At the end of 2021, my husband and I separated. We lived separately for six months, and in the middle of 2022, we reconciled our marriage. People often ask us if we knew, when we separated, whether we would end up divorcing or getting back together. The short answer is, of course, no. We had no way to know for sure. What we did know is that I was leaning toward divorce, and my husband Charlie wanted to reconcile. We took some steps that, I believe, led us back together again, instead of toward divorce. So, here are some tips for what to do (and not do) if you want to keep your separation from becoming a divorce:
#1. DON’T call it a separation if your plan is to get a divorce
Some couples use separation as a “slow fade” toward divorce. I was guilty of this. You think that if you separate for awhile, it’ll make it easier when you eventually file for divorce. The truth is, putting someone through a separation is incredibly unfair if your plan is to divorce anyway. It’ll hurt, but you need to rip the bandaid off. Giving them a false sense of hope will hurt them way worse in the end.
#2. DO try to go on occasional “dates”, even if they don’t go well
Look, I’m not saying you have to see each other if you want to claw each other’s throats out every time you’re together. What I am saying is that if it is safe and amicable for you to be in the same room together without a brawl, you should do it on occasion. Charlie and I dated throughout our separation. Some dates were truly lovely, and reminded me of why I loved him. Others were hard, tense, or argumentative. We took the bad with the good, understanding that it was part of the process.
#3. DON’T let the separation go on past 6 months
This isn’t a thing I made up — it’s what a lot of experts say. Interestingly, they also say the separation shouldn’t be less than 6 months either. It seems that 6 months is the sweet spot for figuring out if you can save the marriage. If your partner wants the separation to go on longer than that, it might be time to consider that they actually want a divorce and aren’t ready to say it yet.
#4. DO establish clear boundaries and expectations
Please hear me on this one. I KNOW that the last thing you want to do with the person you’re separating from is to sit down and discuss boundaries and expectations. I can already hear you. “But Amber, if we were able to establish boundaries and expectations, without it turning into a fight, we wouldn’t be separating!” Believe me, I know. Do it anyway. Things will be WAY worse if you find out later that you had a misunderstanding about what was “allowed” during the separation. You need to discuss whether you are allowed to date, what’s happening with the finances, how are you splitting up time with the kids, are you going to be intimate with each other, and any other ground rules that feel relevant to you as a couple. Be annoyed about it, but do it anyway.
#5. DO go to therapy
Lots of people recommend couples therapy, but I’m here to tell you to think about starting with individual therapy. Charlie and I had a lot of our own triggers and traumas to work through before we could even begin to explore our relationship at any depth. We needed to get grounded, to heal from some things, and to gain perspective before we could communicate effectively about our marriage. Going to individual therapy first made us so much more successful when we began the process of reconciling. Ultimately, we decided not to pursue couples therapy when we got back together, choosing instead to both continue with our individual therapy. That is a personal choice for you and your partner. Whatever the plan, some form of therapy is going to be needed. (Side note: if your partner refuses to go to therapy, YOU STILL GO. You will never regret working on yourself during this time.)
#6. DO ask friends to hold you both accountable
This one is the absolute worst, I know. You don’t want people in your business. Especially when it comes to something as delicate as your very uprooted marriage. But having friends who know you both, who want the best for you and who are willing to speak truth to you, is so valuable during your separation. Good friends will give you wisdom when you need it most, and will watch over your mental health during this difficult time. You have friends so that you don’t have to go through things like this alone. Learn to lean on them.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to know where your separation will go in the end. There are ways to make it successful, and ways to make it an absolute train wreck. Following these do’s and don’ts can help give your marriage a fighting chance.
Note: This blog is an update and continuation of my first blog on the subject, which you can find here.