(Please note: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be used as the primary or only source of guidance for instituting a period of therapeutic separation. Due to the complexity and variety of each individual case, consultation with a mental health treatment professional experienced in therapeutic separation is strongly recommended.)
What is therapeutic separation?
Therapeutic separation is an intentional, planned, and pre-determined period of time when a couple chooses to live separately in order to accomplish several—or all—of the following goals:
- Create safety or reduce volatility in the couples’ relationship
- Make progress on individual issues (e.g., addiction, trauma, or couples’ enmeshment)
- Learn new skills and tools
- Gain personal insights
- Create greater structure and boundaries in communication and/or ways of relating to one another
- Re-evaluate and reassess the relationship
How do you know whether or not you may need a therapeutic separation?
Here are 5 signs:
- Ongoing and/or severe volatility (intense arguing or violence, for example)
- Repeated recovery slips or relapses (for addict)
- Addict is not engaging in recovery activities and/or therapy
- Ongoing deception or lying
- When one or both members of the couple want separation for the purpose of safety, healing, or to gain clarity
Before embarking on a period of therapeutic separation, couples should create a formal, written document which includes the following:
Length of separation
Every therapeutic separation agreement must state a specific timeframe for the separation.
Couples impacted by sex addiction sometimes choose to separate for as little as a few weeks up to several years. I recommend that couples commit to no less than 90 days. At the end of 90 days, the couple can reassess their situation and decide whether or not to continue the separation.
Since separation is a physical boundary, it is a non-negotiable personal boundary. That means if one person wants to be separated, they have a right to be separated—just as they have a right to say no to physical (or sexual) touch.
One person may decide unilaterally that they want a separation. An agreement from the other person is not needed. However, both members of the couple must be in agreement for a separation to end.
Who Will Leave the Home
While it may seem logical in relationships impacted by sexual betrayal that the unfaithful partner would leave the couples’ home if they separate, partners sometimes prefer to leave because of unwanted, familiar triggers in the couples’ home, or greater support available through living temporarily with family or friends.
In situations where the partner wants to stay in the couples’ home and the addict refuses to leave, a partner who is solidly committed to separation will avoid getting locked into a power struggle or conflict with the addict, and will leave the home as an act of self-care.
Access to the Home
The couple should decide whether and how the “vacating” partner will have access to the couples’ home during the separation. The agreement should include any specific times that the vacating partner may need access and how the partner living in the home would like to be notified that access is needed. Of course, when the couple is co-parenting minor children, these arrangements need to be coordinated with other agreements related to children’s activities, visitation, or childcare.
Decide how, when, where, and the frequency of communication you prefer including:
- Phone calls
- Recovery Check-ins
- Children’s extra-curricular activities
- Family or social functions
- Couples’ therapy
Some couples communicate only when seeing one another in a couples’ therapy session. Other couples meet once a week for a date, or to discuss household matters such as bills or projects, for example. Most couples err on the side of too much rather than not enough communication during therapeutic separation.
Also discuss how you would like to notify your family, friends, and children of your separation. Again, these are complex matters in which you should seek professional guidance and support.
Your agreement should include:
- How household bills will be paid (and by whom)
- Who is responsible for home repair and maintenance
- How joint bank accounts/credit accounts will be managed and handled
- Consistent and reliable visitation plan for minor children
Goals for Reintegration
This is one of the most important components of a therapeutic separation agreement. Each member of the couple should decide what specific goals must be met for the separation to end.
For example, a partner may want the addict to have achieved 90 days of sobriety, or to have completed formal therapeutic disclosure, or to have engaged in therapy for a certain period of time before agreeing to end a separation.
Identifying goals for reintegration—and sticking to them—is crucial for the success of therapeutic separation.
Post-reintegration agreements involve what a partner would like to see from the addict after the time of separation is over.
One of the biggest mistakes couples make when ending a period of separation is having no agreements about what will happen going forward. It is not uncommon for an addict to return to the family home and within three months to have significantly reduced his engagement in recovery activities—or worse—abandoned them altogether.
Examples of post-reintegration requests from the partner could include length of time (after the separation ends) that the addict will engage in working with a sponsor, attending therapy, or taking after-care polygraphs, for example. I recommend that the timeframe for these types of requests and agreements be a minimum of one year after the couple ends the separation.
And finally, therapeutic separation agreements should be written, dated, and signed by each person for clarity and for future reference should there be confusion, or misunderstanding about the specifics of the agreement.
When therapeutic separation is intentional and planned—with clear agreements and boundaries—it is a healing and reparative experience that provides a foundation from which the couple can establish greater intimacy and deeper connection.
*For more information about post-reintegration, read Do These 7 Things Before Ending Therapeutic Separation.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2016)
Excellent essential info! (excellent – the usual from Vicki:)
Thank you for your helpful information. I’m trying to write up a therapeutic separation plan after 3 years of a husband on deep denial of his SA. It’s become volatile and toxic in the home, we have young kids. He wants divorce. I want to try they therpeutic separation first. Any tips for how to structure this?
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Jill, I’m so sorry to hear about your situation. Since you describe it as “volatile and toxic” and you have young children at home, I recommend that in addition to finding a therapist you can work with to guide you through this complex process, that you also contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or http://www.thehotline.org. They will be able to assess your situation and will also be able to help you find local resources if you need to leave your home.
