Should married couples separate?

Care-Ministry-Logo-FOR-WEBA seven-point plan for structured separations

The complexities and pain of troubled marriages can be overwhelming.

A significant part of the problem is that most couples don’t look for help until things become seemingly unbearable. When a marriage is holding by thin threads, it’s unwise to wait too long before seeking help. The longer a couple waits, the more challenging it becomes to restore a relationship. 

Couples who wait too long before seeking help typically have very little margin in their lives for rebuilding their marriages. Beyond emotional depletion from a troubled marriage, they often have children to raise, bills to pay, and deadlines and demands to meet. Goodwill toward each other is gradually replaced with feelings of distance, disappointment, resentment, and anger.

Emphasize hope and reality

Whenever someone comes to me for help, I always start by commending them for seeking it. I also emphasize hope by assuring them that significant progress can be experienced if they commit to a process. But I tell them to “buckle up” because it will be a ride! People don’t usually change overnight — especially after years of destructive patterns supported by extended personal histories.

Four levels of marriage ministry in the Church

  1. Preventative ministries
  2. Maintenance ministries
  3. Interventional ministries
  4. Restorative ministries

Prioritize Prevention – Crisis intervention is too often the thief of prevention.

Like most pastors, I oversee all four levels of marriage ministry. About 25 years ago, however, I committed to being intentional and consistent in prevention. Doing this has required careful prioritizing and protection of my time. Prevention includes classes about the marriage decision and commitments to pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. Crisis intervention is so time-consuming and emotionally draining that it hinders many pastors from doing important preventative work. 

When separation becomes necessary

When I began ministry (35 years ago), I never would have imagined advising a married couple to separate. I would have understood such a need in cases involving danger, but I never thought much beyond this scenario. Gradually, I encountered individuals dealing with mates who were persistently behaving in ways that were destroying their marriages. These people typically felt hopeless because they think they have done everything possible to save their marriages.

In some cases, however, marital separation becomes a needed step for sending the ultimate wake-up call to a complacent and selfish mate. I have observed this in the context of substance abuse, severe financial irresponsibility, unending emotional and/or verbal abuse, psychological breakdown and abrogation of marital commitments. Each case had its own set of circumstances and level of severity.

Risks in separation

Separation should be considered a last resort and never entered hastily or without counsel. It should only be taken for purposes related to safety, or as a necessary step for saving a marriage.

When a couple separates into different dwellings, it becomes much more difficult to bring them back together. The risks of permanent separation are significant. One of the primary risks of separation is the relief it gives to an oppressed and/or abused mate. The immediate experience of relief and the absence of tension could easily become a reason for not returning to the marriage.

Remember our Creator’s plan

Whenever dealing with troubled marriages, the words of our Lord must be held in highest regard. Jesus said, “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:6).  Although Jesus made an allowance for divorce (Matthew 19:9), the goal should be to pursue God’s original plan (Matthew 19:4-6) through forgiveness and reconciliation.

The apostle Paul wrote: “A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Every option to keep a couple together should be considered before resorting to separation.

Always seek help

Most couples in troubled marriages allow their relationships to disintegrate for years before seeking help. Often one mate enables the other or feels helpless to change things. Even if your mate refuses to seek help, you should pursue counseling. The only person you can change is you. Yet your determination to seek help might inspire your mate to seek help.

In view of the above realities and concerns, I have written a seven-point plan for what I call a structured separation. I have witnessed this work with a number of couples.

Seven-point structured separation

  1. A specific purpose statement for the separation (developed in relation to the problems in the marriage). This could also include a signed covenant.
  2. A set of specific and measurable goals.
  3. A projected time frame that does not allow for indefinite separation.
  4. A study on Biblical themes of forgiveness and reconciliation (see link below) and a Biblical vision for marriage.
  5. A reading assignment of “Hope for the Separated” by Gary Chapman and watching Choosing Wisely about Divorce.
  6. Accountability with Church leaders and/or a counselor/mentor.
  7. A small support team to pray for the marriage and offer tangible help.

Essential for counselors and those facing separation –  Forgiveness is one thing; Reconciliation another And Ten guidelines for those who are hesitant to reconcile

For those facing divorce, see: When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce.” 

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Abuse, Accountability, Addiction, Alcohol addiction, Anger, Bitterness, Broken Relationships, Church Leadership, Communication, Conflict, Confrontation, Counseling, Crisis, Divorce, Divorce and Remarriage, Guidelines for marriage decision, Hope?, Leadership, Marital Separation, Marriage, Reconciliation, Restoration, Structured Separation. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Should married couples separate?

  1. Pingback: A Morning Peacock of Links (3/16) | hobojarpen

  2. Tina says:

    My husband and I are separated now for three weeks. I have been begging and pleading for him to return. I love him and I know I had a huge part in the separation. I am seeing a counselor and doing ager management classes online. I know what I have done is wrong and I know who badly it’s hurt our marriage. I know in my heart that I won’t ever be able to react like that again. He tales part in pushing buttons and so forth but refuses to come back and won’t say how long he wants to be gone. I don’t know what to do anymore. He plans to come sometime today to get more of his things. He has taken so much already I feel like it’s the beginning to the end and he won’t tell me. I am so heart broken. I can’t sleep very good. I can’t eat and I am slipping under 100 pounds. I don’t know what to do. I pray constantly for faith wisdom strength and for him. For his heart to change for him to see what he is doing. I feel so lost and lonely. I just need some help. Please help me

    • dave says:

      Im so very sorry for your separation. I know how you feel and what your going thru as I am heart broken also!!! My wife of 21 years has been unfaithfull for the last 7 months and what hurts so bad is I never really even knew we had a problem, I would have bet everything dear to me that she would never ever do anything even remotely so cruel. We were the best of friends and were married for 15 years before we had our beutifull baby girl which made me the happiest man in the world! When she turned 6 her mother turned very distant towards us both and I dont understand why!!! She’s picking a loser over me and our baby girl!!!!!

  3. Pingback: Breaking the Cycle of Divorce « WisdomForLife

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