One of the questions I’m asked frequently is, “Can a marital separation ever save a marriage?”

My answer is a qualified “yes.”

Sometimes a couple is miserable living together and can’t seem to co-exist without having constant harping and bickering. If they have children, they may worry about the impact on them of all the fighting.

Couples in this situation often plan to use the separation period to “let the dust settle,” reflect on the marriage, and work on individual and joint issues in counseling. Both spouses agree not to date anyone else and to focus on improving communication and exploring how to improve their relationship.

For these couples, the separation can be a time to think, to reflect, to analyze, to cool off and calm down, and to take a break from each other. It also provides time and space for each spouse to make unhurried, thoughtful decisions instead of waiting for things to blow up and then impulsively leaving.

In other cases, one spouse may move out on the spur of the moment after an upsetting argument. The separation is unplanned, and there are no plans for marriage counseling, no guidelines agreed upon about seeing others, and no tentative time-line for the separation. . Whether the separation will help or hurt the marriage is unknown in this case.

Things could go either way, depending on what happens.

Another situation that can result in separation is when a spouse is living in an intolerable situation in the marriage. Perhaps the partner is verbally abusive, is chronically unfaithful, or shows continual disrespect towards the mate and refuses to go to counseling.

Sometimes the best thing the spouse can do is to decide to separate and hope the partner will be shocked enough by the unexpected action to finally agree to work on the marriage. In situations like this, a separation can sometimes save the marriage.

The spouse then has to stand firm and say, “I refuse to be in a marriage where I’m treated like this. I deserve more.” By not rushing to file for divorce, the spouse finds out if the partner is finally motivated enough to enter counseling and work on changing

Of course, there are no guarantees in a marital separation. The separation might be instrumental in saving the marriage, or it may widen the gap between the two spouses and eventually lead to divorce.

A planned separation is always preferable to an impulsive one.

–Written by Nancy Wasson, Ph.D.