How do you know when to separate from your spouse or when to call it quits?
In almost every scenario, I tell a couple to fight for their relationship. Too often, I see couples give up. It’s one of the reasons I passionately remind couples of their vows. Marriage, I believe, gets better only when you work hard and grow closer through difficult times.
But there are a few, albeit relatively rare, situations where you will hear me deliver a different message: one when I say “leave.”
Every relationship has unique dynamics and variables. There is no black-and-white rule book that tells you what to do or when to separate or divorce. Ultimately, it is your decision, and any therapist will tell you that.
But many who need to make a decision like this hesitate because there is “too much at stake,” they say. Fear of your service member losing their career, the loss of military health benefits, violence or the loss of your dream can keep you from seeing your situation clearly.
For this reason, I encourage anyone considering divorce to consult with a third-party professional, pastor or therapist to help you navigate a permanent decision.
That’s why instead of telling you how to know if your relationship is over, which seems scary and permanent, these are instead examples of when to consider separation. Oftentimes, distance can provide safety, clarity, support and the ability to make a decision that feels right for you and your family.
When to Separate: If There Is Abuse
As easy or obvious as this sounds, it is never easy for the person in that situation. If you believe that you are in a sexually or physically abusive relationship, seek a professional to help you establish a plan for safety. If you are unsure what that abuse might look like, here is more information.
Physical abuse is usually entangled with emotional abuse, making it difficult to leave — especially if your life has been threatened. Even if the abuser is regretful, eventually the cycle of abuse will continue.
Whatever reasons are keeping you from getting the space you need to find safety and clarity, they are not as important as you and your spirit. Remember, we are not talking about divorce papers, just gaining enough distance to find clarity and resources. Food, shelter and safety are your main priorities.
Important note: If children are in the home, enabling contact with the abuser can show an inability to protect them from harm. Your main responsibility is to protect them before saving your marriage.
Emotional abuse is more complicated to sort through than physical abuse. There are times when extreme manipulation, cruelty and controlling behavior make it imperative to your health to leave.
Other times, spouses believe there is emotional abuse only to discover through professional help that the relationship is salvageable. Talk with a professional to help you decipher.
When to Separate: If There Is Addiction Without Recovery
The topic of addiction is very complicated. It is hard enough to watch your spouse struggle with a disease, but living with the consequences of that disease is even harder.
Regardless of what the addiction is (sex, pornography, alcohol, etc.), recovery is a roller coaster for everyone. It is true that recovery is easier when the individual has a strong support system, but only when that person has admitted that they have a problem and are seeking help.
But If you are living with the consequences of your spouse’s addiction and they show no signs of wanting help or recovery, it may be a good time to implement the natural consequences of distance. Again, we are not talking divorce papers unless you have received help making that decision.
If you haven’t already, communicate clearly and firmly your desire for your spouse to get help, as well as the destructive consequences of their behavior (financial stress, broken trust, the family feeling unsafe, etc.). Then, if your spouse continues to be unwilling to get help, separating is a physical representation of what has already happened emotionally in the marriage. Sometimes, the addict will realize you are serious about moving toward a more permanent separation if they continue to be resistant.
If you have children in the home, take very seriously the behaviors they have witnessed in making your decision.
When to Separate: If Irreparable Destruction Has Occurred
I hesitate to reference this one because it is easy to label your current pain as “irreparable,” or not able to be repaired, when it may be possible to save your marriage.
Making this decision takes confirmation from professionals around you (sorry, family members are not unbiased professionals). There are some situations that are so destructive, that separation is not only recommended, it is crucial to begin healing.
Spouses living double lives, evil manipulation or violence, extensive un-remorseful infidelity, or cruel mistreatment within the marriage are all very difficult to repair. The overwhelming destruction of these scenarios often includes abuse or addiction, but not always.
If you are asking “when is enough, enough?” the deeper question is usually about whether you will have guilt or regret making this decision.
It is normal to want to know if there is anything else you could have done to save the marriage. Taking a step away can be a less intimidating way to show you are ready to take care of yourself.
You deserve to make this decision carefully with support around you so you are completely assured that it is the right decision.