Trial Separations: Do They Work?

2018-10-12T11:51:22+00:00

When your marriage is increasingly off track or seemingly headed for a cliff, sometimes it’s good to agree to a trial separation to get some time and space between you.  A trial separation can be a cooling off period or a time to really rethink where your marriage is headed.

At times, the marital  environment becomes so toxic that having a calm reasonable discussion about anything is almost impossible. For example, when you discover your husband has been lying to you and has been sleeping with another woman, it causes immediate and intense emotions!  Most of us who have experienced this are surprised by our level of rage and devastation.

For many women, whose husband is having an affair, not only is their emotional health threatened, but their physical health can be at risk as well.  Infidelity is often the prime reason women demand a trial separation. A trial separation can help determine what’s really going on and what the odds are of fixing things.

The woman who has been cheated on has more intense emotions than she’s ever experienced and this often causes erratic and aggressive behavior.  For example stalking, harassing the girlfriend and doing things that are completely out of character! A trial separation can diffuse some of that anger. Or not!

Women, who come to Midlife Divorce Recovery, talk of doing things they would have never thought they were capable of doing.  During a separation, one sophisticated hospital executive, actually threw potted plants and lawn furniture off the girlfriend’s deck.  Another woman spray painted the word W-H-*-R-3 on one side of the girlfriend’s car and the word S-L-U-T on the other.  To this day she says she’s not sorry she did it.  Thankfully she wasn’t put in jail for it!

So, couples often choose a trial separation simply to get some physical space between them, so that their emotions can cool down and the level of stress more manageable.  When sexual infidelity is involved, sexually transmitted diseases are alway a possibility, too, and being apart physically is an additional safety measure to prevent that.

What Is A Trial Separation?

A trial separation agreement is often a flexible, informal agreement between a husband and wife who have hopes of repairing their marriage and rebuilding their relationship.  It’s a stepping back period and a time to figure out if repair of their marriage is even possible.

Some trial separations in troubled marriages are no more than one spouse moving to a different part of the house or going to stay with friends or family for a while.  In fact more and more women who contact Midlife Divorce Recovery say that they can’t afford for one partner to pay for an apartment, so they co-exist in the same house.

Trial separations in marriage where both partners stay in the marital home are considered because of insurance, issues concerning child care, or lack of financial ability to formally separate. A trial separation while living together is sometimes necessary, but usually extremely stressful on everyone, including the children.

Trial Separation vs. Legal Separation

“A separation isn’t the same as a divorce.  Separation means that you are living apart from your spouse, but you’re still legally married until you get a judgement of divorce from a court (even if you already have a judgment of separation).

Generally, a legal separation does affect the financial responsibilities between you and your spouse before the divorce is final.  There are three different types of separation. (trial separation, permanent separation and legal separation) In most states, only one (legal separation) changes your legal statusbut all three have the potential to  affect your legal rights.”  

Consult an attorney regardless of what kind of separation you are considering. Different states have different rules about the legal ramifications of any kind of formal or informal separation.

Why Try A Trial Separation?

Sometimes a trial separation is agreed upon while the husband and wife still stay in contact and are both trying to fix things.  For example, some spouses are working on forgiveness for infidelity while their spouse is supposedly readjusting to life without the affair partner. (In truth, from my experience in my divorce recovery work, many times the spouse who is having an affair welcomes a separation because it makes connecting with the lover easier!) In those cases, the trial separation is usually more of a bridge to divorce than a bridge to reconciliation.

Other couples embark on a trial separation if there is a lack of communication, or too much fighting or not being able to come to an agreement in other important areas of married life.

For instance the following situations may get so intense that they suggest the need for a temporary or trial separation:

  • Sexual incompatibility
  • Financial incompatibility
  • Emotional incompatibility
  • Controlling and manipulative attitudes and behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Any kind of verbal, physical or emotional abuse
  • Arguing and fighting on a regular basis
  • Serious disagreements about child rearing
  • Problems with ex-spouses
  • Extended family issues

Do Trial Separations Work?

Since many informal separations are not considered in research, the reconciliation rates after separations are hard to know for sure.  However, the general consensus is that divorce after separation is more common than reconciliation.

