I have both the privilege and heartache of hearing from women in extremely difficult marriages. One has a husband with a sexual addiction. Another’s husband regularly comes home after midnight, refusing to share where he has been. Many marriage problems can be solved through counseling and communication. However, some issues, such as abuse, addiction, or a spouse who won’t work through serious conflicts, call for drastic intervention.

As a Christian who believes in the sanctity of the marriage covenant, I am hesitant to ever recommend divorce. As Jesus said in Mark 10:9, “Let no one split apart what God has joined together.”

However, I don’t recommend that women stay stuck in a relationship that is abusive, destructive, or riddled with betrayal; hence, the option of separation. Fortunately, most states now allow for legal separation, which addresses sensitive areas like money, safety, and child custody.

I find that many couples are unwilling to consider separation because they don’t understand the purpose for it. Is it just a way for Christians to avoid the stigma and trauma of divorce? Or is it simply a stepping-stone toward an inevitable divorce?

While some couples separate with every intention of divorcing, a therapeutic separation based upon biblical principles is an entirely different proposition. In a therapeutic separation, entered into with the help of wise counsel, the couple hopes for a restoration of the marriage rather than dissolution.

If you are separated or are contemplating separation, consider these five hallmarks of therapeutic separation to help you approach your decision in a healthy and God-honoring way.

1. Healthy Separation Creates a Crisis Rather than Avoiding Conflict

A primary purpose of a therapeutic separation is to create a crisis. In essence, it is saying, We can’t continue to function the way we are. Our marriage is not okay, and it’s time for us to acknowledge that.

Some couples live together for decades while ignoring serious issues like addiction or abuse, giving the outward appearance that everything is normal. The crisis of separation makes a strong statement both to the couple and their community that “we need help.”

The Bible tells us what to do when there is sin in a relationship (see Matthew 18:15–17). First, we are to confront the person. If they don’t listen, we should bring in a third party. If they still don’t listen, we ought to ask for help from a church authority. If this doesn’t bring about change, we are to separate from them. While we rarely apply this principle to marriage, I believe it is a good blueprint for how to address serious marital issues and helps us understand separation as a biblical last resort for a troubled marriage.

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2. Healthy Separation Maps a Clear Road Forward Rather than Promoting Helplessness

Separation can often feel like a land of limbo. You don’t feel married or divorced but somewhere in the middle. The state of separation will continue to be that way unless there is a clear road forward.

With a counselor, you need to identify the specific problems that led to the separation. This shouldn’t be a laundry list of minor grievances; the focus should be on the big issues that must be addressed. Along with that, you should create specific and clear steps that must be taken if there is to be reconciliation. Consider these examples:

Issue: My spouse is controlling with our money.

Action Step: We meet with a financial counselor and agree on a plan for both to have fair access to our finances.

Issue: My spouse has had inappropriate relationships with others and won’t be accountable for it. Trust is broken.

Action Step: We meet with a counselor, and my partner must be honest with me about the other relationships, absolutely committed to our marriage, understand the breach of trust, and be willing to be accountable so that I can trust again.

Separations often fail because there is no clear definition of what needs to happen to bring about a healthy reconciliation. Mapping out the issues and action steps provides clarity and hope, and it gives God the room to bring restoration and healing.

3. Healthy Separation Lets a Hard Heart Walk Away Rather than Enabling Sin

You can pray, fast, and do everything right but still have a spouse who refuses to address his or her damaging contributions to your marriage. Once you have communicated your willingness to work on the marriage and presented clear changes that must occur, you then wait for your spouse to respond. That response isn’t up to you. You can’t control whether your partner is stubborn or broken, willing to fight for the marriage or already moving on to the next one.

Scripture tells us to live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends upon us. There are times when one person clearly has no intention of staying married or taking responsibility for the damage caused. In cases like these, you have to let them go.

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4. Healthy Separation Works Toward a Renewed Marriage Rather than Reinforcing Old Patterns

I recently met with a woman who was in the throes of separation. While she grieved the loss of her family, she was also terrified that God would ask her to go back into an abusive marriage.

I responded to her concern this way: “If God asks you to go back to the marriage, it would be a new marriage, not the same one you just left. Your husband must be willing to admit to and address his out-of-control anger and the ways he has been hurting you and your children.”

Real, proven change is essential in situations like this one. I described what the new marriage would need to look like, saying, “In order for him to be back at home, he needs to be repentant and have taken the necessary steps, like counseling, to ensure that those destructive patterns have clearly been broken. Even then, your relationship would need accountability over time in order to rebuild the trust that has been shattered.”

Giving the Lord room to work means asking him to bring healing and restoration, not just waiting for time to pass. God can also use this time to teach you things and show how you may have contributed to an unhealthy pattern in your marriage.

5. Healthy Separation Is Done in Community Rather than Isolation

One of the biggest differences between separations that lead to divorce and those that lead to restoration is the presence and health of the community surrounding the marriage. The community may be family, church, or good friends, and their support, prayer, and willingness to speak truth are essential for restoring the marriage.

Communities tend to support only one person in the marriage rather than supporting the marriage itself. It’s human nature to want to take sides with the one we know the best or think has been wronged. But the Christian community’s job is not only to support the people in the marriage but also to support the marriage itself.

Good friends, mentors, and family members can be a bridge between the two people, working and praying for their reconciliation. Because they know the history of the relationship and have some part in each person’s life, community members can speak hard truths when needed.

Following the route of a biblical separation will not save every broken marriage, but it certainly will save some.