It sounds like a bad word, but separation in marriage may be just what the doctor ordered. But first, let’s separate it into two areas:
( 1 ) Separation within a marriage
( 2 ) Separation from a spouse
Some separation can be loving
In marriage, the two become one, but that doesn’t mean my husband gets to finish my sandwich just because I left it there for five minutes, or that he can take all the covers at night, every night! Healthy boundaries sometimes require a form of separateness to protect both spouses’ dignity, safety, or well-being. So, the word “separation” in itself is not a bad thing.
Sometimes I just have to “get away” from my husband, Bob. I know he can feel the same! We both live and work out of our small home and unless I am on the road for work, we are with each other morning, noon, and night. Day after day. Week after . . . well, you get the picture.
Good separation intends pausing, refreshing, healing, balancing, and strengthening, all with the purpose of creating a balanced union.
Bad separation is withdrawing in anger, bitterness, selfishness, fear, revenge, or control. It’s unloving; it throws off the splintery cross and refuses to suffer for a greater good.
Sometimes being apart can encourage togetherness
The Church also teaches that periodic sexual separation (continence) can be a virtue that
(a) respects the body,
(b) encourages tenderness, and
(c) favors authentic freedom.
These beautiful relationship benefits can also be enjoyed in other types of healthy separation.
Thankfully, Bob and I are blessed to have separate bathrooms and, when he snores or if one of us is sick, separate bedrooms. Trust me, it keeps the love alive! To keep the peace, to show love—and sometimes because it’s simply more practical—it may be okay to have a separate shelf in the fridge, separate laundry baskets, and separate cars. But . . .
Don’t get carried away with this!
Sometimes you may have separate social circles or even separate bank accounts. Great care must be taken not to slip into selfishness and measured living. I admit sometimes I hide the last of the cookies from Bob, but hiding can be a sign of sinful thinking and behaviors. Too much of it, in the wrong areas, and for the wrong reasons, can weaken or deeply damage the marriage bond. In cases where property, possessions, or financial or other control was withheld in totality or in part from the other in a “pre-nup,” that separateness can prevent a valid marriage bond from ever arising. Unlike other human relationships, marriage requires a totality of giving
Separation from a spouse is different
It exposes and opens wide a painful crack in the marriage that can invite all manner of infectious evil. Separating is generally not a good idea and should be used only as a last resort because of the risks involved. It’s far too easy to find relief in a temporary escape from the difficulties and then decide not to return to the marriage. Those of us in some form of marriage ministry agree that a temporary physical or legal “separation” as most people approach it works in less than 10% of cases.
What does the Church permit?
Let’s briefly review what the Church teaches in this sensitive and important area:
- Marriage is permanent
A valid marriage can only be ended by death.
- Marriage is difficult, and worse, for some
She also recognizes that “it can seem difficult, even impossible” to bind oneself to another for life. Our Lord assures us that his grace is sufficient (2 Cor 12:9) for us.
- Separation may be permitted but only in serious cases
When living together is practically impossible, for a variety of reasons, physical and even legal separation (or civil divorce) may be tolerated and it does not constitute a moral offense. If, because of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, the safety, health, or sanity of a spouse or the children are in jeopardy, separation may be a temporary, appropriate, or even mandatory solution. The couple is still presumed to be validly married and must remain faithful to their vows in whatever way that circumstance permits and requires. Every possible effort to reconcile must be made. Graces can still flow, and holiness can still grow.
Think clearly before you act
Before one even thinks about separation, every possible effort must be made (yes, I repeated that) to talk, problem solve, make changes, get help, find a therapist, or enroll in necessary classes or programs. If you or anyone you know has exhausted these and is considering separation as a last resort, great care should be taken to do so only with:
Prayers – Keep yourself on your knees and immersed in prayer.
Protection – Get legal, social, and moral support, and others to pray for you both.
Permission – Check with the Catechism. CCC 1648, 1649, 2383
Pilot – Get a qualified therapist/ expert to help you navigate.
Purpose – Be clear and committed to creating an effective environment for change
Plan – To strengthen the bond, reconcile, and rebuild if possible.
It may be that reconciliation is not possible. Despite that deep sorrow, don’t despair. You can still have a rich, full, purposeful, and joyful life without all the goods of a shared married life. If you believe you may have grounds for annulment or want to educate yourself if your spouse files for one, contact me for a free short consultation.
Separation for selfish reasons is seriously sinful and risks grave (even life-long) harm to both spouses, the children, family, friends, and all of society.
If you feel you can’t breathe, or that you will die if you stay one more day, create some short-term space for a few days with a family member or friend and get qualified help immediately. There are lots of healthy ways to create space, safety, health, and peace in a difficult marriage without separation.
Contact me; I can help you come up with a plan.
Thoughtful Podcast with Dr. Greg Bottaro, Catholic Psychotherapist (CatholicPsych Institute)
“Is it Wrong to Separate?”
 CCC 1644; Mt 19:6
 CCC 2370
 CCC 2308
 CCC 1643
 CCC 1648
 CCC 1649 and CIC (Canon Law) 1151 – 1155