(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.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2016)
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