When Is It Time to Separate the Family?

Family portrait of family sitting on couchFamilies need to be together. After all, the family as a group exists to provide support, nurturance, food, shelter, resources, and a stable future to each member. While most families have their ups and downs, even stressed, impoverished, chaotic families want to live with one another. When is it in the family’s best interest for members to separate from one another? Can leaving the family home for a short while ever bring healing to the relationships in the long run?

Family separations occur in American culture in formal and informal ways. Formally, families can legally be ordered to separate by the courts because of domestic violence, child sexual, emotional, or physical abuse or neglect, chronic drug or alcohol abuse, and/or failure to educate and when there is a threat to the life, health, and well-being of one or more family members. Typically, less-intrusive assistance has been attempted at many levels before a court order occurs, including weeks or months of child-centered school counseling, family therapy, marriage counseling, social work support, addiction treatment, spiritual community support, or elder advocacy.

All of these actions occur at local, county, and state levels because we as a society believe that we have a stake in supporting and sustaining healthy families. State laws vary but generally have been written with family reunification as the end goal of this intervention process, wherever possible. Violent fathers, neglectful or addicted mothers, and abusive siblings can and often do change and grow into healthier, happier parents, spouses, siblings, and grandparents. We want families to get along well and have what they need to contribute to the world. No one benefits when families are so chaotic and dysfunctional that it takes dozens of people and thousands of hours and dollars to try to help.

More informal separations occur every day, particularly among highly distressed married couples. Unable to live in the same home without physical or emotional pain, one member of the couple leaves the home temporarily and lives elsewhere. Unlike a formal, legal intervention of family separation, this kind of separation is less likely to change the marital interactions at all. What it usually does is create less fighting and conflict in the home, while increasing the stress of the separating spouse and any children in the family. The only person who may feel any relief is the remaining spouse, and this relief is generally temporary. The focus is shifted to the dozens of life details that, once shared, have to be renegotiated, from grocery shopping and bill paying to getting a child to baseball practice.

Unless a separated couple gets professional support and assistance immediately, the family begins to reshape around the absence of the separated parent. Children feel neglected and forgotten, no matter how diligent the separated parent is in spending time with the children. There is just no adequate substitute for living together, and the children’s behavior often suffers. The couples will simply shift their conflict away from one another in the short term and have no real plan of action for getting everyone back together. Because separation only tones down conflict and doesn’t solve it, I almost always suggest that separated couples who want to remain married work at getting back together as soon as possible, and always with professional family or marital therapy. If this is not the chosen path, statistics predict this couple will end up divorcing.

Separation is often a necessary choice when family behaviors become violent, abusive, or dangerous. But in nearly all cases, families should be helped to heal and reunify as soon as possible. Separation is not the best course of action unless it is the only course left for health, safety, or stability’s sake. Every one of us needs to feel like we belong and to be part of a group of people who know, appreciate, sacrifice for, and value us most of all. At our best, these are our families. It’s worth the effort to make them as healthy, whole, and loving as possible.

Related articles:
Three Truths Every Couple Needs to Know About Marriage
Want Family Therapy? These 4 Problems Should Be Treated First
Harness the Power of the Marriage Bond

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  • Gabe

    February 2nd, 2012 at 5:00 PM

    But doesn’t it sometimes make you so mad that kids might be kept in abusive or dangerous situations even though you know it can’t be good for the kids but it all becomes about keeping that proverbial family together. I would much rather get that kid into a home that is going to love and care for them, no matter if they are related or not.

  • janey

    February 3rd, 2012 at 5:12 AM

    When I separated from my own family and left for college it was a difficult decision to go so far away, not really because we were always so close but I guess because it felt like I was leaving my comfort zone. They were never mean or abusive it was just that we never had that idealic kind of relationship that you sometimes read about. So I went away. And for us that has been the best strengthener to our relationshio that I could have ever asked for. Now when I come home it is like we enjoy being around each other because we all know that the time is limited. Sometimes it really does make you much more appreciative of what you have when you don’t have to be around it everyday.

  • Laura

    February 3rd, 2012 at 9:03 AM

    Always knew things were only going to get worse once mom walked out of the house ‘temporarily’ when I was fifteen.

