Andrew G Marshall

Author & Marital Therapist

Ask Andrew – My wife wants a trial separation

January 8th, 2011 by Andrew Marshall in Ask Andrew

Hi Andrew,

I’m reading your ILYB book and am very encouraged by it’s content because 6 weeks ago my wife told me that very phrase. I am still in shock and very hurt as well as shocked that she seemingly does not want to try and fix our issues.

We have a lot of history about our sex life (or lack of it) linked to issues mainly surrounding us not making love often enough which has mostly been accountable to my lack of wanting to largely through anxiety about money issues and me being on anti-depressants which have exacerbated my lack of desire. I am off those now. The anxiety has been so all encompassing that making love does not cross my mind.

She has quite strong rejection issues linked the break up of her parents and she reads my lack of desire as rejection of her as there have been times in the past when I have felt anxious but didn’t know it and did not want to make love. Because of this perceived rejection she has not instigated sex in our relationship in over 4 years.

I have worked hard on my anxiety, too hard, and neglected her needs and attention in our relationship for large parts of last year and since the birth of our daughter 4.5 years ago when my anxiety about money really kicked in. We also had a difficult pregnancy and birth of our son (second child) 6 months ago so I feel there may be some Post Natal Depression involved but I am sure that this would only be a contributory factor. I know we have issues and want to try to sort them.

Ironically she sees us as good friends now and cannot imagine wanting to get intimate with me again. I say ironically because now that I have found coping mechanisms for my anxiety I do want to make love again but she is adamant and is now seeking a trial separation and I’ve only known about her unhappiness for 6 weeks and she hasn’t given me a chance to work on the issues with her. We have been to 2 Relate sessions but so far they have made things a lot worse as what comes out my wife analyses anything wrong that was in the past as relevant to now and why we are not right for each other. I don’t think she will go to another session. This is so far from what I want for us. She means everything to me. My marriage vows are very important to me and I do not want to walk away just because things are tough, especially as our kids are so young. What is so frustrating is that seeing all these issues laid out I can see how we can make the most fantastic relationship but she doesn’t see it that way. She sees what has been wrong and is wrong and does not want to risk getting hurt more.

My question is I don’t know how to get past this barrier that she has raised by saying that we have not been intimate enough enough but then making it impossible to resolve by saying that she does not want to be intimate. I can’t find anything in your book that might help me with this so thought you may have some ideas.

Sorry, I have gone on a bit but I thought some background might help.

Thanks for reading my question.

Andrew writes:

I can feel your anxiety as you write your letter, your wife wants you to leave or is about to leave herself and you can think of nothing beyond how to stop it. But please try and calm down, your anxiety is pushing her further away, making it hard to listen to her problems and driving a bigger wedge between the two of you. So remember the coping strategies that you’ve learnt, tattoo them across your forehead and take this one step at a time.

Firstly, if she does go through with the trial separation it is not the end of the world. Sometimes, the partner trying to prevent one is pushing so hard, using so much emotional blackmail to keep their beloved in the relationship that is counter-productive. Instead of trying to work on the relationship, they have just one idea STOP HER/HIM GOING. Not only does this not solve the underlying problems but confirms to the potential leaver that their partner does not listen, does not understand and therefore everything is doomed.

Secondly, listen to your partner. Don’t jump in with reassurance or explanations of why things have been so miserable. (I’m sure all your diagnosis is correct but to your wife pushing these under her nose is not a sign that things can be fixed but further proof that you don’t listen). Ask questions. Really understand what she means – rather than drawing your own conclusions. Try and step into her shoes.Ask some more questions. Don’t comment – but tell her that you’re going to think about what she’s said.

Thirdly, if she truly wants a trial separation. Discuss what this would mean. How often will you meet up? Will you see the children together? How could you make this a constuctive time? How can you give her the space to unwind (she sounds rather stressed and on edge)? Would it help her if you took the children off her hands for a few hours? How can you have a bit of quality time together – do something nice, like a trip to the cinema. (Not as a ‘test’ about whether there is a spark between you but just enjoying each other’s company).

Fourthly, think back to all her old complaints. She will have told you what’s wrong with the marriage a million times but you were either unable to hear them properly, thought they were a passing phase or from your point of view your behaviour had solid justifications. Taking into consideration what you’ve discovered, draw up a list of how you’d like to be different and start acting on it. Whatever happens stick to your ‘better me’ plan because changing your behaviour will have a knock-on effect on her and provide proof that you can change. (It will take a while for her to believe it is real – not just a passing phase – so be ready to hold firm for a while without any positive feedback or reassurance.)

There is more about coming back from the brink in my new book ‘Resolve your differences’. (I think you will find ‘Help your partner say “yes”‘ helpful as this has a chapter on crisis management too and how one person can save a relationship). So summing up, you have all the ingredients to save this relationship, commitment (on your behalf), plenty of personal insight (shown in your letter) and small children (although they can push parents apart, they also provide plenty of glue)…… all you need to do is be calm, listen and take it slowly. If you’re starting to panic, remember your coping strategies or read one of my books again. You will get through this.