Handling Separation — 6 Steps to Keeping Your Sanity [maybe]

Sometimes a marriage feels over, but upon examination there exist a few embers which could potentially reignite the whole damn thing (not the technical definition). Often a marital relationship appears to have gone horribly awry, yet participants believe time apart could serve to remind why the union was initiated in the first place (again not a legal definition). That’s where the topic of handling separation comes in.

The main difference between separation and divorce is that the former recognizes marriage as still binding. Separation does not end a marriage. Partners who are legally separated remain married while living wholly separate lives. Note that I am not an attorney and I do not play one on the internet. That said, this statement is closer to a legal definition than not.

Handling Separation — 6 Steps to Keeping Your Sanity [maybe]

It’s been said by my #LadyPosse (repeatedly) that divorce is not for the weak. While that’s most certainly true, I’ve recently learned divorce’s BFF, separation, can be challenging to navigate as well, ergo my laser-like focus on handling separation, as well as perhaps also hanging on to some vestiges of sanity along the way.

Divorce is the decision to yank off the metaphorical band-aid in a semi-fast fashion.

Separation is s-l-o-w-l-y removing said adhesive plaster whilst simultaneously considering—even though it hurts like a mother-f***** whether to pull or pressslapping it back down for another 20 years. And that, good friends, is why we’re now talking about 6 steps to handling separation. If this describes the situation you find yourself in, sending virtual bear hugs and my best advice your way. Hang in there.

These 6 steps to handling separation are my truths. They might not be your truths. But if they help you at some point along the way, that would make me happy.

Step 1

Panic. Stop sleeping. Brainstorm all the very worst case scenarios. Amble through your days in a semi-comatose state. More often than not, begin to cry if anyone, from stranger to friend, asks the most perfunctory How are you? Handling separation, that’s how. 

Embrace the mess you are. Avoiding it only means it’s there to bite you in the ass later. Snuggle deeply down into the the terrifying cavern between what was and what will be.

Step 2

Tell your People. Not friends. Not acquaintances. Perhaps not even family. Your People.

Now is not the time to care about appearances (literally if you’re like I am, but metaphorically too.). Make no mistake, handling separation is hard work. There is no time, (much less any energy left over) to obsess about appearances.

We all have that friend where we had no idea her marriage was crumbling around her until she’d swept it all up into a nice tidy pile. Don’t be that friend. That friend was sad, grieving and lonely. There’s no need for the lonely.

Step 3

Live only in the moment. If the moment rocks–be there. If the moment sucks–show up for that too. Focus on minute by minute and hour by hour.

Be still. Acknowledge what you feel. Embrace the panic and fear. Remind yourself what you’re experiencing is really flipping hard.

Admonish yourself to do only what needs to happen that day. Tomorrow will arrive (sometimes to your chagrin) and you will handle it then.

Step 4

Define your goal Don’t assume you and your partner have the same end-goal for the time apart. If one views the separation as step in the divorce process (AKA divorce with training wheels) while the other frames it as a temporary “time-out — -the separation won’t work.

Creating and sharing a goal for the time apart and defining expectations is crucial in handling separation and, more importantly, in experiencing separation success

Questions to ask yourselves include things like: Will you date other people? Will you make an effort to see and ‘date’ each other? How much and how often will you keep in touch? If there are kids involved, how frequently will you interact as a family unit? None of the answers matter/are right or wrong, but they and others need to be clarified in order to fully reap the benefits of marital separation.

Step 5

Focus on you. Take a break from gazing through the windshield and take long, hard look in that rear-view mirror. Examine yourself. Be honest about the why and what happened. Whether you want to repair the current coupling or eventually move on to a new romantic relationship personal inventory (with or without the help of therapy) is pivotal.

Seek advice. Ignore advice. Do what works for you. I’ve collected so much advice I no longer know what I’m keeping or tossing.

Force yourself to sort through your ‘muck’ so that you are able to emerge from the separation stronger and could return to the marriage (or launch a new life, whichever the case may be) as a healthier, happier you.

Step 6

Fly solo. If you’ve chosen marital separation, then you must believe living apart can ultimately be what keeps you and your partner together. Give yourself ample time to remember who you are alone so you can chose to make the decision to return to the union or perhaps ultimately realize that you’re your best self—without your partner.

Whether you’ve been married for decades (raises hand) or merely a few years, it’s crucial you seize this solo-time to evaluate what you want as a single person so you can recommit or not to being part of a duo.

Around here I’m at the end of month two of a 12 month separation (an experience to be explored in other posts). Here’s some of what I’ve experienced handling separation ……

It’s been fantastic. I vaguely remembered how capable I was. I’ve been repeatedly reminded how capable I am.

It’s been restorative. I kinda knew I had a #LadyPosse. I’ve learned by myself I’m simply a finger, yet curled together my friends and I are a powerful fist with endless potential.

It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I absolutely did not foresee some of the realizations at which I’ve arrived only 60 days in.

It can definitely be tricky to set what was recently a ‘traditional’ marriage up as two temporarily separate lives.

Yet, if there’s even the slightest chance you’re both interested in making an effort to redefine the marriage, it’s worth it.

There you have it. Insights learned (mostly the hard way) from my personal journey handling separation. Your journey isn’t going to be easy, it rarely is, but maybe me sharing these words, my truths, will help you in that journey in some way. I hope so. And if you’ve been there before — dealing with that handling separation business — what are your truths? What did you learn along the way that I need to know about?

The original of this article first appeared on the Carla Birnberg blog.

Other stuff on this thorny topic you might be interested in:

Divorce Recovery in Midlife

Sex with the Ex: Smart or Crazy?

How You Can Choose to Develop a Happy Relationship With Your Ex