Q: My wife and I have been married for two years. We have no children. A month ago she told me she needed space for a while and asked for a separation. Since we haven't been getting along for about six months, I agreed that it was a good idea providing we see a counselor on a weekly basis to help us put the pieces back together. During counseling it came out that she was already living with someone. I'm devastated and I don't know what to do. How often do you see people go back together after a trial separation?
We see it quite often, but that is based on the fact that it's a trial separation and not just an excuse to get out. It sounds to us as if your wife was a coward about coming clean when fooling around and used the “I need space” excuse to take a break. The next thing you will hear is “It's not you, it's me” – and that little phrase, coupled with “I need space,” is often an indicator that your partner is done.
We hate to be the bearer of bad news, especially since you have admitted how hurt you are, but if she's living with someone, she's moved on. And as difficult as this might sound, it's probably the best advice we can give you, too. Somewhere along the line something happened, whether it was getting married too young, or simply “I made a mistake.” Or maybe someone swept her off her feet and she was not considering your feelings when she made the decision to stray – if indeed that is what happened. Though if she's living with someone a month after you separated, it's a very good guess.
There is hope. We have seen it work out when there has been someone else if the couple sincerely look at the reason behind the decision to stray, correct their mistakes, get into counseling to help them recommit, and then put in the time to rebuild trust – but that's a long haul, and it can take years, and it takes both partners to want to put it back together.
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We are afraid that your wife may not be as invested in reconciliation as you are. Actually, we are surprised that she went through with her agreement to go to counseling with you if she's living with someone else. (Unless she wanted the counselor's help when breaking the news about her new roommate.)
Bottom line: People who stay together want to. People who don't find someone else within a month of separation and move in. And since this column is called “Ex-Etiquette” and you wrote us with your question, we think you knew our answer all along.