“We tried a separation and it didn’t work!”
Physical separations alone will not necessarily change old patterns!
Jane is in a new marriage. Jane’s last husband had affairs and eventually left her. Jane has what I call “a large scar on her heart” from being left. She also had a mean and abusive alcoholic father that criticized her throughout childhood. Jane seems to have a made a really good choice for a partner this time. He seems to be committed and invested in the relationship. Now after about a year of going out and being married, Jane becomes very anxious when her husband is away from her…after work, on weekends etc.. Her fears of being left are very high. As she becomes anxious she starts to become angry and interrogates her husband about what he’s doing when he’s not home. This has begun to frustrate him to the point of being hurt and angry because he has no reason to be mistrusted. He then distances from Jane. Well you could imagine how this then increases her anxiety even more. The circle goes round and round and if not stopped could result in her new love also walking away. This is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jane’s husband could reassure her until the cows come home, but it won’t be enough. Jane’s thoughts are mistrustful and wrought with fear. This turns to anger and over controlling behavior with her husband. So you can see how simply taking time and space from her spouse will not help Jane become more confident and trusting. It is Ok for Jane to ask her husband for reassurance based on her last experience, but again without her working on this, it will not be enough. Jane is learning to change those awful messages about her self and focus on what is good in her relationship. She is learning to nurture and reassure herself and learn to rebel those destructive messages from her abusive father and past relationship in her head. Jane is working on strategies to re-parent her self and learning to relax her fearful thinking. This is a psychological separation.
Psychological Separations require a deeper look into your self, the marriage/relationship, and an investment and commitment to change. Whether or not one of you actually moves out, there should be a psychological component to your separation. In fact, sometimes a psychological separation—a shift of focus back to yourself for a while—is all you really need. When we’re feeling stuck in nonworking patterns or in the grip of some kind of power struggle with our partners, we often don’t see our options anymore. We lose our ability to detach. This is when a psychological separation can be particularly useful.
Individual Psychological Separation
Psychological separation involves looking at and working with your part of the pattern. This means temporarily withdrawing the energy you’ve been putting into a relationship pattern that has not been working and being willing to disengage or let go of any sense of righteousness, the feeling that you’ve been wronged, or any other complaints you may have.
People often resist psychological separations because they’re sure that it’s their partner who needs to change and that they have no part in what’s going wrong.
They may also fear that if they withdraw their energy, the relationship will surely fail. They continue hanging onto a sinking ship in hopes that someone or something will save them. The fact is, we all play a part in the dynamics of our relationships, and it’s very important that we turn our attention to ourselves from time to time.
What actually happens during the process of psychological separation?
As one or both partners withdraw their energy from a pattern that has not been working, some new space and energy can open up for individuals and perhaps the relationship as well. Imagine that you are in a tug-of-war with another person. After near exhaustion and nobody winning, you decide to let go of your end of the rope. You are now free of the struggle and the other person is holding a limp rope. “Dropping the rope” is the first step in stopping the struggle in your relationship. Many couples become so stuck that one or both believe that only their partner can provide what is wanted or needed. They’ve lost sight of their ability to validate and care for themselves. Psychological separation involves strengthening your own identity and sense of self. It is a process of getting to know, understand, be, and express your inner self as well as understand your role in your relationship. It may be a time for looking deeply at how you were shaped by your family of origin, and how you are still acting from perspectives, expectations, beliefs, feelings, wants, and behavior that you learned as a child or in other relationships.
Becoming aware of how we relate to ourselves, learning better ways of meeting our own wants and expectations, and strengthening our sense of self can be very empowering. Ironically, realizing that you really can take care of yourself often allows your connection with your partner to change and even improve. At the very least, refocusing on you, can help you gain insight and clarity into your wants and expectations and how your partner does or doesn’t meet them. This, I believe, should be one of the goals of all separations: as you start to know yourself better and become more OK with your self, only then can you more objectively evaluate whether your relationship is working for you. If you decide to take a psychological separation, it is likely that even small changes in the way one of you behaves, thinks, believes, and feels will affect the circle and process of your relationship.
For detailed descriptions of all types of separations and how to structure a psychological separation with examples: read Step 4 in my book – Taking Space; and listen to my Couples Home Study Course – Step 4 CD: Workbook with Separation Agreement forms.