This post has been updated as of September 2020.
As a Betrayal Trauma Recovery coach, I see up close the personal devastation experienced by women who have been in long-term relationships with men struggling with pornography addiction and/or emotional or physical affairs.
In the early days following the discovery of addiction or an affair, emotional anguish, mental confusion, and physical symptoms are at an all-time high. And they can remain this way for months or even years. That’s why it’s called betrayal trauma. Few individuals get through it without some lingering side effects, even with qualified help.
Addiction and affairs are almost always accompanied by emotional and mental abuse in the form of prolonged secrets, gaslighting, and blame-shifting. Especially in the case of addiction, where recovery can take years, these behaviors do not disappear quickly, if at all.
How does the one who was betrayed make even day-to-day decisions, much less decisions about his or her future, in the midst of pain, confusion, and ongoing abuse? How does one heal amidst the onslaught of staggered disclosures, where every new discovery is a fresh open wound? How does the betrayer begin to seek help and do the hard work of recovery when the spouse’s anger and resentment trigger an already existing sense of shame, sometimes feeding the cycle of addictive behavior?
How does one heal him or herself? Is there any hope for the relationship? The answer may seem counterintuitive. Separation may be the key. Not the “pack your bags and let the door slam behind you” kind of separation. Rather, a well-planned, structured, therapeutic separation, where one or both partners are actively involved in a guided process to gain enough space, clarity, and healing to give the relationship it’s best chance at surviving.
When is a therapeutic separation appropriate? Therapeutic separations can be helpful in the following circumstances:
- When you feel unsafe emotionally or physically in your relationship.
- When you need time and space to think clearly and sort things out.
- When your communication and interaction patterns result in frustration rather than resolution.
- When you want to make the best decision for yourself and your family’s future, rather than making decisions in the heat of anger.
- When you need your spouse to understand the seriousness of the situation.
How Is a Therapeutic Separation Different?
Traditional separations tend to be unplanned and unstructured. They are often initiated out of anger and they avoid conflict rather than confronting it. There is typically no plan in place to allow for the growth of the individuals.
By contrast, a therapeutic separation is planned and structured. It seeks to resolve conflict and it is carried out with the support of a trained professional. It involves a detailed written plan including goals for personal growth. A therapeutic separation provides no guarantees, but can sometimes offer the best chance for the relationship to either survive or end with as little trauma as possible.
What Can I Expect from a Therapeutic Separation?
There are many components to a therapeutic separation. Each professional carries them out somewhat uniquely, but they all have certain considerations in common. When I work with clients seeking to recover from the impact of addiction, adultery, and/or abuse within their relationship, I encourage them to consider these key factors when drafting, agreeing to, and executing a therapeutic separation plan:
- Type–in house or out of the house, physical or psychological
- Dates–when the separation will begin and end, including a review date (if unknown or indefinite)
- Whether or not there will be legal involvement
- How long the separation is intended to last
- What the living arrangements will be–who is leaving and who is staying
- Will the one leaving have access to the home, and under what circumstances
- Rules and expectations around communication (phone, text, email, in-person)
- Privacy issues and confidentiality (What will you say to other people?)
- Agreements regarding children
- Agreements regarding finances
- Statements regarding the expectations of each partner
- Personal goals for growth
- Activities for growth that will take place during separation
- Boundaries to be honored
- Terms for reconciliation (could include a therapeutic disclosure and polygraph)
- How will the logistics of the actual separation take place
- Finally, the agreement will include a plan to evaluate the success of the separation and decision-making (Have goals and expectations been met?)
Depending on the results of the evaluation, a decision is made to either:
- Maintain the separation without changes to the agreement
- Continue this separation with changes to the agreement
- End the separation and reconcile
- End the separation and divorce
Benefits of Therapeutic Separation
The power of a therapeutic separation lies in the growth process. When couples get to this place, it’s obvious the marriage isn’t working. Once you add sex or porn addiction into the mix, it’s helpful to have a professional who is experienced in sex addiction recovery, betrayal trauma recovery, and therapeutic separation.
The growth experienced in this scenario goes beyond improving communication and lowering expectations. During separation, the betrayer will ideally be working toward goals of recovery, including identifying triggers, strategies for managing them, accountability to the spouse and others, stress management, healthy coping skills, how to support the victim, and tools to communicate and rebuild trust.
The victim will ideally be working with a Betrayal Trauma Recovery coach to learn how to obtain emotional and physical safety for herself, create a support system, manage extreme feelings of anger or sadness, manage her triggers and establishing boundaries, regain self-trust (intuition), and how to support her recovering partner without compromising her personal well-being.
Readiness to Reconcile
Prior to reconciliation, it’s critical that couples have a clear plan to assess and ensure that all abusive behaviors and sexual acting out have stopped. It’s important that the perpetrator is capable of engaging in honest, non-abusive, and accountable ways, demonstrating his willingness and ability to repair the relationships he has wounded through sexual and relational betrayal.
The greatest advantage of a healing separation is that it provides the opportunity for the couple to get some space and calmness and think clearly about the direction in which they want to go. Sometimes we all need space apart to work on ourselves in recovery and healing so that we can bring two healthy individuals back together to face the future together, no longer as husband versus wife, but as husband and wife united against anything that threatens to divide them. Even if separation ends in divorce, couples who have worked through the process tend to face the future with more confidence, more preparation, and the knowledge that they did their best for themselves and their families.