The end of a relationship is hard enough. Yo-yo-ing your way through it is absolutely exhausting. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many marriages devolve this way. One spouse asks for a separation, but can’t or won’t provide any answers as to why, when, what, where, or how. There are no signs of direction, no suggested next steps, no time frames. No structure at all.
In fact, this is the number one issue my clients are coming to me to ask for support with. What does separation mean? Both marriage and divorce are well-defined situations, but separation is a very murky area.
Not only has your spouse initiated something huge, but you have no clue what will happen next.
- You’re frustrated by the lack of information.
- You’re terrified and wondering what the future holds.
- You’re grasping at any signs that the marriage might be saved.
- You feel like a yo-yo on the end of a string — held by your spouse’s hand.
A big part of the problem is that separation often means different things to the two people involved, the initiator and the recipient.
The initiator of a separation tends to feel one of two ways:
- They want a divorce, but they’re reluctant to cause hurt by introducing the idea. As a result, they offer false hope of saving the marriage (while waiting for their spouse to get so frustrated that they themselves ask for a divorce).
- They haven’t thought hard enough about what they want. They’ve found the words to say they’re unhappy, but aren’t ready to take any responsibility for the problems or explore what’s gone wrong. They’re clear on wanting a separation, but they’re not ready to either end the marriage or to work on saving it.
What both these approaches have in common is a fear of precipitating the next step, a paralyzing sense of guilt, and a secret hope that the spouse will drive the bus.
Meanwhile, the recipient of a request for separation tends to view the announcement in one of the following ways:
- My spouse is unhappy but just needs time. This separation will allow us to work on our relationship. No matter how broken this marriage is, it can still be saved.
- I don’t understand what’s going on. My spouse doesn’t want a divorce, but they also don’t want to be married to me. What happens now?
- I’m sad and scared, but I’m also angry. I’m the one taking the hit for my spouse’s vague sense of dissatisfaction. It feels like the responsibility for action has fallen into my lap.
All of this combines to create what I call the separation yo-yo effect. From fear or indecision, the initiator unintentionally sends hopeful signals. The recipient, pulled back toward the spouse, feels a sense of relief. This lasts until the initiator becomes restless and creates distance again.
Surprisingly, this cycle is often challenging for the initiator as well. They don’t want to cause unnecessary hurt. But they don’t know how to proceed.
How to end the yo-yo effect and move forward?
As a divorce coach, I deal with clients at both ends of the separation yo-yo — the initiators and the recipients.
In my work with initiators, we explore the value of honesty and the pain of being in a state of limbo. We discuss whether divorce is really the best or only option, and if so, how to lead the way with compassion. Even if the marriage cannot be saved, counseling can be the best way to understand what’s happened.
With receivers, we work on building courage to hear what’s being said vs. what we want to hear. Acknowledging our own contributions to the problem. Setting boundaries and expectations. Asking our spouse — without fear — what they really want and need. And asking ourselves the same question. Understanding that no matter what happens, we’ll be okay.
In the process of doing this work, both spouses are able to get a better picture of what they need and value in a relationship. Which direction you’ll end up going in, I can’t predict. But I can promise you won’t be in endless limbo anymore. Your voice will be part of the discussion. More important, you’ll find that you do have influence on the next steps and their timetable.
You’ll take that yo-yo and finally cut the string.