The Privilege of Marriage Separation (And What to do if You Don’t Have It)

»I am going to use gendered language in this article because the dynamics I’m speaking of seem most prevalent in heteronormative relationships. However, it’s important to note that these situations could arise in any relationship of any gender composition.«

This one will be emotionally burdensome to write, and probably just as burdensome to read. But it’s been on my heart, so I need to talk to you about it.

Ever since I began speaking about my marriage separation and reconciliation, I get dozens of messages a day from women who are going through something similar. With an ache in my chest, I read their stories. They have husbands who don’t help with the children and the house, who emotionally coerce or neglect them, who they suspect might be narcissists. They tell me of husbands who shout at them for splurging on a new purse from Target, then buy themselves a $1000 set of golf clubs. They are being sexually coerced by their husbands — being told that if they don’t give regular, enthusiastic sex whenever it’s asked for, they will divorce them or go find sex somewhere else. They justify this manipulation because “they go to work and pay the bills.”

These stories rip me apart.

And they are everywhere.

My first question to these women is, “have you tried going to therapy together to sort these things out?” And dear reader, I’m sure you already know the answer. Without fail, almost every woman responds with, “I’ve asked, but he refuses to go.”

My next question, then, is whether they have considered a separation. Separations can be healthy. They show the offending partner that you are serious, that you are willing to leave unless things change. And, quite often, it works.

But separation is a privilege not afforded to everyone.

Sometimes, you can’t see your privilege until you start hearing other people’s stories. When I decided to separate from my husband — after years of begging him to change, to go to therapy, to get help — it was a very heavy emotional process. But one obstacle I didn’t have to face was how I would finance the separation. At the time, my business was flourishing. I had plenty of money in my account and more coming in every month to keep me afloat while we separated. I also had a husband who realized that this was rock bottom, my final stand, and he was determined to win me back. He promised to continue supporting me financially during the separation if the crashing economy took a toll on my business (and it did). He even came to my new apartment and helped me hang my tv, run the wires into the wall, build my kids’ new bunk beds, and more.

So, I went into the separation knowing that I was taken care of. Paradoxically, for the first time in years, separation was making me feel like I had a partner!

Sadly, I’ve learned that this is not the experience many women have when they want to separate. Many women are stay-at -home moms and don’t have their own income to support themselves. And, since their unsupportive husbands don’t want the separation (probably because they realize they’ll lose their live-in chef and maid service), they refuse to give her the money she would need to survive for a while on her own.

Furthermore, even in cases where the husband is on board with the separation, sometimes it is financially impossible for the couple to maintain two households. Things get further complicated if the couple has children, particularly if one or more of those children are high needs or differently abled. There is a nearly endless list of obstacles that get in the way of couples taking the time apart that they desperately need to heal, process, and re-evaluate.

It breaks my heart to know that some people find themselves utterly stuck. It is especially devastating when I see women who need the separation but are stuck under the thumb of a coercive or financially manipulative husband who won’t let them leave.

One purpose of writing this blog is simply to acknowledge the privilege of marriage separation. I accept that acknowledging it doesn’t change anything, but sometimes I think we need to just name it. As they say, “privilege” doesn’t mean your circumstances weren’t hard. It just means they weren’t made harder by the challenges and obstacles that other people face.

The second purpose of this blog is to share at least a few things I’ve thought of that might help women who are trapped in unhealthy marriages. I don’t know how useful these ideas might be, but I want to share them anyway.

Here are the only words of advice I know to give. I would like to give the caveat that these are for women who are in unhealthy relationships that are not abusive. If you are being physically or emotionally abused, please contact the Domestic Violence Support Hotline. For women who are not in an abusive situation, try these things:

Even if you can’t get out right now, you can begin getting your ducks in a row.

Sometimes, it’s about playing the long game. You can begin setting aside money for yourself now, even if it’s a little at a time. I spoke to a woman who began taking out $20 cash every time she went to the grocery store and hiding it away. It took a long time to save up, but eventually she had enough money to hire an attorney and begin her divorce proceedings. If you have ways of making your own money and have a separate bank account, start transferring money over to a savings account. It takes time, but eventually you could save up enough to pay a deposit on an apartment and a few months’ rent while you figure out your next steps.