For qualified therapists who are trained to work with betrayed partners, please visit the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals website (www.iitap.com), the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (www.sash.net), or the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (www.apsats.org).
Please contact the hotline today and find a local therapist or one you can work with virtually as soon as possible. Take good care.
How can I legally leave with our kids if he threatens separation, he states he doesn’t love me and doesn’t want to stay married. Refuses recovery, therapy, has become more volatile and irritable at home, or closes himself off from the family in another room. Refuses a therapeutic separation as he will no way sleep elsewhere unless the kids sleep there half the time. He’s unstable and cold. And pulling out $500 cash every 5-6 days with no word on where that money is going. Our home is no an emotionally safe place to be. I’m a stay at home mom in a new town, financially dependent
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Jill, I believe the message from March 30 is also yours (the email addresses associated with the comments are different)? If not, please let me know, although my recommendations are the same. Take care.
Thank you. Sorry I didn’t realized my first post went through. Thank you for the resources. I know even “volatile” in the verbal/emotional sense is still abusive from an addict in denial. The 2 CSAT therapists I’ve worked with likely haven’t been as helpful with this process so I am grateful for those links. Thank you for your book Moving Beyond Betryal and podcasts. Both have been helpful in a confusing time.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
You’re welcome, Jill. You’re dealing with a very complex and difficult situation and I want you to have expert, individualized guidance to walk you through the process.
If you find that you’re having difficulty getting the answers you need, I invite you to join my membership community where you can connect with other partners, and get questions answered by me and other community members either online or in our twice monthly Q&A Calls.
I came across your post while searching for relationship contract for “sex addiction couples.” My husband and I are currently separated with the possibility of reuniting and reintegrating. Wondering if you know of any template or tools for a post-reintegration agreement that will facilitate the process. Thanks.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Nancy, for more detailed guidelines about reuniting and reintegrating I recommend finding a coach or therapist to work with or joining my online membership community for partners. Although there are general guidelines (like those found in this article), every couple and every situation is unique.
You can find therapists and coaches with specialized training to work with individuals and couples impacted by chronic infidelity and sex addiction at the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals website (www.iitap.com) and the Association for Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (www.apsats.org).
My wife requested a therapeutic separation after her and her counselor have been doing therapy for 1 year. I haven’t agreed with the process because I’ve had no communication from her what changes she has been working on. I’ve had to adjust to her changes with no context. I feel it has been a very one-sided process. I have been seeing my own counselor in the meantime, but I don’t see the purpose of separate counselors in this process. It feels very much like a broken process. Her counselor is also the chairman of the NGO my wife is working for and she has befriended my counselor’s wife and daughter. She spends time with my kids there quite regularly, like 2 times a week minimum, as they live 5 minutes away from my wife. When she has to communicate to me via email he is editing her letters and this seems very dependant. This seems very unhealthy and I am very unhappy about it. Am I wrong to suggest 1 counselor in joint therapy as opposed to 2 separate counselors?
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Erik, this is a great question.
Although the situation you are describing is complex because of several dual roles and relationships between counselors and clients, the fundamental issue is that you have a right to request whatever you would like to request, and your wife has the right to agree, disagree, or negotiate with you a solution that is agreeable for her and her counselors. For example, some counselors will not work with a couple when they are seeing one of the individuals, and some counselors prefer that each person have their own individual counselor present for joint marital sessions.
Regarding therapeutic separation, this is a physical boundary and does not require agreement from another person. If someone wants a therapeutic separation they can ask their partner to leave the home, and they can also choose to leave if they prefer. Or, if their partner chooses not leave when asked, they may leave in order to get their need for therapeutic separation met.
Hope this helps.
I’m almost done reading your book on the 5-steps for creating boundaries w/sex addicts. It has been a huge eye opener and I’m applying a lot. My husband and I getting ready to do an out of house separation. Although he’s achieved a year of sobriety, he is still struggling with lying about silly things and crossing other boundaries that we had agreed upon in order for me to feel safe in our marriage. Long story short, my consequences for the lying are now to the point where he needs to leave. I’m unsure of a time frame. Why 90 days, verses a month at a time? Also, do you recommend no sex during this time? If so, why? I know the risk of STD’s etc. But if that was not the case, what if I wanted it when I felt ready and safe to do so? And listen to my body the times I don’t want it. What would be reasons for a 90 day separation verses 30 day with intent to reevaluate based on character and humility change? And what would be the reason for no sex, verses sex when I feel up to it?
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Nikki, I’m so glad Moving Beyond Betrayal has been helpful for you! And congratulations for already applying what you are learning.
I hear how painful it is to experience ongoing deception, and I can understand you wanting to feel safe. When I am feeling the need to protect myself or set a limit, I spend some time thinking about my feelings, what I want, and what is in my circle of influence or control. That is always the best place for me to start.
Would it fit for you to use a 5-Step Boundary Solution Clarifier to sort through the questions you have? You can download a free copy here. If we were working together that is where I would start — you and your reality. You are the expert on what will be best for you, and it won’t serve you well for me to coach you in a quick blog comment. If you’d like more individualized support and guidance from me, I would love for you to join my community for partners here.