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The Gifts of Therapeutic Separation

Updated: Jul 4

Karla Summey headshot

I am a fellow sojourner on this path of healing from sexual betrayal, and I am one of the Wives Care Group leaders. I am going to share one of the most helpful tools I found on the road to healing: A Therapeutic Separation. There were many gifts that our Therapeutic Separation gave both my husband and I, but I will highlight four from the perspective of the betrayed.

1. The gift of fully surrendering my husband to God.

Seven years after the life I thought I had was shattered in an instant by my husband’s confession of sex addiction, I was suddenly staring at blatant evidence of his current acting out (yet again), and I had the personal strength and conviction to tell him to leave our home. By that point in

my own recovery journey, I knew how to ride the wave of crisis and to focus on the present moment. I just needed space to get clarity away from my husband’s desperate pleas.

By the next morning, I knew that God was asking me to draw a line in the sand for the sanctity of our marriage. My wise ISA sponsor affirmed my need to try something that we hadn’t tried before; “something different”, and I knew that that was a physical separation: the very thing I did not ever want.

I sent my husband an email saying that I was withdrawing the privileges of a relationship with me (other than to communicate, by email, the logistics of co-parenting our 5 children, ages 7-16), and that it would be at least 6 months before I would reassess this. I also informed him that I had taken the entire balance in our savings account and had moved it to a new savings account in my name only. He responded by telling me I was making the right decision, because things were worse than I knew. I had tried in so many ways to help him. I needed to let him face the consequences of his continued behavior, and to fully surrender him to God.

First 7 Days for Wives

2. Physical space to prioritize caring for my own broken heart and body.

I didn’t know the term “betrayal trauma” in 2010, but I experienced all the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual symptoms. My body was frozen in terror, trying to reconcile the love of my life that I knew with the actions and thinking patterns that my husband confessed. I had a hard time sleeping next to him, and an even harder time crying around him. Somehow it always turned into me comforting him because I triggered his shame. I had 5 little kids who I needed to care for, so I sucked up all the pain, and kept putting one foot in front of the other. My grief was frozen.

I developed depression and eventually an autoimmune disease. As I kept working on my own recovery, I learned more about “putting my oxygen mask on first '' and the importance of self-care. Asking my husband to move out of our home allowed me to have our bedroom space as my very own. I could cry, and pray myself to sleep without worrying about him. I could put on music in the middle of the night when I was awakened with grief and not disturb anyone. I had a door I could lock during the day to seek quiet in the middle of a busy house full of kids if I was triggered or sad or needed a nap. I had physical space to prioritize my needs.

3. The opportunity to demonstrate to myself that I will be ok without my husband.

This gift relates to points 1 and 2 above but from a slightly different angle. No one gets married wanting a divorce. My husband and I met our first year out of high school at a Bible school and every aspect of my life presumed we would grow old together.

  • We chose together for me to stop working as a nurse after our second baby was born.

  • We decided together that I would start homeschooling the year my oldest was supposed to head off to Kindergarten.

  • We chose together to have 5 babies in 8 years.

And then suddenly my reality was that I had been out of the workforce over 15 years, my nursing license was no longer transferable to our current location, and I was finally accepting that my marriage might not survive this addiction. But I had such a strong sense that I would be OK.

I was no longer naïve or shocked by my husband's behavior. I had already survived things I could never have imagined. I had more tools and more support than on my original D-day, and I’d seen so many women I admired courageously endure divorce and they were thriving and healing, even without their marriages. I knew it would be hard, but that my ultimate relationship was with Jesus. I’m sure it also helped that my kids were older.

If my husband couldn’t or wouldn’t do everything needed to give our marriage a new start, I was going to be OK as a single mom. I knew that divorce would bring me grief, but grief was the reality no matter if my marriage survived or ended, and I was no longer afraid of the pain. I began the hard emotional and spiritual labor of becoming a fully functioning adult.

4. A written agreement outlining the goals and details of the separation.

Practically speaking, a therapeutic separation is a well thought out agreement. After a few months of no contact, my husband sent me a worksheet for creating a Therapeutic Separation Agreement and asked me to consider creating an intentional plan.

Eventually we met with a therapist to read our individual answers and agree to the plan needed to prevent me from filing for divorce, as well as what changes I needed to see in order to take down my no contact wall and take slow and steady steps towards a new relationship with my husband. His answers demonstrated that he knew he had a long way to go, that he was taking personal responsibility for the damage he had caused our relationship, and that he was prioritizing our kids' stability regardless of whether we were separated, together, or divorced. I used it as an opportunity to raise my bar higher, and follow the newer betrayal trauma model of healing that APSATS and other attachment-focused professionals use to help couples heal from betrayal.

I knew that I had already lost the marriage I wanted, and that there was no quick path out of pain. I knew I could take my time, and watch and wait from a safe distance to see if reconciliation was even possible.

If you are not safe in your marriage, if your body is tired and broken trying to navigate forgiveness and love with an addict who isn’t in recovery, if you are ready to raise your bar and stand for what you believe your marriage vows meant: I encourage you to explore the option of a Therapeutic Separation.

And for any struggling addicts reading this: if you are ready to focus on your own healing and stop trying to keep your marriage at all costs (by lying), I encourage you to “put your oxygen mask on first” and go get well. Trust God to take care of your wife.

*To learn more about what exactly a Therapeutic Separation is, I highly recommend this blog by Vicki Tidewell Palmer and the book Taking Space by Robert J. Bucchicchio



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