A 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
- Preventative ministries
- Maintenance ministries
- Interventional ministries
- 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
- A specific purpose statement for the separation (developed in relation to the problems in the marriage). This could also include a signed covenant.
- A set of specific and measurable goals.
- A projected time frame that does not allow for indefinite separation.
- A study on Biblical themes of forgiveness and reconciliation (see link below) and a Biblical vision for marriage.
- A reading assignment of “Hope for the Separated” by Gary Chapman and watching Choosing Wisely about Divorce.
- Accountability with Church leaders and/or a counselor/mentor.
- 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.”