But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. -I Cor 7:2-5, NIV
I don’t remember which marriage counseling book I read that suggested a separation when things are rough in the marriage. (It is in the pile somewhere, though, I assure you). The book suggests living as if one is single and discovering how that feels. It is supposed to be a reality check. The author(s) think this might awaken the spouse to realize what they took for granted in their marriage, thereby encouraging the spouse to return to the marriage commitment full-force. Personally and pastorally, I see this as unhelpful and unbiblical advice.***
Within the highly sexualized world of Corinth Greece, the Apostle Paul is reminding the Corinthian Christians that abstaining from sex in a marriage is not a recipe for avoiding adultery (remember he is addressing married Christians with these comments so that any sexual extramarital activity would mean it was adultery). The Apostle Paul correctly identifies this as a spiritual battle. Satan loves the opportunity to exploit the marital weakness by throwing in some temptation while the marriage partners are apart. Paul says don’t give Satan the room to do this.
When it comes to a separation, think about what that means in light of these spiritual teachings from the Apostle Paul. The marriage is already in crisis. Does giving more room in the marriage by separating help or hinder Satan’s goal of destroying that marriage? I think it makes the temptation worse.
With a physical separation there is less accountability to the other partner as far as whereabouts, etc. In other words, this creates an environment for an adulterer/adulteress where the consequences appear (and may actually be) further away as it creates room to cheat without having to lie immediately upon coming home to one’s spouse. Stated simply: the logistics for committing adultery are easier.
Another problem I have with the advice to “take a break” from the marriage is that such advice encourages living a lie. Either you are married or you are not. A person of integrity holds to his/her commitments until they are no longer committed (e.g. they get divorced). This advice does not encourage such integrity. It encourages adultery. Let me explain: If you act like you are single, you are sending signals that you are available to others when you are actually still bound by your marriage covenant stating otherwise. I have already laid out how the temptation is high during separation due to the reality of less accountability as well as what the Apostle Paul astutely observes about withdrawal from usual sexual behavior with one’s spouse. You can connect the dots from there.
As far as separation for deciding about the marriage is concerned, I think this could work as long as the separation is defined and intentional. That’s the point I take from the Apostle Paul’s teaching that sexual abstinence can take place as long as it is mutual and for a season of prayer. Sexual abstinence from your spouse in this case does not mean you go and find sex elsewhere. Paul still teaches this must only be a season (I would add that it should be a short season too, days/weeks, not months) and the marriage partners ought to come back together afterwards. In addition, other accountability safeguards like agreed upon therapy times as well as trusted Christians observing the partners ought to be in place to counteract temptation.
Another important distinction with separation, as referenced by Paul, is that it’s mutual and defined. Separation is not one spouse suddenly deciding they’re going to leave and sleep with someone else because they got in a fight that night. That’s not mutual and it’s a horrible, childish move on the cheating spouse’s end when it comes to conflict resolution skills. Separation is also not one spouse deciding they’re going to leave, get their own place, take their ring off/sleep with other men or women/go on dates and act is if they’re single in order to “get a break from the marriage.” That’s not a mutual decision, that’s one party unilaterally changing and violating the marriage vows.
Also, a separation is not the same thing as a divorce. If you are still married in the eyes of the state, you are definitely still married in the eyes of God. Geography is irrelevant to this. Just because you are geographically separated does not mean you are no longer married. For example, a military man sleeping with another woman is still committing adultery even if the affair takes place half way across the globe from his wife.
Some states require a certain amount of time of “separation” before one can file for divorce. In those circumstances there may only be the option of having a year of separation instead of something shorter. If that’s what it takes to be able to file, (if that’s your desire), then you have to do what you have to do. Those laws can definitely add another major pain in the rear end for the faithful spouse. It’s yet another thing that the cheating spouse often tries to thwart. As I read scripture, sexual abstinence, as Paul addressed, still applies in those matters to both parties in order to uphold the marriage vows. If one party cheats during that time it is adultery.
To preserve life, I think separation is both wise and important. This comes into play if there is abuse in the marriage. God values human life, and I would encourage separation in these cases to protect the victim(s). Even in these cases, I believe it wise to recognize one’s vulnerability to sexual temptation and make a prayerful decision about the future of the marriage instead of sliding into an affair giving into the lies of temptation.
Also, I don’t take issue with “taking a break” when it’s clearly defined as giving each other a day or two of space to clear your heads, calm down and resume the conversation. Moments of space and time to process our thoughts are necessary in healthy conflict resolution. This post is specifically directed at the mentality of “taking a break” when it’s used as a means to promote acting as if you were single and sexually available while you’re still married.