Don’t forget about extended stay hotels.

My parents and I lived in an extended stay hotel when I was younger for almost six months when my dad’s work transferred him to a different state. These places are meant to serve exactly that purpose — to provide temporary accommodations for people who don’t want to commit to lengthy leases or mortgages. Many of these places offer weekly or month-to-month rates, and usually come fully furnished. If you need a short separation to rest, think, and heal, this could be a great option for you.

There is such thing as emotional separation, even if you are not physically separated.

Sometimes getting the space you need can only be done through turning inward. There is not an adult on their earth who is entitled to your physical, mental, and emotional labor. Not even your husband. You are allowed to emotionally separate from your husband. There is a term used in therapy called grey-rocking. The goal of grey rocking is to minimize engagement and avoid providing emotional reactions, reducing your partner’s ability to manipulate or provoke a response. In practice, this looks like responding to manipulative behavior with bland and non-committal answers, or avoiding sharing personal information or opinions. This can help protect your emotional well-being and limit the power of your partner by not providing the expected emotional fuel or reaction they seek. It can also help you protect your inner peace.

Get therapy for yourself, even if your husband won’t go

Many of us have been misled into the belief that couples’ therapy is the only way to save or resuscitate a marriage. But you’d be astonished by how much good individual therapy can do — not just for you, but also for your marriage. If your partner refuses to go to therapy for you (and for themselves!), go on your own. Therapy can help you learn coping skills to deal with what’s happening at home, can teach you ways of communicating with your partner that protect you while also fostering healing within your marriage. Just because your partner wants to sit in his own mess doesn’t mean you have to. You can choose to heal and grow on your own.

State your bottom line.

This one is hard, I’ll admit. But I want you to think really deeply for a second. Have you ever really, REALLY, laid all your cards on the table with your husband? Have you ever stated your bottom line in a way that is calm, measured, and chillingly direct? I’m here to tell you, if your husband is interested at all in your well-being and the health of the marriage, this can be alarmingly effective. You must do this calmly. Doesn’t mean you won’t be nervous, but it does mean you need to be composed. You can’t do it in the middle of a fight when you’re screaming and activated. It has to be done with intention, with resolve. You need to ask your husband to sit down with you for a talk at a time when things are peaceful. Then you need to say something like this:

I am at the end of my rope. I’ve exhausted every possible avenue to try to get you to hear what I’m saying, and you don’t seem to be listening. So, I need you to hear me right now. I am unhappy. This marriage isn’t what I asked for, and it’s not what I deserve. I am prepared to begin the process of filing for divorce. That is how serious I am. And you must believe that I am willing to take it there if I have to. So, I am going to give you one last opportunity to hear me now, and to fix it. Here is what I need.

List out everything you need to be happy in your marriage. Say every last painful thing. When you’re done, tell your husband that you will give him time to show you whether he is interested in saving your marriage — and that he will show you by doing the things you’ve said you need. And if he cannot show you that he’s interested in saving the marriage by doing those things, you will assume that means he’s also interested in divorce, and you will move forward with those steps.

Two-card him.

I see this one as a last resort because in some ways it feels icky. But I also think it’s one of the truly most effective ways to get an unwilling partner to finally step up. Two-carding is when you get one business card of a divorce attorney, and one business card of a therapist (or just write down the numbers for each on a piece of paper). You leave a note that says, “Pick one and schedule an appointment. Let me know which one you choose.”

I wish I had more advice for you, dear one. Unfortunately, your situation is hard, it’s unique, and it’s painful. I know because I’ve been there. I send these tips as a message in a bottle to the women who can’t get out right now. Hopefully, one day you’ll meet me on the shore from which I’m sending it.

That shore, my friends, is the shore of freedom and health. Freedom and health may look different for everyone. For me, it looks like reconciling my marriage and stepping into an incredible partnership with a man who went to therapy, healed himself, and committed to being the husband I deserve. For others, it may look like divorce.

Either way, I hope you find me here.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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