Families 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.
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.
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