Q: My partner and I recently separated. What's the best way to use this time?

Instead of going directly to divorce, some couples decide to separate for a while. This approach definitely has its merits.  It prevents you from acting hastily about the relationship and gives you a chance to manage loneliness, time, and decisions. 

Many couples also use the separation to explore dating other people. But don't be distracted by the anxious thrills of dating. The goal of going out with other people is to use the dates as opportunities to learn about your values, interests, needs, fears, and interpersonal style. 

Here are some ideas to think about so you can get the most from your separation. You can be your own therapist or seek professional help if you get stuck.

1. Learn what made you so unhappy in your relationship. The top reasons that can lead you to split up are violations in commitment, respect, passion, shared values and interests, and maturity and responsibility. Think about your life with your partner. Did one of you cheat? Has someone lost respect for the other person or family? Are your communications unkind or infrequent? Have you diverged in your values, goals, and interests? Or perhaps someone had problems such as addictions. Write down the first things that come to mind. Learning about your unhappiness is the first step on the road to self-discovery.

2. Know how you contributed to the situation. Problems rarely develop in just one person. Think about your interactions. Pick a few of those troubling and unpleasant events that you can't let go off. Now imagine your life with your partner as a movie. How would your part get represented? Did you sulk, withhold, give in too much, fight, yell or criticize?  Run that imaginary movie especially for the scenes that caused you the most unhappiness. Think about the major decisions you made, for example. Did you run the show or sit back and let things just happen? I'm giving you the extremes, and your actions may be somewhere in the middle, but try to "play that movie of you" in your head. How would you direct you?  What would your ideal interactions look like?

3. Discover why you got together when you did.  The timing of love is often no accident. Certain experiences in life can make us more emotionally vulnerable. What was going on in your life at the time?  Was someone ill in your family?  Were you barely making enough money to support yourself? Maybe you were a lonely workaholic who wanted companionship and excitement. Or perhaps your biological was clock ticking. These reasons are some of the more common ones. Your reasons are unique to you, and it is your job to understand them. A word of caution-just because you and your partner fell in love during difficult circumstances doesn't mean that you two are doomed. Understanding the timing is one more piece of your love puzzle.

4. Examine your attraction to each other. What did you like about this person? Again, run that imaginary movie.  Whom would you cast in the parts of you and your partner? Did the relationship grow over time  It's amazing that sometimes one of the persons was not initially attracted to the other. If that describes you, why did things change? Or did you fall head over heels quickly? 

Most importantly, does your partner seem like anyone in your family? And does the nature of this person prompt you to act as you did in your family? If you were the oldest, for example, did you choose someone who lets you run the show?

When I was in training to be a family and marital therapist, I learned that the family's influence is one of the most potent forces in the world. Your family teaches you about how men and women interact. You absorb lessons about love, trust, hurt, respect, and success and failure. What did your family teach you? How do you play out those lessons in your relationship? 

Not all these lessons are bad.  There is nothing inherently wrong with tending to be more of a follower, for instance.  Problems tend to arise when you can't grow and adjust.  Your past is not written with permanent ink.  But think about your tendencies.  Did they impede your relationship?

5. Use dates as a learning experience. Going out with lots of different kinds of people is a great way to learn about you! You get to test your values and coping styles, and hone your abilities to assess others correctly.

6. Get started on your personal goals. Sometimes couples break up because someone feels stifled. If possible, use your separation time to jump-start your dreams. You have fewer excuses now.

7 Review what you learned. Separation is your own private journey of discovery. Write down what you learned about yourself.  Consider writing your journey as a story about you.

8. Reconnect with your partner. Now it's time to reconnect with your partner to swap information about your journeys. Explain what you learned about you. Don't turn this time together into an attack session where you tell your partner what he or she did wrong. The goal is to see if your assessment of your new life fits with your partner.

If you do decide to break up, you will at least have gained-and earned you!

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and lic. clinical social worker, specializing in relationships.  For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com.