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Choosing to separate can actually save your marriage, but there are certain guidelines you should follow if you want success.

Marriage is hard, and sometimes couples want to call it quits. Before it comes to that, most couples try different strategies for rekindling the relationship. One such tactic is separation, and a surprising fact is that done correctly, a time of separation can actually help heal a wounded marriage.

Rules for a Successful Separation

You’ll need to set some ground rules if you want your separation to heal rather than end your marriage. And the first ground rule is to set ground rules! If you have no set goals for a separation and no guidelines for how each spouse should conduct themselves during the separation, there’s no reason to think you’ll ever reunite. Understand why you’re separating and what you intend to accomplish by doing so.

[Related: The Biggest Mistakes in Marriage]

Determine Your Feelings

One of your goals should be to determine how you feel about the relationship during your time of separation. This isn’t the time to cut loose and act eighteen years old again, but rather, to think, reflect, and meditate on your marriage and on any baggage you might have that is plaguing it. How do you feel when you’re separated? What parts of you as an individual need attention that might be troubling the marriage? This is the time to find out.

How Long?

If you decide to separate for a time, decide up front how long you’re going to be separate. Don’t separate for any longer than six months. Three months is more acceptable, especially if children are involved.

Live Like You’re Divorced

Separation doesn’t work if you’re still sharing money, spending a lot of time together, or handling chores and family tasks together. If you plan to share custody of the kids, start doing it when you separate. Does that sound horrifying? Congratulations! Now you’re beginning to understand what divorce will truly entail.

The point of separation is to show yourselves what being divorced will really look and feel like, and living as a married couple who just see each other less won’t cut it. Keep your own money. Pay rent at two separate houses. You need to see what “I want a divorce” truly means and how it will impact you, your finances, your kids, and your extended family.

Agree About Dating

It’s unwise to see or date other people while you’re separated if you’re truly interested in healing your wounded marriage. Dating other people will further complicate an already complicated situation. Sometimes dating other people can help because you’ll see the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but the potential for complication should cause you to tread carefully.

If you plan to date other people anyway, at the very least agree on it from the get-go, be crystal clear with your expectations, and don’t change the rules mid-game.

Continue to Work on the Marriage and Yourselves

Separation is about gaining perspective and making a decision to start fresh. But this takes growth and change. If you have big promises and great ideas but you aren’t willing to do the hard work of examining yourself and being honest about the real problems you bring into the marriage, those big promises and great ideas will amount to nothing. You must be willing to change and then you must change.

The resources at FLEXTALK.org can help start some good conversations, but ultimately you may need to see a qualified marriage-friendly marriage therapist whose goal is the restoration of your marriage, not just your personal self-actualization.

[Related: Respond to Your Spouse’s Bids]

There are a lot of ways separating can damage a relationship and it is not something you should do lightly. If you have clear ground rules about what separation means for your marriage and what your goals are by separating, it can be helpful. No matter what, make sure that your ultimate goal in separating is the restoration of the marriage.

Talk About It
  1. What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
  2. Are you separated or considering separation? If so, what has led you to this challenging decision?
  3. What are some healthy “ground rules” for a separation? Why are these rules crucial?
  4. What “baggage” do you bring into your marriage? What is the source of this “baggage?” What are you doing to handle it?
  5. Why is it important to “live like you’re divorced” if you separate? What specifically would this look like for you and your family?
  6. Are you planning to date other people while separated? If so, what are your ground rules? Explain.
  7. How are you going to do the hard work of fixing yourself during your time of separation? What are your practical action steps, goals, or benchmarks? List them.
  8. What are some resources in your area you can turn to so you can work on yourself and get help as a couple?
  9. Do you have a marriage mentor? How do you know this person, and why are they a good choice?
  10. Why did you choose to marry your spouse in the first place?
  11. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.
This topic is adapted from the Dana M. Fillmore, PsyD YouTube channel. Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.