    It was followed by lack of contact between mom and dad and eventually their divorce.Separation like that is like a relationship on a ventilator.

  • Kayla

    February 5th, 2012 at 5:39 AM

    So what do you think about these couples who are divorcing or get divorced but still live together? That has to be even worse!

  • Lynne Silva-Breen, LMFT

    February 19th, 2012 at 5:41 PM

    @Gabe – Yes, there is no perfect solution when families are chaotic. The best response, one that takes time because of the laws and rights around parenting, is to get the child/ren to safety.

    @Janey, Laura – thanks for sharing your own experiences.

    @Kayla – yes, economic factors are creating a lot of “divorced in place” couples. I see this in my practice a good deal right now. It’s very painful.

  • Dan Tran

    June 14th, 2013 at 1:27 AM

    I have a question and possibly a need for some advice.

    I love to hang around and be as close to my family as I can, but in my current situation, I care for my 74-year old grandmother.

    Staying by her is necessary, but she is still highly mobile. Often in this home she can be very stressing to others and refuses to accept when she’s wrong.

    I love her dearly, but staying here too long where I can’t move forward in life (or even out the front door) will eventually drive me crazy.

    I’m hoping to just be able to spread my wings to some schooling out of town or state but have to weigh the familial aspects.

    Any advice is greatly appreciated… Thank you.

  • Dan Tran

    June 14th, 2013 at 1:28 AM

    Sorry, missed the question mark.

  • admin2

    June 14th, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Hi Dan,
    Thank you for your comment and your question! You may find it helpful to ask a therapist directly for some advice. Check out our “Dear GoodTherapy.org” feature, where you can submit a question for review by one of our Topic Expert therapists. Find out more here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/dear-goodtherapy.html
    Thanks again for commenting and visiting the GoodTherapy.org Blog!
    The GoodTherapy.org Editorial Team

  • d

    December 26th, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    Im 19 and i have always been the kind of person who can see both sides to an argument. Always. Even if i didn’t like it.

    These past 2 years i have been attending a technical college 4 hours away from home. My ultimate plan when i was 17 was to move away from my hometown. Its place where if you stay and get comfortable you will get stuck.

    After these 2 years i found that the degree i was shooting for meant nothing to me. School was never a big priority for me and i always wanted to focus on “living”.

    Stupid, young, naive. I know. But, living with my family. (THERE HAS NEVER BEEN ABUSE OR TRAUMA FROM FAMILY)

    It makes me feel stuck

    I base my decisions on how they feel and what they think is best for me.

    Well, I messed up.

    I failed out of school (twice) but the second time was permanent and i was too scared to fess up to my parents. I lived with a friend on her couch for 2 months while trying to figure out what was gonna happen. I have had 2 months to contemplate and think over what i did. (since my family didn’t know i failed i was still receiving financial help from them). Yes that is where i messed up

    The lying. I know this. I have come to terms with this.

    I have a friend whom i am moving in with in a trailer on a piece of property his parents bought. I am working and slowly getting my feet back on the ground.

    Well, my parents found out because they are smarter and know me better than i think and a few days ago they went and picked me up out of the blue.

    I returned back to my hometown with some of my possessions and a bag with some clothes.

    I talked things over with my mom/ dad / uncle. More so the people whose opinion i care about and apologized for the lying. The lying is where i went wrong. I know this.

    The only person i haven’t come to terms with is my grandmother *boss man*

    But, my dad recently told me if i go back it will be the stupidest thing i could do besides what i already did. Im being selfish for wanting to make my mom worry. That is not my intention nor has it ever been. I am going back to where i am living because that is what i feel to be best for me. I love my family but my plan was to never live with them again past 18.

    I am not being selfish. My life plans and decisions are not going to be based on how they feel. If they did, i would still be stuck in my hometown and probably in a depressive state.

    They keep telling me i am wrong for doing this but i dont see a right or wrong way to do this.

    It is my life and my decisions. Affecting me.

    Im not gonna cut ties with my family but how can i tell them that my hometown isnt home

  • Yo

    November 5th, 2021 at 9:27 AM

    Abused, left all…

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