I'm sure some of you believe that God would never condone or instruct a separation--I probably thought that before this, too. As rough as things had gotten, perhaps He could see that a more permanent break was around the bend without some divine intervention. And I came to believe He did instruct us about marital separation.
I'm not a fan of separations because the vast majority of them are simply a prelude to divorce. I feel compelled to share this journey because I would never want anyone to risk their marriage because of something that worked out for me, without knowing what was really going on.
I had heard of structured separations, and even had one friend who had saved her marriage with one. Looking back, if there's one thing I would have done differently, it would be to have the structure in place FIRST. As it was, we were separated for a couple of weeks before we were able to get into counseling with someone who oversees structured separations. That set us back a bit.
A Biblical SeparationStructured separations are based on 1 Corinthians 7:5:
"Do not withhold yourselves from each other unless you agree to do so just for a set time, in order to devote yourselves to prayer. Then you should come together again so that Satan does not tempt you through your lack of self-control."
The three parts of the separation are this:
1. The separation is for a set time.
We started with 90 days. At the end of that, it was obvious we needed to set another 90 days. After that we went on a month by month basis. There was always a goal in mind--never an indefinite "we'll see how it goes". I knew exactly what I was looking for to know when the separation would end. Unfortunately, it dragged on for 10 months. I probably wouldn't have initiated it if I'd known it would last that long. But things take as long as they take, and our counselor said it's better to take a week or month too long than to end it one day too soon.
2. The purpose is to devote yourselves to prayer.
Someone was going to own this separation--either God or Satan. To make sure it was God, our counselor assigned 10 hours of prayer a week. We also had contracts that outlined everything, including rules like not having sex with each other or anyone else (or even hanging out with someone of the opposite sex), having accountability partners (he typically likes it to be the Elders in your church), and respecting any personal boundaries. (For example, in the beginning, I asked that Steve not come to the house without prior arrangements.)
A large portion of my 10 hours of prayer time was spent declaring certain scriptures out loud. I spoke and wrote and tried to memorize Isaiah 61, a picture of the year of the Lord's favor, over my family many many times. Our counselor painted a beautiful picture for me of Psalm 103:20, that the angels "hearken" to God's words, to obey them. The word of God coming out of my mouth is still the word of God...I wanted to draw angels to my home by the constant audible flow of God's words, to make those words come true. It became "turbo" praying rather than just crying and begging (although there was a good deal of that as well!). I believe this was a major source of the surprising strength I had during that time.
3. Come back together again.
This goes hand in hand with #1. If you don't eventually come back together, it wasn't a scriptural separation. I'm sure that not every structured separation is successful. It takes both people being fully committed to reconciliation...both people sticking to the contract and spending enormous amounts of time in prayer. Both people acting out of love and not anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness. Those things may require some counseling, but the truth is, there's no way you won't be changed after 10 hours of prayer a week for many weeks in a row! (This would also be a good separation preventative!)
Extra CreditI believe that some additional things helped:
1. Never entertaining the idea of divorce.
Things usually look worse before they look better. Taking captive every thought (2 Cor. 10:5) is important because there's a measure of relief in being alone after a difficult season. That's one of the dangers of separation. Just don't go there.
2. Trusting God
In my previous post, I told about how God led me into the separation. I had to trust that He was also leading me through it. It took some ugly turns. Alot of icky stuff had to be processed in both of us. I had to believe in something I Could.Not.See: His plans for our future.
3. Having a vision for the future.
Our counselor had us draw up a vision of the marriage and life we wanted, and review it often. It helped. Near the end, it provided valuable talking points for us.
4. Having a friend or counselor who empowers you through the Word.
My counselor never failed to inject the perfect scripture into me. I could show up lower than low, but I always left hearing Rocky music in my ear. I was also blessed to have a friend who rarely advised me. She would hear my sob-story, then ask to pray with me.
5. Being careful about taking advice from others.
I often felt very isolated and alone, but inevitably, when I would spend time with friends or receive "encouragement" from church members, it was often unhelpful. Many people misunderstood my intent and disapproved. Having the conviction of what God was doing, and why, gave me strength to stick to the plan and hold out for full restoration. I came to realize why isolation was a form of emotional protection. I really just needed to get all my direction from God and not feel the sting of other peoples' disapproval.
6. Learning how to set, enforce and respect boundaries.
The use of contracts helped us see where we had done a poor job of this over the years. The entire separation was a microcosm of this principle, in fact.
7. Having a goal to glorify God.
The guiding principle for me through the entire year was that our marriage would glorify God. To quit at anytime (which was tempting) would indicate that my flesh was winning out over this goal, that Satan would have scored another victory. All other hopes, dreams and desires were subjugated to this goal on a daily basis.
It Worked!One of the things I learned during this time is that there are things that can only be learned by the passing of time. Time revealed that Steve was suffering from a PTSD-like depression from a few years of extreme stress. He was opposed to the separation, which is why it took so long, but, ultimately, it forced him awake and into treatment.
In my next posts, I'll share more of how God worked during those dark days and about the amazing opportunity that came out of our separation. Here we are on our Vow Renewal Day, August 16, 2013--Praise God!