Dr. Bill Maier on Separation

How to Handle Marital Separation

Dear Dr. Bill: My husband and I are separated for the time being due to a difficulty in our relationship. We are in counseling and don't want to divorce. We feel this time apart is important right now because we're concerned that our constant fighting may have an impact on our 3-year-old son. Sometimes our son will spend the night at my husband's apartment in town — but how do we explain to him what is going on?

A 3-year-old doesn't have the capacity to understand concepts like marital separation. You will need to keep your explanations very concrete and simple. You should be completely honest with him about what is going on. You might say something like, "Honey, Daddy and I love each other but lately we have been having some arguments. We are trying to learn how to get along better with a special helper. While we do that we have decided that Daddy is going to live in a different house for a while."

For a 3-year-old child, the most important thing you can do is make sure that he feels safe and loved. During this time of instability you will need to reassure him that mommy and daddy love him very much and that you will always be there for him. You and your husband should also do all you can to act appropriately toward each other when you are around him. Swallow your pride and put his needs ahead of your desire to criticize or snipe at each other.

I'm encouraged to hear that you have made a commitment to attend counseling together and work on your relationship. By the way, one of the most promising new forms of marital counseling is called "Emotionally Focused Therapy" or "EFT." Many couples who have felt they were at the end of their rope have found hope and healing through EFT. You might ask your counselor if he or she is familiar with that form of therapy.

I would also encourage you to move back in together as soon as possible. Research shows that the longer you stay physically separated the higher your risk for divorce. I pray that you are able to work things out for the sake of your son.

Separation and the Holidays

Dear Dr. Bill: My husband and I have been separated for 4 months now. But he recently asked me to join him and our children at his mom and dad's house on Christmas morning. He said he wants me to come because he wants to be there next year when it's my turn to have the kids on Christmas morning. Although I would love to see my girls open their presents, I'm afraid this will send mixed messages to them about the marriage problems they know we are experiencing. What do you think is the right choice for my children?

Kathy, I'm sorry to hear about your situation and that you're dealing with this difficult decision at Christmas time. I'll be honest, in my opinion, the most helpful thing you can do for your girls is to work out your marital problems with your husband and get back together. You didn't mention the nature of the conflict, but unless it involves abuse, addiction or dangerous behavior, separation is not the answer.

The vast majority of divorces today are what psychologists refer to as "low-conflict" divorces. In other words, the couple isn't involved in angry, knock-down, drag-out fights—they simply report that they "fell out of love" or that their partner was no longer "meeting their needs."

Unless there's an issue like addiction or abuse involved, separation typically doesn't help a couple—the vast majority of separations actually lead to divorce. That's because when a couple separates, they've got "one foot out the door" of their relationship. The level of commitment takes a big hit, which makes getting a divorce that much easier.

On the other hand if a couple who is having marital problems sticks it out, they often find that their problems work themselves out over time. Research shows that the majority of couples who make the decision to stay together and work on their conflict report that their marriage is "much happier" three years later. Many of these couples stayed together for the sake of their kids, and in hindsight they say are very thankful they didn't get divorced.

So again, unless your husband has been abusive or is involved in some type of dangerous or addictive behavior, I'd encourage you to spend Christmas with him at your in-laws house. Let your daughters know that you and daddy are trying to work things out, but be honest that you don't know what the future holds.

Kathy, your e-mail didn't say anything about marital counseling. If you and your husband haven't seen a counselor to work on your issues, make an appointment with one this week.

I pray that you and your girls have a wonderful Christmas, and that God will open the door to reconciliation with your husband.


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