Why has "separation" become a term fraught with negative connotations?
Separation is often considered to be a last resort, meaning the relationship is over. The problem is believing that what is supposed to happen in a relationship is “to be together all of the time.” There is no way to integrate or make sense of what is happening when they are at odds, conflicted, when negative feelings come up, when their differences are more pronounced than their similarities. As long as they are together, the relationship is strong. If they’re apart, it is precarious.
What happens when “I” becomes “we,” when “me and you” becomes “us?” The couple will be relying on each other, or “us,” rather than on themselves as individuals. Whatever sense of a separate self that either person might have had upon entering the relationship will eventually give way to “we” and “us.” It’s also possible that these people might not have had much of a self to begin with.
When these people find their way to couples therapy (as they inevitably will once relationship-threatening problems emerge), it often works best for them to do individual therapy first. The therapist works with them by first separating them, then putting them back together. The plan is for them to later return to couples therapy having begun the process of reclaiming themselves as individuals with separate identities, with feelings, wants and needs of their own; as “me and you.” A healthy couple is composed of two separate, distinct individuals.
When two people who have (in effect) become one are working in couples therapy, the process can become protracted and futile. The therapist must determine whether it’s best to work toward separation in couples therapy, or have both people pursuing individual therapy before returning to do work on their relationship. Individual therapy puts the focus back where it belongs – on the individual.
Sometimes separation is necessary; that is, two people have to actually separate from each other because they are too reactive and incendiary. Left to their own devices, they will only further exacerbate the situation. They may need time alone to seek out whether they want to be together or be apart. Sometimes the only hope two people have to preserve their history together, their caring and friendship, is to recognize that their relationship as it was no longer works, and that they need to separate.
couples therapy includes discussion and re-education about separation, presenting separation as a good thing, a healthy and necessary step in one’s spiritual evolution. Most couples’ problems/issues can be traced back to one or both people who realize that they stopped being themselves, feel invisible or no longer exist, and are no longer close. Often, volatility and escalation occurs because the two people don’t know how to be apart. Their existences are based on a belief that puts them into an inextricable bind. “If I express my true feelings, I will lose the relationship. In order to keep the relationship, I must misrepresent myself. I must sacrifice myself to accommodate the relationship (i.e., say or do what the other wants to hear).”
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About Daniel Linder, MFT
Relationships. I was born with a keen sense about relationships, was always assessing how close and intimate people are with each other. I had a knack for relationships. The importance of relationships cuts to the core of who I am. The combination of clinical training, 25 years of professional experience treating dysfunctional, non-intimate couples and families, as well as rigorous self analysis has given me a lot to work with. I put what seemed to come naturally to me under a microscope in an effort to break the process of building healthy relationships down to concrete essentials: Understanding of Basic Principles, Communication Skills, Self-realization and Intimacy.