How A Controlled Separation Saved Our 17-Year Marriage

We symbolically ended our marriage so we could begin again.

Controlled seperation, best decision for our marriage Toa Heftiba | Unsplash

I was shocked when, a week before our seventh wedding anniversary, he said, “I think we should separate,” and presented a document detailing a controlled separation agreement. I wasn’t shocked about the need for a separation; I agreed. I was shocked that he suggested it.

I responded, “I’m glad you are taking the initiative in something. I just wish the first thing you chose to be active with wasn’t a separation.”


Our marriage had been going downhill for some time. Resentment and anger had built up between us, and there was also a lot of chaos in our lives. As he proposed separation, I felt a whirlwind of emotions. I was bewildered, relieved, anxious, angry, and sad.

Earlier that year, I felt resigned to a poor marriage. I thought I had tried everything possible to improve our lives together without success. So, I had given up and stopped fighting to improve it. Now, he was suggesting separation. Little did I know that separation was the change that was needed. Separation symbolically ended our marriage and was the beginning of a wonderful new marriage.


Since we began dating, many major life changes and challenges have occurred. The years just before our separation had more than their share of drama. 

His separation request was in September 2014, the week of our seventh wedding anniversary. It was also the first week of my internship and the start of my final year in seminary. I had left paid employment to pursue a ministry degree. We gave up the dream of parenthood. The insurance company refused to reimburse those covered infertility treatments. After fighting the insurance company for over a year, I felt resigned to defeat.

We sold the house at a short sale (for less than we owed), among other challenges and the regular stressors of life. All of these things added to our interpersonal issues and contributed to the dire state of our relationship.

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For many years, I suggested that we enter counseling. One year, he finally agreed. We found a couples counselor team and began individual and couples counseling. These two counselors turned out to be very unhealthy and unethical. We did not realize this until they further damaged our relationship.

I found my next counselor through recommendations from others I knew and trusted. She was very helpful, and I saw her for several years. While seeking a counselor, I collected a stack of business cards. Unbeknownst to me, my husband used that stack to locate a counselor for himself. He had been seeing this counselor for six months before asking for a separation.

He said he felt me disengage earlier that year and realized he would lose me if he didn’t do something. He sought and found a counselor to begin to work through childhood traumas. On the evening of our separation, he said his counselor had advised him to leave our relationship.

I felt betrayed by the counseling profession. I wanted us to receive counseling to help us fix the issues, not to put another wedge between us. He explained he did not want to end the marriage and knew it could not continue as it was. So, he sought out information and learned about different types of separation.


He thought a controlled separation may be the way forward for us. I was stunned. He seemed to be telling me contradictory things — he wants to separate, and he doesn’t want to divorce. At the time, I believed one led to the other. I hadn’t heard of controlled separation previously. He explained the basics and presented a draft separation agreement. I agreed to give this separation a chance. After some edits to the draft agreement, we began our separation.

The most common separation is a trial separation. As the name suggests, it is a preview of living separate lives and is a preparatory time before divorce. Most couples who enter a trial separation end in divorce. The goal of controlled separation, on the other hand, is to repair the relationship and reunify the couple. In this separation, the couple creates a written agreement detailing every aspect of their separation and continued connection. The separation must be mutually agreed upon and committed to.

@gutpunchmommy Trial Separation Success Story. Advice on how we made it work. #separation #divorce #trialseparation #marriageadvice ♬ original sound - Gutpunchmommy

A controlled agreement addresses many areas: the length of the agreement and the understanding that neither would file for divorce during this time frame; when, for how long, and where we would continue engagement with each other; our living arrangements, finances, confidentiality, and more.


We created a one-year covenant under which neither of us would file divorce proceedings. However, either of us could terminate the agreement at any time. We would live separately, with the option to cohabitate after three months. We detailed a financial arrangement and the care of our pets. We agreed not to date others during our separation.

To give ourselves the space to grow, heal, and learn, we agreed to limited weekly contact — a maximum of one phone call per day and a scheduled weekly check-in. We agreed to discuss counseling the following month and decide how to proceed.

The final part of the agreement, the purpose statement, was extremely important to us. This was where we made promises to ourselves, each other, and the marriage. We took about a week to develop our statements:

I, (name), intend to use this time to get in touch with my spiritual and emotional core, to learn how to express myself physically and emotionally, to identify and separate my desire from my dependence, and to uncover the source and understand the role of trauma in my life.


