Patty and Gus, of San Jose, never thought marriage would feel like this.
After 21 years together, they barely spoke except to argue about whose fault it was that a bill was delinquent or a car was still in need of repair. They hadn't stopped loving each other, but it seemed as if one of them was always stressed out or exhausted from work and more interested in scrolling through his or her smartphone than engaging in dinner conversation. Patty felt like Gus put his business ahead of her. Gus didn't understand why Patty criticized him.
Finally, when the bickering sped up and the intimacy stopped, it was Patty who asked Gus to move out so they could "both get space" and try to remember why they got married in the first place.
"We just needed a break," says Patty, a retail associate in her mid-40s, who, along with her husband, asked that her last name be omitted to protect her privacy. "We didn't believe in divorce and just needed some breathing room to get perspective on our relationship."
Temporary separations are nothing new, but in a country where half of marriages still end in divorce, more couples are taking time apart in an attempt to save their marriages. In 2010, only 2.3 percent of the U.S. population said that they were separated from their spouses, according to marriage consultant Marie Brinson-Sampson, author of "I Am the Marrying Kind: A Guide to Getting Married, Staying Married and Being Happily Married" (Outskirts Press; 2012).
However, that does not include unofficial marriage breaks like the much-publicized separation between Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who announced a split back in September and have yet to file for legal separation. Even the new term -- marriage break -- carries a lighter, more optimistic tone. How do you facilitate a break, and what are the rules? It varies by couple, but experts say that in setting up these guidelines and specifics of a temporary separation, couples begin to effectively communicate again and rebuild their mutual respect.
"A marriage break is a very useful change when staying together is only making things worse," says Dan Beaver, who has counseled many separated couples during his 40 years as a marriage and family therapist in Walnut Creek. "It can be a time of tremendous personal growth and can take away the sense that they are trapped in their marriage, which often creates resentment. This makes them feel like they have a choice in the matter."
Beaver tells couples to set the ground rules immediately. Determine who is moving out, but don't try to put a time frame on it right away.
"Every person comes to clarity in their own time," he says. "What's most important is that everything is in agreement."
Other important factors he recommends discussing at the beginning: How often will they see each other outside of therapy? Will they date other people? What do they tell the kids?
Patty and Gus told their college-age daughter the truth -- life's stresses were weighing on them, so dad was moving in with a friend for a while -- and they didn't know how long the separation would last. But they told her that they loved her.
The couple decided to see a marriage therapist once a week. The friction in therapy was palpable, so for the first few months, that was the only time they wanted to communicate. Eventually, they added lunch. Then dinner.
"I always called before I came over," says Gus, an entrepreneur in his 50s. Sometimes, he called to ask a question -- their daughter's address, if Patty paid the mortgage -- and they'd end up talking for a while. "Sometimes, it was dumb stuff, like dry cleaning or if I had a bad day at work and wanted to talk, but I wouldn't say that at the time."
A pattern Beaver sees is couples who are co-dependent and experience "withdrawal-like" feelings shortly after separation.
"A lot of people have dependencies on each other," he says. "Traditionally, men are emotionally dependent on their wives, and women are financially dependent on their husbands, though that's not always the case. During separation, co-dependent spouses are able to evaluate their partner's contributions to the marriage and make a decision. Do they really want to be with this person, or do they need to be with them? All of a sudden, they start acting with a little more respect and appreciation."
That type of reflection is the foundation of Brinson-Sampson's work as a marriage consultant. So is reminding couples that a separation is not a pit stop on the road to divorce or a marriage vacation. For instance, she doesn't condone dating during a separation. Gus and Patty say they had no interest in dating outside of their relationship.
"You're still committed," Brinson-Sampson says. "I tell my clients that separation is not a party, but a time to think about what is wrong and right in the marriage and the part you played in creating the problems and what you can do to solve them. I also tell them to reflect on what made them say 'yes' in the first place. Before the bills, before the children, why did you choose this person?"
Not all marital experts recommend temporary separations. San Francisco clinical psychologist Keith Sutton practices emotionally focused couples therapy, an attachment-based approach, and says that taking a break, even a temporary one, goes against the bonds you are trying to strengthen.
"Oftentimes, people feel they need a break to get themselves on track, but we believe they need to be able to do that with their spouse in the safety of the marriage," he says. "If one person is truly on their way out (of the marriage), a separation might be a last resort, especially if their partner is continuing to act in harmful ways."
While he believes that infidelity can be one of those harmful behaviors, Sutton says most couples should stay together and work out their emotions in therapy. "Moving out causes unnecessary distance," he says.
According to Beaver's philosophy, temporary separation is almost a requirement when infidelity has occurred.
"Trust has been broken, so why would you want to live with someone you don't trust?" he says. "You have to go to therapy and start over, rebuild the relationship."
Ultimately, the six months Gus and Patty spent apart was great for their relationship, Patty says. In her absence, Gus appreciated his wife more, surprising her at work and making a point to spend quality time with her during and after the separation. Meanwhile, Patty stopped criticizing her husband when a good friend pointed out a behavioral pattern. She had a tendency to criticize him when she missed him most.
"It was something I was doing because I was angry," she says. "I was trying to get his attention."