Though most people think of separation as a stopover on the highway to divorce, some feel it’s the only move that can save a troubled marriage. Allison and Dan Brown, married seven years and the parents of two young kids, are beginning a nine-month trial separation that they hope will heal their relationship—even if they wind up apart. “You don’t sell the house when it’s at its lowest value,” says Dan. “You fix the leaks and repair the floor, and then you put it on the market.” While navigating the details of their separation, they have found themselves switching back and forth between the roles of “friend” and “lover.” But even that Twilight Zone feeling, they say, is preferable to hating each other and fighting all the time.
Dan, 36, a consultant, and Allison, 37, an ad executive, met at a liberal New England college, and married in 1996. They had a son a year later, and bought a brownstone in Chelsea, but in 1999, after their daughter Olivia was born, Allison’s mother died, and she went into a long depression, becoming sexually withdrawn. “I was emotionally and physically distant,” she tells me at a coffee shop by her office in Soho.
Feeling progressively isolated and frustrated, Dan began visiting strip clubs and online chat rooms, solicited a prostitute, and then had an affair with a woman he knew socially. When Allison emerged from her depression, she threw herself into her work, and in late 2002 she began an affair with a man she met at a business function. One night in January, Allison began talking in her sleep. “She was apologizing to me for her affair,” he recalls. “I woke her up and said, ‘Are you having an affair?’ She said yes and I said, ‘It’s okay. I had one, too.’ ”
Even though she had cheated, too, she was furious when he told her about the prostitute, feeling that he had “tainted” the marriage. “It was the classic case of two wrongs don’t make a right,” says Dan. “I said, ‘Can’t we just love each other for better for worse?’ She said, ‘This is completely beyond the pale.’ ”
They began sleeping apart—staying with friends for part of the week, telling the kids Mommy and Daddy “needed a break.” By the spring, the apartment-hopping had grown exhausting, and they came home—though Dan slept on the couch. Allison’s relationship ended (mutually, she says) and she and Dan started couples therapy. “My attitude,” says Dan, “was that therapy would fix the marriage. Her attitude, which I have since bought into, was, Let’s figure out how we got here, because neither of us wants to do what we did with each other to someone else.”
In June, they went to Maine for a wedding, without the kids, and shared a kiss in a hammock. On the drive back, they decided to separate. “It was a watershed conversation,” he remembers. “We agreed that we weren’t ready for divorce but were stuck where we were. It was like a breath of fresh air in the car.”
“Neither of us was happy with how things were,” she recalls, “and the idea of separation felt liberating—the idea of not living with constant disappointment.”
They will split up beginning this October. They plan to spend half the week in separate rented studios and the other half with their kids in the brownstone. They may date other people, but not when they’re with the kids.
“Neither of us was happy with how things were. And the idea of separation felt liberating—the idea of not living with constant disappointment.”
Last month, Dan posted a personal ad on Nerve. For “In my bedroom you’ll find:” he wrote, “My wife.” He said the last book he had read was Should I Stay or Go? How Controlled Separation Can Save Your Marriage. Allison told him he was giving TMI—too much information. Now his ad says, “In my bedroom you’ll find: utter confusion. Can we stay at your place?”
When he drafted an ad for another site, Allison helped him out. “I was trying to describe to her what I wanted, and I said, ‘I’m looking for a crush.’ She said, ‘You should put that in your ad.’ I did, and I got five responses the next day. I said, ‘See? This is why we’re such good partners.’ ”
“I don’t have a lot of jealousy,” she says. “It feels like I’m helping a friend.”
As for her own love life, Allison may see her former paramour again, but feels her separation is more about herself than any man. “In a way,” she says, “life is as interesting as it was when I was 21. I want to be in a place where I am more open. That might involve being attracted to women, or leaving my job. I want to try on a lot of things.”
Their friends have had mixed responses to the separation. “My single friends think it’s great,” says Allison, “because I’m going to be single again and have more time for them. My married friends are threatened because this suggests a freedom that they might want.”
Perhaps the most telling indicator of Dan and Allison’s ambiguous romantic status is the way they have chosen to wear their rings. Dan has moved his to a chain around his neck, so that women he meets won’t think he’s a married guy looking to cheat. Allison still wears hers, but has taken off her engagement ring. “My engagement ring was about promise,” she says, “and the wedding ring is about commitment. All of our promises have been broken, but that doesn’t end the commitment.”
When Dan discusses his separation, he’s so optimistic he sounds almost romantic. “There’s this Julia Roberts movie Something to Talk About,” he says. “She finds out her husband, Dennis Quaid, has been cheating, but at the end, they reconcile enough that he has her over for a date. It ends with promise. I think Allison and I will see each other romantically while we’re separated.”
When I tell her this is what he imagines, she is quiet. Does she see them winding up together? “I would like to reach a place where I am excited to see him,” she says. “Is that the same thing? I guess so.”