When I separated from my husband, Sam, a few years ago, we'd been in counseling for several months and were going nowhere. At the final session when I announced I was leaving – at least temporarily – our therapist threw this statistic: 80 percent of separations end in divorce.
Fine by me. Separation, in my book, is not inherently a step toward reconciliation. It's a just step. A great big step out of the everyday of your life into a space where there is room enough to think and re-think yourself and your relationship before taking another step.
Sam called it Purgatory, our separation, and in some ways that's what it is. The space between.
Last week I read this article, "5 Key Rules to a Successful Trial Separation," and I've got to say, that author has most of it wrong.
She equates success with a preserved marriage, so already were at odds. Success, I say, is moving forward into healthier lives, it may or may not mean continuing the marriage.
I've got a few rules of my own.
1. Don't set a time limit for the separation. Give yourself time to think. What I hear over and over from women coming out of marriage is they don't know who they are anymore. They are lost from themselves. Why put even more pressure on this decision or create ultimatums dictated by time limits. Maybe three months or six months will be time enough to know and maybe it won't. The goal is, after all, to know yourself well enough through the separation to make the best choice, to trust the decision and to give your partner space to do the same.
2. Give yourselves at least a one month break where contact is limited to necessity. If you have kids talk only enough to continue civilized co-parenting, if you're childless step away completely. Remain committed to counseling, but take a good break from it – at least that first month. Then scrutinize with fresh eyes.
3. Draw up terms of separation with a legal mediator – bills, debts, custody, alimony, child support, dividing assets, all of it. You achieve two things: First, it removes most potential fight material during separation, freeing both of you to talk (when you begin talking again) without haggling and continually negotiating details. Second, should you decide to divorce, a frame work exists.
4. Do not have sex with the ex. True, I broke my own rule here but we had been separated for a year and "dating" for several months before I let Sam back into my bed. I was ready to give the relationship another shot.
5. Be honest with your partner, even when it means saying you don't know, or that you're leaning toward divorce. Sam never stopped trying to save our marriage, he asked me back into counseling from the day I left. I was honest about my ambivalence for almost two years, even after we started having sex again, right up to the day I recommitted.
If the benchmark of successful separation is remaining married, Sam and I had succeeded. But I still maintain it would has have been a successful separation even if it had ended in divorce. And for the record, every couple I know who also "succeeded," has one thing in common: separation was approached as and end, not a means to avoid ending.