My Husband Wants To Separate To “Find Himself.” What Does This Even Mean?

By: Leslie Cane: I sometimes hear from folks who are on the receiving end of what sounds like a pretty lame excuse.  Their spouse has told them he wants to try a trial separation in order to take some time to “find himself.”  These vague words can sound like something only meant to deceive.  I’m ofter asked for speculation as to the actual truth behind these words.

I heard from a wife who said: “I honestly thought my husband and I had a decent marriage.  Certainly not perfect.  But good enough so that neither person was going to walk away. Yes, things had gotten routine, but I almost found comfort in that. Apparently my husband felt differently.  Last week, he told me that he was going to move out for a while.  He said that he felt that we needed to separate so that he could take time out “to find himself.”  I couldn’t help it.  I gave a little laugh and repeated ‘find yourself? What does that even mean?’  My husband became very annoyed with this question. He got all flustered and said that he feels like he has lost a little bit of himself and his own individuality.  He said that he misses his younger self that wasn’t burdened with the responsibilities and that he wants to try to find that person again.  This just sounds like semantics to me.  It sounds like someone who is trying to escape their grown up life.  Unfortunately, he has given me no real choice in this. So I have no recourse but to sit here and wait for him to find his phantom lost self and then I get to find out what will become of my marriage.  How is this fair?  And what does he really mean anyway?”

I get a lot of correspondence on this topic.  Because most spouses who are requesting a separation will offer up some variation on the theme that they need “time,” “distance” or “space.”  And often this seems like a pretty pitiful excuse to the person who is being told that her marriage might be taking a detour.  But believe it or not, there often is at least some validity to your spouse’s words.  In the following article, I’ll go over some possibilities as to what they mean when they say that they need to find themselves.  And I will offer some suggestions on how to best handle this.

They Often Aren’t Really Searching For What’s Been Lost.  They Just Want To Reignite What They Think They No Longer Feel:  It’s unfortunate that the words that they use often imply that something has been misplaced like a misfiled document.

Because this often isn’t what they actually mean.  Typically, they are going through a time in their life when they are feeling some jealousy for what someone else has or some disappointment in what they don’t have.  They generally look at their life and they have to admit that very little has worked out in the way that they have planned.  Sometimes, this doesn’t even relate directly to your marriage.  It can have something to do with their career, their talents, their family relationships, or their own sense of achievement or purpose.

As a result, they can feel the need to be free to explore this.  They may want to try new experiences to restore a sense of excitement in their life.  They may not want an audience or any judgements about this.  So, they feel that this process would be easier if you were to separate.  Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are rejecting your marriage or that they are lying to you.  It just means that, for whatever reason, they feel that their journey would be better or easier if you were separated.  You may have more insights as to why they feel this way.  But Im just trying to give you a general idea of the mind set that you are facing.

How To Handle A Spouse Who Is On A Quest To Find Himself:  It’s my experience and opinion that the worst thing that you can do in this situation is to tell your spouse that he is being silly, selfish or mistaken.  Frankly, it typically takes a huge personal awakening to get to the point where you feel that such a drastic change is necessary.  So it is very unlikely that your trying to make him feel guilty or just mistaken is going to have much of an impact.  And, even if you are partly successful in talking him out of wanting space, he is likely going to back off very begrudgingly and he is going to resent you for it.

So I really caution you against using that strategy because I have seen it fail many more times than I have seen it work.  If you are interested in saving your marriage, I suggest that your best bet is to validate your husband.  You might say that you can understand why he would feel this way because it’s very common for people to experience a loss of self.  You could even disclose that you feel this way from time to time, as frankly, we all look at our lives sometimes and wonder if this is all there is.

If he is being somewhat receptive, you could suggest that he take his time without needing to move out.  You could commit to giving him whatever space he needs either by moving to a different part of your home or temporarily staying with friends.  I suggest this because it is easier for you to just come home or move back into the previous area of your house than it can be to convince him to move back.

If he is not receptive to this, then the next best thing is to try to agree on a very short separation.  A suggested script would be something like: “I do understand and of course I want for you to be happy.  Perhaps you could take a class or even go back to school.  But I’m not sure that your working on yourself requires for us to separate.  I’d be happy to stay with friends for a while if you need to sort it out.  But I’d like to know that we aren’t leaving things open ended because that scares me.  I don’t want you to equate our marriage with other issues in your life.  So I would really like for us to agree to meet at least weekly and talk about this so that we maintain our relationship while you are working on yourself individually. In the meantime, I too want to work on myself.  I do understand where you are coming from but I would rather us do this work while we are still connected.”

I believe that it is very important for him to understand that you intend to work on yourself.  So often, the spouse who doesn’t want the separation positions themselves as the person who is trying to keep the restless spouse from getting what he thinks he wants.  When this happens, he begins to believe that he has to get away from you in order to be happy or to achieve his goals.  This is that last thing that you should want.  The real goal is to allow him to see that you only want the best for him and that his happiness is your happiness.  And if you can make him see that your goal is to help him to become the best version of himself, then suddenly you become his partner rather than his adversary.

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand these principles when my husband came to me seeking space.  I tried to change his mind and he greatly resented this, left anyway, and limited my access to him.  I had to completely start over in order to get him to believe that I actually was on his side.  If it helps, you can read the whole story on my blog at


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