image Relationships Work should i separate

Should I separate?

This question is sometimes posed to us when individuals or couples come for marriage counseling.

Couples and individuals have tried everything they know to “fix” their relationship, and nothing has worked. In that first session people may feel hopeless and scared that their marriage is over.

Others feel they are “done.” They say, “I’ve given it all I had.” In a sense they are there to drop off their partner. Or maybe to prove to their partner and themselves it would never work.

Coming to counseling may ease their conscience. Then they can say, “I tried everything, even marriage counseling.” They may go through the motions in sessions but aren’t truly doing the work. After 30 years in practice, I can feel whether or not people are “present” and doing the difficult work to improve their marriage.

Whether the individuals and couples before us are “hopeless” or “done,” the question about separation comes up. Of course, I don’t have the answer or a crystal ball, but I believe, since they sought out counseling, there must be at least some grain of desire to stay married.

In the first session we listen actively to their story, talk about their goals, and explain how marriage counseling can help. We give hope.

Getting divorced is the biggest decision people will ever make in their lives, aside from having children. I tell that to clients and then we begin the task of “seeing” whether their relationship can be fixed.

Here are 7 questions I ask individuals or couples to think about, before they decide to divorce.

1) What do I want/need from my partner that I am not receiving?

What’s missing from the relationship? It’s vital to be clear and specific, describing what you need in behavioral terms and using examples. It’s also important to tell your partner why you need this and what it means to you, so they have a deeper understanding than ever before.

We often find a lot of miscommunication with couples. Our brains are wired differently. Partners may feel they have described their needs and wants, but their partner either hasn’t listened carefully or misinterpreted what was said.

Answering this question allows you to clarify what is missing in your own mind.

2) Do I recognize, and have I validated, what my partner wants/needs from me?

Couples often blame each other in the beginning and start every sentence with “You.” Often partners don’t recognize their part of the problem.

They may enable their partner, they may unconsciously be setting up the same pattern of relationship they learned growing up. Or they may deny being part of the problem.

We always say everyone has a “part.” It’s not about figuring out who is at fault. No one ever wins with the blame game. It’s about understanding how each part of the system worked to create the unhappiness that exists.

3) What will my life look like after the divorce?

Some people are so focused on what’s happened in the present and the past that they don’t think about the future. I ask clients to paint the picture of what day to day life will be like, living alone, being a single parent, not seeing your kids half the time, living on a tight budget.

I ask them to write it down, so they truly think about all the changes. It’s like being at the edge of a cliff and looking over before you jump.

4) How do I know I’ll be happier after we separate?

Sometimes people say, “Divorce couldn’t be worse than this.” It might, but it also might not. You won’t really know the impact unless you go through it.

Grieving the loss of a marriage and a family unit is very distressing for most people. Not putting your child to bed and not waking up with them every morning is quite painful. And talk about change. Many people move into smaller homes, have to live on tight budgets, and feel lonely since “everyone is married.”

5) What are we going to tell the kids?

My experience is that the hardest part of a divorce is telling the kids. Their family is the only foundation they’ve ever known. Unless there was severe conflict in the home, kids would rather have their parents stay together. No more family vacations, holidays split between mom and dad, and going back and forth between two homes. That is something most adults couldn’t do.

If you have a sensitive heart, it will ache for their pain. Watching them grieve and transition is hard. Now that doesn’t mean kids don’t adjust. They do adjust; most are resilient and accommodate the “new normal” over time.

6) How will this affect your relationships with your in-law family and your friends?

There are no rules about what happens to the in-laws and all the other relationships partners have with each other’s family and friends. I’ve seen all types of arrangements. Some stay connected, and some don’t. It can get complicated.

Relationships with friends also change. You may not want to go out with the couples you are friends with. I often hear, “I don’t want to feel like the fifth wheel.” Will the friends take sides? The one thing you know for sure is that all of these relationships will change.

7) What is the one thing that would give me hope?

We often tell people they must start the process of reconnecting with the first step. We ask them to identify the one behavioral change that they could make immediately as a way of showing they are doing the work.

We encourage every individual and couple to do their due diligence when making this decision. And, of course we recommend everyone do marriage counseling with an experienced marriage therapist before they decide to divorce.

If you are in a relationship that hurts and feel disconnected, have difficulties communicating, and/or are experiencing a crisis, Bob and I can help. Call us at 410-363-2825 or email

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