Don't Stop Believin'

Can A Separation Lead To A Happy, Healthy Reconciliation?

Here's how both partners can put in the work to ensure brighter tomorrows ahead, according to a marriage counselor.

Originally Published: 
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So, you've decided to separate. Maybe you've opted to live apart for a few weeks to give each other some space, or you're pursuing a legal separation, in which lawyers come up with a formal agreement about finances and custody for both parties to adhere to.

No matter where you're at, you've no doubt got plenty on your plate — and that's without mentioning the emotional weight you're carrying as you navigate so much change. Still, if you're looking ahead to the future, you might wonder if it's possible that time apart could actually strengthen your bond and set your partnership up to be a happy, healthy new beginning. Does a separation automatically indicate a one-way ticket to divorce, or can you come back together stronger than before?

Odds & Ends

To put it bluntly, the stats for post-separation reconciliation are bleak, as Dr. Bre Haizlip, Ph.D., LPC, tells Scary Mommy. "Reconciling a marriage after separation is rare, but not impossible. Statistically speaking, if 100 couples separate, about 10-15 (%) choose to reconcile their marriage or remarry one another after divorce. However, of the 10-15 reconciled marriages, eventually, 3-4 of them end up divorcing anyway. This may not seem promising, but it is," she says.

"Consider these odds: If you are among the 10-15 that reconcile, you've got a 70% chance that doing the wellness work to renew a ruptured marriage will lead to a stronger, healthier, and wiser marriage that stands the test of time," she adds. "In other words, according to the national average, couples that reconcile after separation or divorce are more likely to remain married than those who never separated or divorced. Perhaps the adage is true; absence does make the heart grow fonder."

Doing the Work 101

It's crucial that both partners put in work to ensure lasting success the second time around, explains Haizlip. Much of that work involves therapy, with Haizlip recommending both partners start with individual treatment during the separation as a first step.

And while couples therapy might seem like a given, she believes it beneficial for each partner to attend solo therapy at first.

"Healthy marriages are created by healthy people. Far too often, couples make the mistake of jumping into couples therapy as a last-ditch 'Hail Mary pass' effort to focus on 'fixing the problems' they had in their marriage," she notes. "While this may seem helpful, it can prove to be re-traumatizing and can actually deepen the pain and divide that caused the separation."

The most important work begins with the individual and extends to the partnership, says Haizlip. "Instead of jumping into couples therapy, partners must first make personal commitments to identify and heal through the individual wounds that were likely playing on repeat in their marriage. If partners are still hurt and experiencing active trauma from the separation, it's doubtful they have the insight, empathy, or emotional capacity for couples counseling to be effective."

Bye Bye, Old Marriage

"Reconciliation is not about restoring the old marriage; it's about creating a new one," says Haizlip. To that end, "it will hurt, and you will grieve, no matter what. However, that grief is the beginning of your healing process."

Seeking help from a licensed therapist or counselor is paramount, but it's not the only resource worth exploring. "Self-healing begins with self-reflection. This can include journaling and/or other mindful artistic expressions, guided meditations, or even listening to podcasts or attending workshops that call to you. All that matters is that you go within first," she says.

"The goal is to sit still and feel, allowing the wounds to emerge as you listen to what you need to release them," she adds. "Healing is not about feeling better — it's about becoming better at feeling. As individuals, you'll need time and support to feel through your grief and discover how it has changed you."

The TL;DR here, per Haizlip: "True and lasting reconciliation requires the courage for partners to do the individual healing needed to re-imagine a healthier and happier future before they try to do it together."

It's Not Just Time That Heals Old Wounds

As you can imagine, this process takes time and work, but it can be done. "When each partner has done the individual therapeutic work to release and grieve the pre-separation marriage, both partners are more likely to be ready for a reconciliation," says Haizlip.

"By acknowledging and accepting the end of their old marriage, they can begin to let go of any negative emotions or attachments that were holding them back and start to focus on building a new, positive future together."

And yeah, it's probably going to feel raw at various points. "This process of releasing and grieving can be difficult and painful, as it requires both partners to confront and process their feelings of loss, resentment, anger, and any other emotions that the separation has brought up," she says. "Doing so can create a space for healing and growth, both individually and as a couple."

A Brighter Tomorrow

Upon letting go of the past relationship, "couples can start to focus on creating a new relationship based on future joys, as opposed to your past pain," says Haizlip. "They can identify and address issues that led to their separation without causing more harm, to co-create healthier conditions for their marriage."

She continues, "By creating this new, healthier relationship, couples can find the freedom to be themselves and pursue their own goals and aspirations while still enjoying the benefits of a strong and loving partnership."

The Four Pillars of the Emotional Trust Fund

To sum it up, both partners will need to prioritize building "emotional equity in their trust fund" as a new couple, says Haizlip. "Focus on making deposits on romance, finance, family, and friendship. Romantic deposits include joy, intimacy, vulnerability, boundaries, and empathy. The key is to focus on getting to know your partner — without judgment."

What count as finance deposits? These could be "stability, accountability, and reliability," which includes "creating a vision, plan, and commitment to the business of your partnership so that both partners feel safe enough to pursue their passions and purpose," she says.

If you're talking about family deposits, you're talking about things like "partnership, collaboration, connection, and community," which means "developing the values and beliefs that shape how you engage with loved ones, including your children."

And, of course, there are the "friendship deposits," which include "kindness, generosity, and commitment." Haizlip says the key here is "to focus on being a good friend to your partner and committing to that friendship as the foundation of your marriage."

Flying solo doesn't mean you're alone, and with the support of a therapist or counselor — and your trusted loved ones — you can emerge from separation as a stronger partnership. Give yourself grace as you navigate the turbulent times ahead. You're doing great, we promise.

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