Reunions after separation are opportunities for change
I frequently get calls from couples seeking counseling after a period of separation. Separations are always challenging as are reunions, but they also provide an opportunity for couples to shed their old complaints, reboot their relationship and start anew.
At times couples’ separations are voluntary (i.e., one of the partners asks for, demands or initiates the separation) and at times they are a result of circumstance such as schooling, work, or military service. Regardless of the circumstance, reuniting after a separation can be far more challenging than most couples realize.
When one member of a couple suggests a separation (as opposed to a break up) they often justify the move to the other by stating, “Let’s be apart to see if we can be together.” As a psychologist, I’ve always been a skeptic about such formulations. I tend to read such statements as meaning, “Let’s be apart to see if we can be apart (and keep the relationship as a safety net in case it turns out we can’t…).”
It is extremely unusual that couples use the time apart to actually improve their communication or their dynamic (although it does happen on occasion). Therefore, when couples come to see me after a voluntary separation, I assume their time apart did not magically fix any of the problems that led to their separating in the first place. But just to make sure, I typically ask them what they hope to get out of couple therapy.
“We want to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes,” is the most common answer and also a good answer. I then ask the more important question, “What have you been doing differently since getting back together?”
Usually, an awkward silence ensues for a moment or two after which one of them will say, “Um… eh…well, we want it to work this time so we’re both really trying hard,” which is a common answer but not a very good answer. When couples say, “we’re trying hard” it often means they’re trying not to get angry, upset or disappointed at the very same things they found annoying, upsetting or disappointing before-which is a recipe for relationship exhaustion, not relationship change.
I’m all for trying hard, but it’s vital for a couple to have a good sense of where specifically their efforts should be invested. Just getting back together and hoping for the best will not work.
Although some separations are born of circumstance (such as military service or workplace travel assignments), they can still provide important opportunities to change aspects of the relationship that weren’t working previously. The opportunity exists because it is much harder to shift couple dynamics or change their relationship as they are living it.
Relationships are like massive ships at sea, once they’re chugging along it is extremely difficult for them to turn and change direction. That’s why Titanic hit the iceberg-the ship was so massive, so hard to maneuver, it couldn’t turn in time. The longer the relationship the more massive the ‘ship’ and the harder it is to change course or to shift the couple’s dynamic.
For this reason, it is when couples reunite that their ‘ship’ is easiest to maneuver as habits have no yet had a chance to reset and dynamics haven’t yet become entrenched. This presents an ideal opportunity to reboot those aspects of the relationship that were not working previously or that could be working better.
Therefore, whether the separation was voluntary or not, when couples resume their lives together it is an opportunity to discuss which aspects of their relationship they might want to change and which they feel are working well.
Deciding What Not to Change
The following questions will help couples identify what not to change about their relationship:
1. What did each of you miss most about the other person?
2. What did each of you miss most about the relationship?
3. What were your fondest memories of the time you spent together previously?
4. Which aspects of the relationship work best?
Deciding What to Change/Work On
The following questions will help couples target a couple of things to do differently once their separation is over. The more specific they can be in their suggestions and answers, the easier it will be for them to work on change:
1. Which aspects of the relationship could be improved? What changes might improve them?
2. What would you like the other person to do differently (include small and large items)?
3. What one behavior would you like the other person to abolish entirely if possible?
4. What aspects of your lives together need to be renegotiated (e.g., house or parenting responsibilities)?
Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011.
Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association.
In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology Today.com, and blogs for Huffington Post.