By Floyd Godfrey, LPC, CSAT candidate
I remember a couple that came into my office for counseling. He was a pornography addict and she was emotionally falling apart. They had started recovery by going to a 12-Step group that was recommended by their church. They seemed to be benefiting from the spiritual healing. However, because he hadn’t stopped using the pornography, the group suggested that she kick him out. This way he could feel remorse for his behavior. So he reluctantly moved into an apartment, and made an appointment to see me. Now they sat in my office asking what to do next.
I was a bit saddened because I would not have suggested the separation. Sometimes a therapeutic separation can be very helpful, but not under the conditions that the couple described. A therapeutic separation needs to be planned with specific objectives that support healing. Any other rationale will fall short. It felt as though they had jumped into the situation.
Keep in mind that a therapeutic separation is different from a legal separation. It is something monitored by a therapist with specific objectives on the health and healing of the relationship. Both husband and wife should each have a therapist they are working with on recovery. Sometimes a separation is helpful because the intensity of the close contact keeps stirring up traumatic feelings and memories. Another reason might be that the safety of the spouse or the children has been jeopardized in some way.
There are many good benefits from a therapeutic separation that is well planned. Some of those benefits are listed below:
1. It creates physical space from one another and allows for emotions to settle down. It can be very difficult to think clearly when emotions are constantly running high.
2. It can allow for the practice of healthier boundaries.
3. It allows for de-enmeshment. In other words each partner can start to feel their own feelings without getting caught up in their spouse’s emotions.
4. It gives space to a wife who has continual traumatic memories or symptoms that arise from living with the addict.
5. It provides safety for the partner when she may have been endangered. This would include safety issues related to children in the home.
If you decide that separation would be helpful, make sure you plan it out and consider the following:
1. Establish the length of separation. Be specific with time (e.g., 3 months).
2. Take any threats off the table during the separation. It’s a time to think and get grounded, not to control each other.
3. If you’re the wife, write out your plan for healing. Think about what you will need in order to feel stable again whether he stays in recovery or not. Review this plan during the separation with both your therapist and your group. Make sure everyone knows it’s about your healing. Your plan may include many self-care items ranging from hobbies to getting tested for STD’s.
4. If you’re the addict, write out a plan for recovery during the separation. Think about what you will need in order to maintain strong recovery behavior. Review your plan with both your therapist and your group. Focus on your own recovery rather than worrying about whether or not your wife may divorce you. Additionally, ask your wife what things you can do to help her feel safe with you. You may find her requests for safety are similar to things you would do anyway. For example, attending groups, going to counseling, taking a polygraph, or getting tested for STDs are common items on both you and your spouse’s list.
I’ve seen couples come into our LifeSTAR Mesa program who are separated and whose marriage is falling apart. Oftentimes the emotional turmoil could have been avoided if a clear plan had been laid out to make a therapeutic separation a healing experience. Use caution when discussing separation. Whenever possible, don’t jump into this decision.
If you need professional help in determining whether a separation would be helpful to your relationship, give us a call. We have a team of specialists for pornography and sexual addiction in Mesa Arizona: (480) 668-8301.