Getting Closer by Separation

Look at the shoes you’re wearing. Your two shoes go together, they match. No one can say that they don’t. Even if you lose one and leave it behind in the road, they are still a pair of shoes.

Now tie them together, one to the other. Go ahead.

Now try to walk.

You’ll be able to do it. You’ll take short, mincing steps. If you had to walk that way, you could. If you lived in a world where everyone tied their shoes together that way and walked, you might not consider doing it differently. However, I think you’ll agree it’s not the best way to get around.

Go ahead and retie them the way they are supposed to be tied. This is the end of the demonstration.

Now think about your relationship with the person who hurt you. How tightly are you tied together?

Be careful how you answer; it’s tricky. If you say, we’re not tied together at all, she seems to do whatever she wants, that might be just part of the story. What do you do when she seems to do whatever she wants? If you’re still with her, then my guess is that you try to tie her up to you. Every moment, you want to know where she’s been, what she’s done, and when she’s going to come home. You say you do this because you can’t trust her, but the result is that you’re tied all that much closer to someone you say you can’t trust. You can’t tie her up without tying yourself up, too. Then she tries to break free. She seems to do whatever she wants because being tied that close together is just weird.

We therapist types call this enmeshment. It’s a standard feature in codependent, addictive, Problem-ridden relationships. Anxious parents seem prone to it, which drives their children to do the very things that makes their parents anxious.

What would you do if someone came after you to tie you up? You’d run away, which would, of course, give them all the more reason to want to tie you up.

But, think about how you lose a shoe. You don’t lose a shoe because it’s not tied to its partner. You lose it when it’s not tied to itself.

Therapeutic separation
If you believe that two shoes tied together is a good metaphor for your relationship, and an untied shoe a good metaphor for yourself, then I have a special kind of escape plan for you. You might not go for the standard escape plan, where you just leave. If you escape, you might need to do it together.

This kind of escape plan is called a therapeutic, or trial, separation. It’s a deliberate, bilateral decision to part ways temporarily for the sake of cooling off and focusing on individual issues. When done well, it can make your bond stronger, while, at the same time, permit the individuals in the union maximum autonomy. 

A therapeutic separation may be more common than you think. In the case of parents and children overly involved with one another; when the child goes off to college, both he and his parents can experience a kind of therapeutic separation that gives the child a chance to experience life on his own and parents a chance to adjust to an empty nest. There are, of course, many instances of helicopter parents, attempting to hover over their child while they are off to college, but the opportunity is there for all parties to individuate by being apart from one another. 

Therapeutic separation is an integral part of rehab. If your husband goes off to rehab for his alcoholism, for example, he’s going to be separated from you. In addition to all of the other services provided by rehab, it should give you both an opportunity to clear your head and in touch with yourself. 

Therapeutic separation works best when there is a contract. Spell out the terms beforehand, so you both know what the rules are.  

Here are a few things to deliberate: 

Living arrangements
Who will move out and where will they go? Having a therapeutic separation in the same house is hard to pull off. Borders should be clearly drawn and mutually respected. You need to give each other some space to find out who you really are. You should be far enough apart that you have some privacy. There should be doors and walls and locks and keys involved, to establish some boundaries.  

Contact with one another
How and when will you get in touch with one another? Think about which means of communication works best for both of you, whether in person, by phone, email, letter, or text. You should be able to reach one another in a true emergency, but casual check ins should be discouraged. Check ins are often really check ups. It’s best to have no contact at all for at least the first week or two. Then you can start to have regular dates together like you did when you first met. On these dates, try to find something new to do together, something that neither one of you has done before, so that you’re both on equal, uncertain footing. The idea is to recreate the excitement you once felt when you first got to know each other. Alternate fun dates with serious ones, when you talk about serious issues. 

It’s best not to have sex with each other until the later stages of the therapeutic separation. This is because of the role that sex plays to bind you closer to one another or as part of a dysfunctional pattern. This is a good time to find other ways of relating to one another and developing other satisfactory types of touch. 

Prohibited activities
What activities are permitted while you are separated? Is it OK to date or have sex with others? To me, if you’re separating so that you can get in better touch with yourself, then it doesn’t make sense to get involved in another relationship that’s going to have its own set of demands. 

Mandatory activities
What are you expecting each other to accomplish while you’re separated? This is a good time to go on a retreat or a pilgrimage, to do some art or writing, or to travel places the other has never wanted to go. If you’re having a therapeutic separation so your husband can go into rehab, then completing rehab would be an expectation. But, even when no one is going into rehab, some form of counseling for each of you, individually or together, is strongly encouraged and should be stated explicitly. 

Family and friends
Before you begin the therapeutic separation, talk about what you will say about it to your family and friends. Some may deserve an explanation, others, none at all. Some family and friends may take a position and try to tell you what to do; but, what I said about not getting involved in romantic or sexual relationships applies here, also. If you’re having a therapeutic separation to get to know yourself, you wouldn’t want a friend or family member to exert a lot of influence over you, either. 

If there will be important holidays or events during the therapeutic separation, plan on how to handle them. 

If you have young children, then provisions will have to be made for both parties to see them. The younger a child is, the less time should go by without contact from a parent. A therapeutic separation can result in a deeper, more responsible relationship with your child because there is no third party to interfere. 

Three to six months is considered the optimal length of a therapeutic separation; any shorter is too brief to stop the dysfunctional patterns; any longer, generally means you’re going to split for good. To me, the important thing is that, if you come back together, it’s because you want to, after giving it a good try on your own. You’ll want to stay apart long enough to get used to it, so that you are not coming back together out of an infantile dependence.

Because rehab is seldom longer than twenty-eight days, this means he may be released before the therapeutic separation is done. This doesn’t have to mean he has to come back home. If you can afford it, he can go to a halfway house or get his own place. If he has to come home, then talk about if you can continue the therapeutic separation while still living together

Getting back together
A therapeutic separation can help you come to a decision about whether to stay together or split for good. If spending some time alone makes you realize how much you have been putting up with, you might decide to go off on your own, permanently. Or, you could conclude that you get along better when you don’t live with each other. Or, when you remove the stresses and strains of daily contact, you could fall in love all over again and make another go of living under the same roof.

You don’t know what will happen, so don’t make any promises about getting back together

If, towards the end of the therapeutic separation, you both decide to come back together, then start spending more time with one another. Have some overnights. Have some sex. This might be a good time to renew your vows. Or, rather, take the things you have learned about yourself and about each other when you went through this process, and write some new vows that mean something.

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Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.