“Why did you guys break up?” was the question I got the most and understood the least when I decided I needed a break from my marriage. I was not aware that I needed to have a reason in hand, well, one they’d accept, anyway. I was shocked to find out that “because I felt I needed it” wasn’t a good enough reason. Instead, it turned into a slippery slope of “Oh, he didn’t cheat, did he?” and “Is there someone else?”
No, he’s not a cheater, and no, he doesn’t have a secret gambling problem. Is it unbelievable to think that maybe I was just tired? Tired of not having an emotionally available partner and tired of being the default parent?
While speaking my truth on the matter to anyone who asked was entirely liberating, I was often met with pity, sympathy, or looks of “Oh, she’s having a midlife crisis.”
And maybe I am.
Maybe this crisis phase we all fear is actually an awakening, one where you stop taking sh*t. Where you’ve gotten fed up to the point of no return, and it’s time to turn a new leaf. One where healthy, emotionally stable marriages are the only option, and taking the space to grow is respected.
Instead of a break or separation, let’s look at it as a reset.
Why a Temporary Split Can Be a Good Thing
Sometimes, we drown in the demands of our daily lives and completely lose sight of our own well-being and mental health, and that’s totally draining. A reset allows you to fill your own cup, guilt-free.
“‘Til death do us part’ is one of the most well-known lines in a traditional marriage vow, and most people do not question the validity of that statement in facilitating a successful long-term marriage,” Kristal DeSantis, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Scary Mommy. “However, there are times in a couple’s life when the option of taking time apart might feel like the only thing that will save their relationship from certain death. In those cases, working with a counselor or therapist trained in helping a couple through a time of structured separation can be incredibly beneficial to a marriage — and can be the reset an ailing relationship needs.”
The Key to a Successful “Reset”
The reason marital breaks have such a bad rap is that both partners don’t do the work once they’ve begun their separation. If you treat it like a holiday from your life, you’ll come back home with your baggage. For a more successful outcome, it’s crucial that the time being taken is used for self-reflection and exploration.
Couples therapist and psychologist Theresa Feulner calls it “therapeutic separation,” pointing out, “A commitment to the relationship and working on the agreed-upon things is critical.”
Stephanie Rigg, a relationship coach and host of On Attachment Podcast, shared a video that really struck me: “Three essential ingredients for a relationship to thrive,” where she listed structural compatibility, willingness, and capacity.
“Do you both want the same thing at a structural level? If you are on completely different wavelengths vis-a-vis commitment, having kids, relationship structure (i.e., monogamy vs. polyamory), it’s going to be really challenging to build a life together without one of you heavily compromising on what you truly want,” she wrote on her Instagram post.
While her thoughts seem like something you’d see in the early stages of a relationship, it’s sobering to consider them again, when you are on the brink of separation. Is your partner, willing to do the work? are you?
Time for Radical Honesty (With Yourself)
When it came to my choice of separation, Rigg’s explanation of capacity is what truly hit home.
“This is most often where people fall down, in my experience,” she explains. “If you’ve ever been in that situation where you both desperately want it to work but you keep coming up against the same exhausting, seemingly insurmountable blocks, then it may be that one or both of you lacks the capacity to be in that relationship at that point in time, in a way that would work for you both. This is not something to take personally; it just is. And while capacity isn’t fixed, it’s also something to realistically look at. The question of ‘Am I asking this person for something they just can’t give me?’ can be quite revealing.”
Once you’re honest with yourself about why it’s time to take space, create a definitive structure for that to happen in the healthiest way. Decide how long you’d like the break to be. Feulner recommends a minimum of three months’ separation. Consider what your living situation will be like on a day-to-day basis while apart, if there will be contact and how, and if you have children together, what a realistic co-parenting schedule would be for both parents.
“Being in a relationship is not an obligation; it’s a privilege. With the freedom to examine your personal values and goals for being in a committed relationship, you also have the responsibility to now hold yourself to a new standard of behavior and investment into the relationship when you re-enter it,” DeSantis emphasizes.
So, maybe your friends and family won’t get it, but studies back it up — space is not only normal and healthy, it’s encouraged. While not all separations end in recommitment, it’s certainly worth trying.