When Couples Push Pause
Every relationship is a work in progress. This applies equally to a first date or to a long-term marriage. A connection with another human being is ever-evolving. It is constantly growing in some direction. Growth is a miracle.
There are miracles of all sorts in my coaching practice for couples.
Partners sometimes struggle along, do their best, and finally separate. Of course they do. For the health and well-being of both people, it can be necessary to part ways.
Though separation may not have been their original intent, in the end couples say it feels like a miracle because there is mutual satisfaction about making the right decision. Life goes on, and both people are stronger and clearer, and they express more of who they naturally are.
There are other kinds of miracles, too. Couples making a last ditch effort to survive—or at least to figure out whether to stay together or not—sometimes turn the corner. Secretly, they may have been resigned to a break up, but lo and behold, they stay together and grow closer. They didn’t even see that coming!
Like I said, miracles of every shape and size!
The Powerful Pause Button
A couple I worked with a few years ago made the decision to separate for six months so they could step back and take a look at things. They truly needed a time out. Despite their intention to come back together for a good, long talk, the separation hastened their divorce.
After so many years of effort, she used her time alone wisely. She got to know her own soul and spirit—and love herself for exactly who she is. The chance to be on her own helped her lift up out of her old ways and leave behind who she had become in her marriage. This gave her breathing room to become the woman she is.
She left the area, started a new life, and as it turns out, fell into a brilliant and deeply loving relationship. Not only is he true-him, but yay!—he loves true-her.
Her ex remains in a state of struggle and resentment. Hopefully, he’ll get to an easier place, too, and find peace.
More recently, a couple in my practice took a surprise turn—they separated. Again, their plan is to take time to grow as individuals and reconvene in six months to see where things stand.
This is a risky move for any couple, no matter how well-intended they may be. There is no guaranteed outcome. Nothing is for sure. For these two, time will reveal the results of their commitment to sort out the pieces.
Good Reasons for Time Apart
Separations serve as powerful backtracks or rewinds, as in “I need time to remember myself. I seem to have forgotten who I am.”
If you’re the one doing the backtracking, the decision to go your own way for a time can, on one hand, feel like a thoughtful and wise move. You’re thankful for the chance to take that step. The flip side is the fear underneath. What if this time apart is a cushion of sorts, a soft shuffle towards divorce?
Separation is a valuable step for a couple who is intensely entwined and seemingly unable to unravel their old ways in the daily presence of their partner. Hair-trigger patterns drive them toward repeated prompts and responses. In these cases especially, separation provides relief, followed (hopefully) by clarity.
The process begins when both people grant themselves three to eight months of unencumbered self-inquiry in their own private space. This can be a stressful move, especially if children are involved, but there are many advantages to the commitment, including the freedom to explore with fewer familiar set ups that send partners reeling.
Some couples agree to date others freely during the separation, other couples prefer the simplicity of spending time alone. Both ways work. What matters is that there is a clear and agreed upon plan.
When a couple gets back together for a fresh look at their connection with each other, it tends to be enlightening to both individuals.
For example, if the couple agreed to date others during the separation, this can be especially revealing. When issues blamed on their marriage partner show up with a new love interest during the separation, that’s an aha moment for sure! There’s a new mirror (a different partner) which reflects the same old issues. How about that! We see that trouble generated is not so much about our partner, it’s about us.
Let’s say one partner is seen as critical, and the other is seen as uncooperative and unresponsive.
In the current relationship, the critical partner fails to realize the consistency of their criticism or its effects. Their habit is to downplay the impact of their words, or deny or ignore the influence of their fault-finding completeley. They brush it off and complain “why are you saying everything is my fault? Why can’t my partner step up and do what is asked, follow through, or initiate? What about that???”
This is the age old default that couples can fall into: help me fix my partner. Then I won’t have a problem anymore.
The partner dubbed as uncooperative or unresponsive doesn’t see their role clearly either, because they are completely swallowed up by the daily task of trying to please or make things better. Eventually, they wilt in the presence of so much disapproval. This partner withdraws in order to recover, and as a result is further accused of being unsupportive.
The couple makes a decision to take time apart. What a good decision! They also choose to date others during the separation.
Let’s say the critical partner has the great fortune of choosing someone to date who is critical. Now the tables are turned! The experience of being criticized rather than handing it out is eye-opening. It is a direct experience of how their partner in marriage must have felt.
What a profound way to grow self-awareness and compassion! When our armor cracks open, it is humbling to say the least. Welcome to being human.
The other partner has breakthroughs as well. Without being critiqued there is room to try new things, and catch up on the bucket list of topics they had always wanted to explore. Without daily blows to their confidence, they step into a career change that sends them on a promising new path. They begin to write a new life story. Perhaps they take time to explore a talent that had been sidelined due to negative feedback from their partner. Day by day, they remember who they are. They gain traction.
They might also see that it is unnecessary to operate as if criticism holds sway. One of my mentors tells a story of when she met her boyfriend. On their first date, she got scared about his driving (in her opinion, he was following another vehicle too close) and she commented on it.
He turned to her and said, “That sounds like criticism, and just so you know, I stopped taking that long ago.”
That set her back on her heels.
So they talked and he said, “Now I know how you act when you’re afraid.”
As they talked, they figured out that all she needed to do was let him know when she felt afraid. He was happy to drive slower or back off a vehicle he was following if she was in the car with him. There you go. That was easy.
Back to the couple in my practice, their six month reunion guarantees to be most interesting!
What Stats Say
The reality is that even though some couples are able to reconcile after a six to eight month separation, statistically speaking most are not. Numbers around this vary, however. Depending on the information source, 50% to 87% of separated couples end up in divorce.
Here’s the thing, though.
Ultimately, saving a relationship means seeing the truth about it. Sometimes the simple truth is that two people are better as friends than as lovers and partners.
Before you break up as a couple, break up your patterns. Notice what you usually do and don’t do that for the next day or two. Or week.
To deliberately part company with a familiar, well-practiced reaction of ours wakes us up. Upheaval makes space for us AND our partner to show up differently.
Today, why not embrace the oversights, the plunders, and the falsehoods—all of them—and have a fresh discussion?
Take Very Good Care of Yourself,
Do you need help to figure out whether to stay in your relationship or go on your way? Feel free to book a complimentary “Meet and Greet” Zoom meeting with me to discuss what you need and how we might work together.
If you’d like a book that gives step-by-step help, check this out.