I, Michelle, intend to use this time to do the healing necessary to make a fair assessment of the possibilities of this relationship and whether my physical and emotional needs can be met. To continue exploring in therapy how I have contributed to the issues in this relationship. And to find peace with the decision at which I arrive.

We revisited the agreement several times during our separation to ensure that its spirit guided us. In later years, we made new covenants with each other. Producing a written document detailing how we would disentangle our lives while maintaining connection was an essential first step in creating a new relationship for us.

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The months of separation were some of the hardest of my life. He moved out of our house and into a small bedroom at a friend’s house, and I moved into a studio apartment. We received a short sale offer for the house, but the bank did not close the sale until the following year. We sold or donated most of our belongings, downsizing from 2,300 to 750 square feet.


Letting go of the material things was enlightening for me. The hardest part was downsizing my library of books. I felt an emotional and spiritual connection to these books, which have changed my life in so many ways. I easily parted with the other items and felt shame at how much we had accumulated.

Living separately reduced the amount of daily conflict between us. At the same time, some of the issues in our marriage grew larger in the first months of separation, and brand-new conflicts erupted. 

We found a skilled marriage therapist (based on recommendations from others) with a background in the specific areas we required, who was highly adept at trauma healing, and who had a deep spiritual connection. After our initial meeting, she asked us to schedule separate individual meetings with her before scheduling our first couples session. We agreed.

For various reasons, it was several months before that first couples session. During those intervening months, the problems in our marriage continued to mount until they exploded. Our hostilities were at a fever pitch. At our first counseling session, we shouted at each other, wondered aloud why we were even bothering, and stormed out of the room.


We were both surprised by how we behaved and what we said to each other. After some time, I sent an email to him. We were friends before dating and marriage, and I hoped to maintain our friendship, if not our marriage. We decided to try counseling again. We are most grateful the counselor agreed to see us again.

That first session was a catalyst to get us moving toward reconciliation. We continued to see our therapists and the marriage counselor as a couple. I also saw a spiritual director, and he attended a faith-based support group.

We are both intensely private people. We had support from counselors, spiritual advisors, and a few close friends, so we decided to keep our separation private and tell only those few. We worried about interference from others and the pain this would cause our families. We didn’t want anyone to think they needed to choose between us. Also, when we first entered our separation, we weren’t sure where we were headed. We didn’t know what this separation meant, so we didn’t know what to tell others.

In some ways, keeping our separation to ourselves was helpful. We didn’t have to explain our separation repeatedly. In other ways, our silence was not helpful. It limited the support we might have received from others. We didn’t address it directly, so people wondered and talked among themselves, which caused new problems. More transparency would have been helpful.


For me, shame motivated me to keep our separation private. I was ashamed that we were separating. I had been married previously and believed I was failing again. This shame is the most important reason to share with others. Silence gives shame power. Speaking up sooner could have brought my shame to light, thereby banishing it.

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We reunited and began cohabiting again after ten months of separation. The circumstances of our living arrangements caused us to reunite two months earlier than agreed. We felt ready to begin anew and committed to improving our relationship and marriage.

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Each of us had made significant progress in individual counseling. Our lives together had become enmeshed and unhealthy. By de-coupling everything we learned to value ourselves and the other. In marriage counseling, we learned how to have a healthy relationship. We addressed underlying issues and discovered other issues.


By the time we reunited, we had done a great deal of work, and we knew there was much more work on the horizon. We continued to see our marital counselor for many years. When we reunited, we decided to symbolically end our marriage. We agreed that this was the end, and today is the first day of our marriage. This allowed us to let go of the pain associated with previous years and the separation. We could begin anew.

Ultimately, our separation significantly improved our relationship. Creating a written covenant, committing to it, decoupling everything in our lives, and spending time apart and together were important to the success of the separation and reunion. Our counselors helped us better understand ourselves. Our marital therapist, who patiently and skillfully shepherded us along this path, was instrumental to our success.

This September, we will celebrate 17 years of marriage. It has not been easy or free of challenges, but it has been worth it.

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Michelle Pederson is a writer, spiritual director, labyrinth facilitator, clergy and sociologist. She can be found on Medium and at her spiritual direction practice.