So your partner has said ‘I love you but’, has been having an affair or you’ve been arguing so much it’s been affecting the kids.
Your partner wants a trial separation but you’re worried that’s just a nice way of saying ‘it’s over’. But can a trial separation help a marriage?
A Reader Writes…
Instead of everything ‘magically’ going away, as I’d hoped, I’ve found myself agreeing to a ‘trial separation’ and to ‘work on the marriage’…but at a distance. I blame myself for asking all those questions about the affair because I worry it has led to the separation. I spend my time going over and over things in my head and one minute I think things are turning around but the next minute I’m questioning what my wife is doing with her time alone and whether or not we’re really ‘working on the marriage’. A crisis quickly turns into a catastrophe; certainly in my head if not in my relationship as well.
Everything on the surface appears fine and we’re playing ‘happy family’. I share child care responsibilities and tidy up around the house or do other little things to illustrate that I’m in fact capable of change. We have a family day once a week or even a date night and I’m become a better listener and more attentive than ever to your partner. However, underneath not all is right, for either of us.
How can we work on a marriage when we’re not together and can a trial separation help a marriage?
I’d like to turn round your question (“can a trial separation help a marriage?”) and ask instead “will making your partner feel guilty and back down save your marriage?” or “getting upset, angry and refusing to listen to the idea going to save your marriage” or a thousand-and-one other delay, distract and dismiss tactics.
I’m not a fan of trial separations, that’s for certain, but I’m not a fan of not listening to your partner either! So if he or she is set on the idea, it is better to engage with the idea and negotiate. Furthermore, if you follow my six steps it could not only save your marriage but be the foundation for a better one.
1. Set it up properly
Instead of letting everything coming to a head – with one person walking away out of frustration or being ‘thrown out’ – focus on talking through how this trial separation will work. Instead of looking for ways to persuade your partner he or she is wrong to need ‘space’, ask questions about how a separation might work. What about finances? What will you tell the children? How often will you see each other? What would make this a constructive time for both of you?
Key idea for saving your marriage: Focus on improving your communication and listening skills because they become even more important when you’re not under the same roof. I sum this up as ‘I can ask, you can say no and we can negotiate’
2. Have a good idea of how you got into this mess
When you’re in a hole, it’s a good idea to stop digging. So if your relationship isn’t working (at least for one of you), you’ve got to ask why and listen, really listen to the reasons.Think about your part in the crisis, because even if your partner has been unfaithful – for which you’re not to blame – he or she will not have turned from the loving partner to this detached cold figure overnight. Why has he or she put so much distance between you that someone else has been able to come between you?
Key idea for saving your marriage: Every time, you meet up or text your partner think: how could I do this differently? If you just fall into the same old traps or behave in the same old way, you’ll get the same old response and you know where that’s got you. I suggest doing the opposite, so if you clam up, speak up. If you pour your heart out, bite your tongue.
3. Truly give your partner space
Lots of trial separations don’t work because the partner who needs space feels that that he or she doesn’t get it. That’s because they are fielding ten texts and five long emails a day or when their partner comes to collect the children ends up hanging around the house. I know it’s tough because your fear is out of sight and out of mind (and if that’s the case how can you ‘work’ on your marriage). However, you are at risk of making your partner think true space could only be achieved by ending the relationship.
Key idea for saving your marriage: If you’re the partner looking for space – but not getting it – try negotiating with your partner rather than just withdrawing (and unilaterally imposing it). If your partner knows the rules for contact – and can have some input into deciding on them – he or she will find it much easier to cope. For example, you will meet up once a week and reply to one text a day.
If you’re the partner holding the responsibility for saving the marriage, please put your main focus and energy on working on yourself. By this I mean understanding why this is so painful – probably something to do with your childhood – and learning alternative ways to cope with adversity (rather than sending off a desperate text). If you chase your partner, he or she will flee. If you step back, you could encourage them to come forward.
4. Don’t read the runes
What makes trial separation’s so difficult is the uncertainty and to protect ourselves, we try and second guess our partner, think through how every move will be received (and end up over-thinking everything) and let our imagination run riot. It also sucks all the joy out of the few face-to-face encounters that you do have because you’re interpreting every gesture for clues about the future.
Key idea for saving your marriage: Live in today, this moment, right now – rather than worrying about the past or trying to guess the future. Can you cope today? Probably yes. It’s when you imagine further ahead than the weekend that you start to panic. So every time, you feel yourself unravelling focus back down on NOW. Enjoy the view from your window, the cup of tea that you’re drinking or that moment of peace before the kids get back from school (rather than forever being one step ahead and not really registering now). You will be amazed at how much calmer you’ll feel.
5. Expect set backs
I’ve been doing this job for almost thirty years and I reckon I’ve seen over two thousand clients and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have set backs. However, I’ve met lots of people who expect everything to move only forward and when they hit a bump or a dead end, think there is something fundamentally flawed in them or their relationship (rather than just accepting that’s part of the process).
It’s especially common when the partner who wanted space starts to think about returning that the other, who has been holding onto hope for the relationship, starts to get cold feet. As a therapist, this is a good sign because he or she is ready to negotiate for what he or she needs – rather than accepting anything to get his or her partner back – but for the couple it can be really unsettling.
Key idea for saving your relationship: Setbacks and painful but they are not a problem if you can learn something from them. So what is this bump in the road telling you? What do you need to do differently? If you’re reached a dead end, how can you go back and find another way round?
6. Wait for your partner to talk about the future
If you keep asking your partner “how do you feel?”, it is not only exasperating but you’re reminding them that they don’t love you or need space. So I know it’s hard but please wait for them to talk about the future, your job is to make today’s interactions better.
Key idea for saving your relationship: This is a really tough time and you’re going to need help (rather than expecting your partner to make you feel better by saying ‘all isn’t lost’). So please look for support from friends, family, self-help books and consider consulting a professional. You’re facing one of the biggest challenges of your life but you don’t have to do it alone.
Please post your thoughts about what helps make a trial separation bearable, the pitfalls to avoid and what helps create a turning point in your relationship.