeply committed and have reverence for your union in a way that is sacred - or, have strong values for family that would protect against splitting your family unit. You want to do everything possible to stay together and thrive. For others, divorce is a possibility under specific circumstances. You are also very loyal and committed to marriage - it's what you signed up for - but you are also open to divorce as a last resort. And still for another group, there is no negative thought around the idea of divorce. Perhaps your considerations are largely influenced by factors such as children, shared financial obligations, living arrangements, convenience, or even familial/cultural fallout.
Whoever you are, it may be helpful to factor in some options that precede a conversation about "the d-word." If there is even a slight chance for reconciliation, it would be hurtful and not constructive to throw that word around lightly.
So, consider these:
Weekly or Biweekly Therapy
If you are already in therapy, you may be tempted to skip this step. But I encourage you to consider if you attended therapy to merely check a box, or if you were truly invested in addressing the issues that brought you here in the first place. So often, couples attend therapy years after the issue has already begun festering and poisoning the relationship. It's as if they are swimming in deep, angry waters of emotional debt. At this point, it is very hard for therapy to gain traction. Gottman's four horsemen - criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling - have already taken residence as the primary ways you interact with each other.
Before waiting until this point (or, even if you are there already), I'd suggest finding a therapist that you can honestly relate to and open up with. Get in weekly or biweekly therapy (maybe agree together on a certain number of sessions that you're willing to give an honest try), and start unpacking the issues that lead to the question of separation.
This is a bit more intensive than traditional couples therapy. In couples therapy, you attend a 45 to 50-minute session, then you go home and live your regular life for one or two weeks, then you return. In an intensive, you will attend a retreat that involves taking time off of work to go away together.
Now, this isn't a luxury retreat where you'll sip frosty drinks on the beach. This is essentially a work-cation. You'd sign up for a program (anywhere from 2 to 5 days) that includes licensed counselors and a planned schedule of individual, couples and group therapy. You'd get the benefit of hearing from other couples with similar situations. In this format, you all learn from each other - and you and your partner would have undistracted time to dive into your issues together. Food, lodging, and all of your sessions are typically included in the package price.
Please note, some therapists offer an intensive format of couples therapy where you may still go home or stay at a nearby hotel. Int his version, you'd only meet with the counselor (no other couples involved), and you may devote time for one day or one weekend.
Couples intensives may be a solid option for those whose second "why" (what you hope to accomplish in separating your life from theirs) involves wanting reconnection. After all, if your aim is to draw closer again, you may find great benefit in entering an environment that is built to foster even more closeness than you'd naturally experience on a day-to-day basis.
A structured separation is exactly as it sounds: structured. In this scenario, you'd meet with a therapist to discuss the details such as:
length of time
type of communication
frequency of therapy sessions (and topic)
purpose of the separation
off-limits, boundaries during the separation period
what to tell friends, family and children (if any)
what does success look like
defining your sexual relationship
If these parameters are not defined, you are in danger of merely separating for the sake of separating. There wouldn't be a shared understanding or consensus, and this type of ambiguity could lead to increased hurt and pain.
How Do I Decide?
Talk with your partner. Maybe you share this post with them as a jumping off point for discussing together. If your partner feels unsafe right now, you can meet individually with a therapist to work through some of your initial feelings. Here are some questions to bring up when you are ready to talk with your partner:
"Are you open to hearing how I've been feeling about our relationship lately?"
"I'd like to bring in a licensed therapist to help us talk through our difficult issues. Are you open to the idea of attending couples therapy with me to work on some of our major issues?"
"I have been thinking about separation lately, and I was wondering if that thought has crossed your mind as well?"
"If we do separate, what would our ultimate goal be?"
"If we don't separate, what is our plan to make sure we can get out of this place of dissatisfaction?"
"Do you think weekly couples therapy would suit us better, or would you want to try a couples intensive?"
"What do you think led us to this place of discontentment? I'm open to listening."
This decision is difficult to navigate. I hope that you have supportive friends and family surrounding you. But ultimately, awareness and open conversation will be crucial to understanding what your relationship needs, and what kind of next step will bring you closer to health and intimacy.
My name is Sadé (shah-day) Ferrier. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in relationship and intimacy issues. In-person and online therapy is available in the Atlanta area for residents of Georgia. Visit myintimactherapist.com to enjoy my podcast, tons of free resources, and the "Intimacy Mindset Makeover" online course with downloadable activities.
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