When is the “right time” to separate?

Image result for separation

Maybe you know you need to end your marriage, but you can’t quite figure out the “right time” to do it. If so, you’re far from alone.  It’s important to realize that the “right” timing depends so much on your individual circumstances, and that it’s not always practical, or even possible, to end it when you need to, even if you know you have to do it eventually.  Many of my clients have struggled for years before finally pulling the plug.

So how do you know what’s “right” for you?

A Tale of Two Marriages

I’m going to share some suggestions that I hope will help if you’re working through this problem. But first, let me tell you about two couples I met recently who timed their decisions very differently, with profound implications for their lives.

I worked with these couples on two consecutive days. One couple was young – the husband and wife were both in their late 20s, and they had gone their separate ways after just a year of marriage. The other clients were in their late fifties and had been married for almost 30 years.  On the surface, these couples’ lives couldn’t have been more different, but deep down, they had some very fundamental things in common.

In both cases, the wife was the one who ended the marriage. Both of these women had felt, for a very long time, that their emotional needs were not being met in their marriages, and each of these women felt that her husband was either unable or unwilling to take the rupture in the marriage seriously enough to take meaningful steps to try to repair it.

Both felt utterly alone in their marriages, as if they and their husbands were not only “not on the same page”, they weren’t even reading the same book. There was no sense of connection; no sense of common purpose.  They were two ships passing in the night, for months on end.

The young woman, “Ashley”, had a husband who insisted, despite her threats of divorce, on keeping up his bachelor lifestyle, going out every night and partying with his friends, and coming home drunk in the middle of the night. He resented her “interference” with his “freedom”, and while they loved each other, they fought all the time, and he refused to change.  The older woman, “Jane”, had a responsible, hard-working husband whom she described as a fundamentally good person, but their marriage had been cold, distant, and sexless for many years.  She craved emotional intimacy and had begged her husband for years to go for counseling, but he refused.

Both women desperately wanted their marriages to work, but were at an impasse, since both their husbands had made it clear that they were not open to improving things. Neither husband denied his role in the marriage breakdown; in fact, both were very sad the marriages were ending (and both cried – a lot), but both men effectively shrugged their shoulders, taking a “que sera, sera” approach to their lives.

In other words, both husbands would have been willing to stay passively in their dysfunctional marriages forever. Their passivity placed the onus of breaking up squarely on their wives’ shoulders.

Make an Exit Or Stick it Out?

While on the surface, these women had a lot in common, there was one big difference. Ashley, the younger woman, was able to see the writing on the wall from the outset of her marriage, and was strong enough to cut her losses and move on.  Jane, in contrast, had also known from the outset that things weren’t right, but she stuck with it, hoping that things would change.  Of course, they didn’t, and once she had children, she felt trapped and unable to leave until she had finished raising them.

Obviously, having children can seriously circumscribe a woman’s options; even where unhappy moms have the financial ability to separate, the complex logistics and the guilt of causing their kids to come from a “broken home” can make escaping a miserable marriage seem impossible. Many, like Jane, opt to wait until the children are grown, resigning themselves to a decade or more of living with loneliness and pain as they hope in vain that their husbands will see the light, and make the changes they desperately want (of course, this rarely happens).

I firmly believe that if a marriage clearly isn’t working before the children come along, and if one spouse shows little interest in fixing things, the marriage should be aborted as quickly as possible, so that both spouses can move on with dignity. It takes courage, but it’s the right thing to do.  Otherwise, there’s a very real danger of winding up like Jane.

A more complicated question arises when a person who is married with children is trying to figure out the best time to walk away from a marriage that is clearly over, and on life support. In these cases, the question is not “should I stay or should I go?”, but rather “when should I go?”

Figuring Out the Right Time to End It

Where kids are involved, there is no right answer to the “when” question; barring safety issues, the right answer is different for everyone.  If you are wrestling with this question, here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • If it feels right to leave in every other way, guilt alone is a terrible reason to delay the inevitable.
  •  Similarly, don’t stay longer than you should based only on fear of stigma of having a “broken home”; many kids are happier when their parents separate and the tension in the marital home is replaced by peace in the parents’ new homes (as an aside, I hate the expression “broken home”, as it sets up a false dichotomy; many “intact” families are in fact more “broken” than many separated ones).
  •  Another really bad reason to remain paralyzed is the fear that one’s parents, friends, and community might harshly judge the decision to separate. Again, if you know it’s only a matter of time, you are only deferring, not preventing, these judgments. Instead of fearing judgment, learn strategies for coping with it.
  •  In terms of timing, consider whether life as a separated family at this juncture would legitimately be worse than life under the same roof – that can be the case if the children are extremely young, if finances are extremely tight, if you need more time to come to terms, together, with the decision, or if a child would likely suffer worse emotional harm as a result of separating now than they would if you waited (for example, if a child has just experienced a loss, changed schools, or has an illness or an anxiety disorder, it may be best to wait until things have stabilized). In some cases, “staying together for the kids”, although very difficult, can be a legitimate stopgap solution, as long as you are honest with each other that you’re just delaying the inevitable.

I firmly believe that people who have tried everything to save their marriages, and who know it’s only a matter of time before they need to go their separate ways, should make a graceful exit as soon as they realistically can. What that means in any individual situation can vary, but in summary, two rules of thumb should be kept in mind.

One, if you can get out before you have kids, do, because your problems will only be magnified by the arrival of children, and you may find yourself trapped for years or even decades.

Two, if you do have kids, it’s important to put their needs first – but not to assume that this automatically means raising them to adulthood in a conflict-ridden home where at least one parent is visibly miserable in perpetuity.  In other words, you must strive to find the right balance between their need for security and your right not to be trapped in a loveless marriage for the majority of your adult life.

I hope these guidelines may help you or someone you know figure out the “right” answer to the when question.  Feel free to share this post, as well as your feedback!

Until next time,


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