What happens to couples when they are forced by external circumstances to live together? How does this situation affect each partner and their children, if couples have children? I suggest that, rather than fighting their situation – which does not solve the problem anyway – couples should face what is happening to them, understand how they got to this point and explore ways of possibly reconnecting with one another, or let go of their relationship in a healthy way.

Areas of common ground in their distressed relationship can become the starting point of alliance. One such common ground is their children, if they have any. Usually, both partners want to be good parents, no matter how bad their relationship with one another is. Other areas can be extended families, friends, assets and goals couples may have been working on together and other areas that were and still are meaningful to both of them.

Focusing on children can bring out patience, acceptance and flexibility, even in distressed couples. Because they have no choice, partners need to address parenting issues now, rather than when they are apart. And, when they are still living together, there seems to be less room for parental alienation, as it is in both their interests to make sure children are adjusting well. Children, on their part, may have the opportunity to go to either parent with any question they might have or for support. Though there may still be attempts by each partner to be” the better parent” of the two, there may also be a stronger need for closer collaboration and support.

When in couple counseling, couples often become more conscious of the repercussions of their decisions on children. Here the focus is on teaching couples how to become more aware of their children’s reactions to the current family situation. This awareness helps them reach decisions that are more fair and sensitive to the feelings and needs of all involved. This process, though challenging and difficult, facilitates the development of empathy and compassion. Partners can appreciate each other’s intent to do their best in order to protect their children from emotional harm.

Couples learn that, even at this stage in a relationship, they model to their children how to deal with life challenges and responsibilities, as ending relationships is part of life. Invested in this role, parents are helped to restrain from acting inappropriately with one another, particularly in front of their kids. Also, time together may help them find healthy ways of dealing with their relationship, rather than making precipitous decisions based on the emotions of the moment.

The most important gift to couples is that this situation allows time for reflecting and thinking about how they got to this point. If they are willing to do the necessary work, couples may begin to tease out what emotions belong to the relationship and what is triggered by events and situations outside of it. They can ally and collaborate in dealing with the external challenges that affect both of them, rather than allowing these external challenges become a wedge in the relationship.

Helping couples understand the impact of external stressors on their relationship can help shift the focus from each other to the reasons why they feel the way they do about themselves, each other, and their external environment.

In relationship counseling with couples who experience high conflict as consequence of the current economic recession, the goal often is narrower and more focused than in marital counseling. Teaching constructive communication skills and effective ways of problem solving can be far more beneficial than undertaking the enormous task of “fixing” the relationship.

It is difficult to know what will happen once partners decide to work together, even at this late stage of disconnection, but a better understanding of how partners got to this place with one another could open up options on how each couple wants to proceed. Even if couples decide that they no longer want to be together and they are clear about their decision, the process of disengagement from each other can be facilitated by increased understanding, better communication and deeper awareness of issues and dynamics. These tools will serve them well in the future, with each other and with other people.

Having time to think and reflect, rather than acting precipitously and reactively, can make the difference between a mature and healthy way for partners in intimate relationships to go their separate ways and a break up without closure.

Optimally, this time to reflect can create a place for couples to examine their emotions for each other and even be able to make a paradigm shift between seeing each other as enemies to finding areas of collaboration and re-connection.

Author's Bio: 

Daniela Roher, PhD is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Carefree, AZ and in Scottsdale, AZ. Daniela has worked in this field helping individuals and couples better understand their emotions and teaching them how to manage and regulate them, without letting them get overwhelming or frightening. She has been in this profession for over thirty years, both in Europe and the U.S. Aside from her reputation as a clinician, Daniela has developed a national reputation with her blog.