How to break up a marriage

A long time ago my sister had a flirting acquaintance with law school. I was, at the time, studying family therapy. We used to joke that I would break them up and then she would get the cases.

But actually, as a therapist, I always did whatever I could to preserve marriages. No marriage is wonderful all the time. We go through difficult periods individually and as a couple that try our patience, that test our coping skills, that make us wonder why did we ever choose to marry this person. Usually, however, these times pass and some of us go along as we were beforehand and some of us grow through the experience and deepen our relationships and some of us grow further apart.

When a couple consults a family therapist, in my opinion, the therapist should never take the side of either spouse. S/he should take the side of the marriage. Particularly if there are children, the couple has a lot to lose by dissolving their marriage. Of course some marriages can’t be saved and shouldn’t be, but many can and should.

One trap therapists fall into is recommending a “trial separation.” Usually the complaining spouse pushes for it and often therapists decide that it would not be harmful. I disagree.

Imagine that you are in a contentious situation with your spouse. You feel that s/he is overly dominant and you have no breathing room. Or you feel that s/he is overly passive and you have to carry all of the weight of the marriage and family. Now imagine your spouse or you move out of the situation. Suddenly the domination stops. Suddenly it’s not your spouse opting out of the work of the family but his/her not being present. What does it feel like? It is a relief. It’s quiet. There is no contention. You sleep and wake on your own schedule. You eat if you’re hungry and don’t if you’re not. Life is a lot better.

Tell me: how is this supposed to motivate couples to get back together?

There was a period of 4 years when my husband and I lived in two different countries because of work and family obligations. I would visit him for periods adding up to 3-4 months a year and he would visit me for about one month a year. I loved the times when we were together. But the times we were apart were good times too. I liked the freedom of being able to establish my own rhythms and activity patterns. Had our relationship otherwise been problematic, the time that we were apart would have convinced me that it was a good arrangement.

Sure, family life brings strength and love and security. We enjoy the closeness and warmth of being together, working on common goals, sharing experiences together, supporting each other in difficult times. But what if all of that is missing? Then wouldn’t separation be less painful than a problematic relationship? Couples who have gotten to the point that interactions with each other are painful have difficulty picturing warm, close family family relationships.

In the over 30 years I have been a therapist, I have never known of a couple who had a trial separation who ended up working on their marriage.

If the intention is to break an abusive cycle and allow people to get the distance and perspective to realize that they really shouldn’t be together, trial separation is a good idea. Otherwise, it’s a mistake.

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  1. Believe it or not, I do know of a couple who separated and then decided to work on their marriage. It wasn’t the norm, though. They both agreed they were in love, just that he had some issues to work on. They were separated for about 6 months and then got back together. That was 1994. They are still together, stronger than ever, and now have 2 kids.

  2. john sommer says

    A well written article. If you come to Texas, hopefully Austin, we would love to take you out for a fine Southern meal.

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