Psychotherapy Perspectives

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Therapeutic Separation for Couples

By Margy Davis-Mintun, LCSW, ACSW

When a marriage/live in relationship feels broken and the zest of the early years seems lost, before jumping to the solution of divorce, why not consider a less drastic yet jarring experience, a therapeutic separation. This type of separation is designed between clients and therapist to increase the possibility of reinvigorating and rediscovering the essence that has been covered by stress, work, children and life’s distractions.

Good candidates for a therapeutic separation are couples who can remember that in the past they experienced pleasure, joy and companionship with each other, and through the years distance has prevailed and loneliness has become the more frequent companion.

What a therapeutic separation is designed to accomplish is to create enough distance, physically, by living apart to really allow the opportunity to feel the absence of the partner. During this time of living apart the thrust is to repair the marriage, rather than move toward divorce. We know that 70% of second marriages end in divorce, a higher number than first marriages. We also know that many relationships can repair provided a concerted and focused effort is directed toward that end so long as both want the relationship to continue. Furthermore, we know that past feelings of connection can be rediscovered provided the purpose/opportunity is designed for such.

In a therapeutic separation, the couple agrees to the terms of the separation, with the guidance and counsel of the therapist. Both are engaged in ongoing therapy and there may be occasion for individual work as well. In these separations, dating becomes the means of contact with each other, and contact is reduced to a minimal level so that each can gain a glimpse of what it would be like to live without the partner and experience the most positive aspect of being together. There are mutual rules established around the terms of the separation, these include and are not limited to such choices as monogamy, dating others, privacy, finance, how to deal with work, family and friends, and if relevant the care of children. The time frame is 3-6 months, anything longer tends to increase the possibility of moving too far apart to come back together, and anything shorter tends to be too quick to actually fully benefit from the time apart..

This separation discourages problem solving (regarding the couple) outside the therapeutic relationship in order to prevent further harm and repeated failure of repair.
The goal is to rediscover the positive aspects of the relationship, to build safety within the context of the couple and to provide space for the individual as well as the couple. In the therapy process, problem solving differences, communication and negotiation skills are enhanced, so that the couple can practice newly learned skills. Assumptions are reevaluated and beliefs are examined. When there are breakdowns in the relationship outside the therapy session, those are discussed and reviewed in the protective environment of the psychotherapy session. The goal is to recreate the positive underlying theme in the couple so that assumptions, if made allow for the benefit of the doubt rather than falling to negative interpretations.

With the support of therapy, and the commitment of couples to find ways to stay together in a more meaningful and rewarding relationship, therapeutic separations have been successful in preventing divorce and in creating stronger, more loving, and healthier partnerships. The key in deciding to try this as an alternative to divorce, is that both partners in the relationship want to remain together, are willing to work toward this end and commit to the process of creating a more satisfying and stronger connection with each other rather than “jumping” into divorce.


  • how does this work if you have a child, say 11 years old?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 11:26 PM  

  • Good question, it's always a bit more complicated when children are involved. However I have worked with many couples with children and they have been successful in this process.
    There are a variety of ways this can be done. Some couples chose to rent a small apt and the child stays in the home and the parents swap times at the family home, staying the remainder of the time in the apartment. Other couples get a short term apt and one moves out.
    The children are informed that the couple is working on their marriage and that in order to effectively work on the marriage they will seperate for a time. The children are also told that this decision is not their fault and that they are going to continue to have regular contact with each parent. There are many ways to work to maintain minimal disruption for the children.
    Of course there are details to be worked out, but the fact that a child is involved does not reduce the effectiveness of a therapeutic separation.

    Margy Davis Mintun

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 11:15 AM  

  • I wish my ex partner would have considered counselling :(

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 4:17 AM  

  • Yes, it is sad when one of the partners will not accept going to counseling. Sometimes when a partner says he doesn't want to go the extra length to save a relationship, that means that he/she wants to end the relationship deep down.

    By Blogger Garth Mintun, At 9:33 AM  

  • How do you find a qualified therapist with experience and success in therapuetic

    By Blogger Unknown, At 7:46 PM  

  • What I would do is ask your couple psychotherapist about his/her beliefs on therapuetic separation and how much experience does the person have in this approach. Ask the therapist about the success about this approach. Remember it is usually the last ditch effort to salvage the relationship when everything has been tried with the couple together. Good luck in finding the appropriate therepist.

    By Blogger Unknown, At 9:17 AM  

  • The best way is to ask how many therapuetic separations he/she has worked with. Also it is good to have a therapist that has many years of experience.

    By Blogger Garth Mintun, At 12:44 AM  

  • Therapuetic separation has to be taken seriously. The only way to repair betrayal is to find a new way to be married. The last marriage and the people in it must change. I find this so very hard. I want to let go. I exist between trying and my chest hurts so much I need to run. I am hoping this will change that feeling. Today I thought I may be having a heart attack, my chest hurt so much, it hurt to be still.

    Only with God's grace can this work. Please find prayer as a tool that is essential and omnipotent.

    Betrayed Wife Willing to try!!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 6:01 PM  

  • Just saw this and wondering what your thoughts are of trying therapeutic separation for a couple on the verge of divorce where one of the many issues involves prior infidelity

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 9:55 AM  

  • This approach is the last resort when trying to save a marriage. Yes infidelity is an issue that can be dealt with in a therapuetic separation and give the other person a chance to proove to you or not that they can be faithful. If your heart is open at all, then you may want to try this last ditch approach.

    By Blogger Garth Mintun, At 2:37 PM  

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