Sometimes a separation in a marriage is a necessary step in order to ensure safety and to have each individual work on themselves. I’ve seen couples put marriages back together again and others not be able to. In fact, I know this path well as my husband and I were able to reconcile our marriage after a seven-month separation. Too often, couples want to rush past the necessary steps and go to where they want to be or wish they were. This simply backfires. So, in this blog post I would like to outline the steps for those who want to put their relationship back together again.
It won’t take as long as you fear, but it will take longer than you would like. Trust the process.
One of the biggest reasons to separate is because in some way one or both of the partners are not safe. They are either physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally unsafe. They don’t know how to discuss things, be emotional, or live life without some kind of a blow up and more hurt happens.
If either substance or abuse are a part of the issues, these are personal issues and a separation is necessary for the abuser to deal with their personal issues. You cannot do marriage counseling when there is addiction or abuse present.
A separation needs to actually be separate; little to no contact. Some of these things can happen simultaneously or overlap each other, but you should not jump ahead too far and try to resolve conflict before creating safety.
Staying on Your Own Side of the Street
The goal here is not to cast or claim ‘fault’. Your goal is to name the areas you need to work on and change. List out what is NOT OK in the marriage. You need to be able to name it, before it can be addressed.
Next, you need to examine how you have hurt the marriage. It’s so easy to see how your mate has offended you but this is a time to consider how you need to change. Please note: your sins and offenses do not have to be equal. In other words, your mate may have cheated on you, lied, done drugs, spent all the money, burnt the house down, but in this process, you might have responded by not holding them accountable to let them reap the consequences for their actions. Or perhaps you responded to their sins with criticism and hostility. You don’t get to justify your criticism and hostility because they sinned bigger.
It can actually be legitimate to come out the other side and believe that you have done nothing to offend the marriage and it might be true. Certainly, if one person is thinking everything is good in the marriage and the other person is hiding and lying they really can’t address unknown issues. One person really can have personal issues that affect the relationship and the spouse doesn’t know how to respond. These are legitimate reasons believe the issues are one-sided. But it’s still a good time to ask yourself the question.
Here’s one problem: If everything is the other person’s fault, then there isn’t anything you can do to change your situation.
Here’s the other problem: If everything has been your fault and you’ve tried to change every way you can think of and you still have problems, maybe you are not naming the problem correctly. Get help.
Remember: you aren’t trying to cast or claim ‘fault’. But if you can figure out what Me, Myself, and I need to do differently, then you can change your situation. Maybe what you need to do is to set some good boundaries.
At some point, when each person is ready, they come together with a third-party present, to talk about what the issues are and what is their part is to change.
If this can be discussed and agreed on, then you can move forward. If this cannot be agreed on, blame is cast, accusations hurled, there is no agreement on past issues, then the marriage isn’t ready to move forward.
Once the couple agrees what the problems have been and each person begins to take responsibility of their part, then trust can begin to be established. To build trust there must be evidence. Trust is not built through guilt or manipulation. It is not forced. It is built through seeing bank statements, phone records, drug tests, GPS, confirming attendance at meetings, or any number of other records. This is openly communicated by the person who broke trust. If one person never had a spending problem, they will not need to show bank records. The person who needs to establish trust needs to willingly offer evidence. This is the fastest way to build trust (other than not violating trust again.)
Real Amends need to be made. In most cases, both people will need to do this. This is where the offender admits specifically for the ways they have offended. Not every incident, but ways they have wounded a person. Example: I have lied to you, manipulated, made you think things that were not true, broken agreements, etc.
An amend includes ways in which you hope to heal the hurt in the person you have hurt. Example: I will respect your wishes for communication, I will prove my words with receipts, I will give you access to my accounts.
An apology needs to be free of if’s, but’s, and just’s. These words dilute the apology. Example: I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you made me mad.
After the above-mentioned things, you need to actually ask for forgiveness. NOT: ‘I hope you can forgive me’, because that feels like a dump truck backing up and unloading a guilty-tripping pile of dung. Using the words ‘will you please forgive me’ takes humility and it’s hard, and it frees us.
Acknowledge the hurt you have caused. This is an important step because the person begins to feel heard and seen again.
Accept the consequences of your actions. Accept the separation, the debt, the hurt feelings, going to jail, or whatever the consequences are of your actions. This is one of the most healing things you can do for the person you have hurt. It shows you understand the gravity of what you have done. The Serenity Prayer is vital here.
If what is confessed is later used against you, you can know that this is still an unhealthy person you are dealing with and you cannot continue to move forward.
My definition of boundaries: A decision I am going to make given your actions. It’s not a wall when you can’t take it anymore…it’s not stonewalling and avoiding…it’s an invitation into the land of healthy. It’s saying, “If you yell at me, I will…leave the room, go to a hotel for the night, etc. When you can speak with care and concern to resolve the issue, I will come back.” It says, “I will engage with you when we can both be healthy.”
Boundaries are so important in any healthy relationship. Each person needs to be able to have a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. What works for them and what doesn’t work, without receiving backlash of pouting, yelling, stonewalling, threats, or retribution of any kind. Boundaries are the foundation to both love and respect.
Talking Kindly About Nothing
Both people need to be able to be present, with a third-party present, and be civil (and dare I say kind) to one another and not just in your words. Death stares, clinched fists, slamming doors, avoidance, one-word utterances won’t work. You need to be able to talk about the weather, the kid’s school program, or a change in schedule like you would someone that you like.
Resolving Conflict About Important Things
Again, with a third-party present and once talking about nothing can be civil, you need to start to talk about important things like problems and icky feelings with civility and kindness. There can be no name calling, blaming, over-talking, demanding, lying, pouting, screaming, justifying, etc. You can’t be hurling issues that have been resolved, bringing issues up that have no bearing on the current issue, or making things up in your head. You talk about facts and feelings as though you care for one another. Hard things are brought up with tenderness and compassion.
Resolving Conflict Without A Third-Party Present
Once this skill is established, you can begin to have these conversations on your own. This should be done at a time and place where either party can leave if things don’t go well. The conversation then goes back with a third-party present to help resolve the issue. After several successes of having healthy conflict, it’s time to begin considering ending the separation.
Building Intimacy and Moving Forward
Intimacy is far more than sex. It is sharing dreams, frustrations, successes, hurts, and hopes. Often times, the couple has never known a time in their marriage (or in their lives) when they experienced real intimacy. They first have to learn to become intimate with themselves and with God first to even know what their dreams or hurts are. Only then can they begin to share them with another safe person. To be a safe person, we must learn to listen and hold space for another person who is feeling their emotions, without correction, despise, or anger.
Diane Langberg writes, “I learned the paradoxical lesson that sometimes the way to fight against sin and suffering is to wait. We destroy the dignity of others when we refuse to wait for them –whether they need to tie their own shoes or they are struggling to find words for the indescribable. We bestow honor on another when we consider him or her worth waiting for.”