“A research study, conducted at Ohio State University, reports that 79% of couples who separate eventually divorce.  Researchers found that the average separation lasts a year or less. For couples who eventually reconciled, most did so within the first two years.  Beyond two years, there is little chance that a couple will reconcile. Many couples who end up divorcing do so after three or four years of separation.”

Rules & Boundaries

There are several things to consider when a marriage is struggling and a couple is deciding whether to end the marriage or try to fix it.  In my opinion, marriage is a sacred trust and every marriage deserves an opportunity for healing and rebuilding stronger and better than ever before.

No one should be forced to stay in a relationship that is toxic and destructive.  If you feel as if you cannot be the person you were created to be and stay in a relationship, you have to do some serious soul searching.  Can we reconcile? Is our marriage so damaged that it cannot be fixed?

If you are considering a trial separation agreement, the first question to ask is, “What are we trying to accomplish in this trial separation?”  What do we want the end result of this separation to be? The answer should be something like, “A new and better marriage for both of us.” If that sentiment is not part of either partner’s goal, then a separation will probably not work.  Below are some things to agree on before you even start a trial separation:

Set A Timeframe

It seems as if the best results from a trial separation come when there is a specific time frame for the separation.  In my work, it seems that often women, especially when infidelity is discovered, immediately send the spouse out of the home.  Continued infidelity is one of those breaches of trust that are not compatible with staying married or sometimes even staying in the same house before the divorce is final.

When I first learned of my ex-husband’s affair, I didn’t want to see his face!.  I didn’t want to hear his voice! I was so angry and sad that I wanted him to fall off the face of the earth, never to be seen again, so I told him to get out!!  I later calmed down because I desperately wanted to save the marriage. I contacted an attorney, and we decided on a legal separation. However, no specific time frame was included.

Determine The Living Situation

In some situations, a couple can continue to live together while trying to work things out.  In other cases like abuse, infidelity, and substance abuse, things become so difficult that it is impossible to be in the same house.

There must be pre-determined trial separation boundaries in several areas.

  • Are we going to live in the same house during the trial separation?
  • Are we going to have sex during the separation?
  • What activities are acceptable?  Dating? Online dating site exploration?
  • Will there be equal access to the marital home?
  • How will co-parenting work during the separation?
  • How will finances be handled?  

Discuss Finances

It is very important to determine the financial details during a trial separation.  I am not an attorney, but the financial questions are of utmost importance. Please check with an attorney in your state to make sure that you are protected even during this time of trial separation.  

One of the benefits of a legal separation is that vital financial protections for both parties are put in place and legally binding.  My attorney early on suggested that we institute a legal separation to secure binding protections for both of us.

Questions to answer before starting a trial separation:

  • Who is responsible for what, financially?
  • How will the payments be made?
  • Will the spouse who leaves the home have access to bills and other financial records?
  • Who is responsible if a bill is not paid?
  • Who has access to bank accounts?
  • Who is paying for insurance?  For spouse? For children?
  • What about educational obligations for children?
  • What legal protection does each spouse have?

Separation or Divorce?

In my case, I wanted an open-ended separation until my then-husband decided to give up his girlfriend and commit completely to our marriage.  For three long agonizing years and three different separations, he continued to maintain a relationship with the other woman even though he promised to end it. Because I wanted to save our 33 year marriage, I kept extending the deadline for him to give her up.  He didn’t.

We also were in couples counselling during some of that time.  I wanted to give our marriage every opportunity to heal and succeed.  I wanted to know that I had tried everything that I thought might help before filing for divorce.  A trial or legal separation is usually a final step in trying to save a marriage. Some couples, for religious reasons never divorce, but have a permanent separation agreement.

Even though statistics show that more than three times as many separations end in divorce than end in reconciliation, I believe it’s still worth a trying to save your marriage.

If you are in a trial separation, or a legal separation and are trying to save your marriage, or if you are considering divorce, or already on the divorce road, sign up for our FREE 10-Day Crash Course. It’s 10 days of free encouragement sent to your inbox that will explain a little more about who we are and what we’re all about.

About the Author:

Suzy developed Midlife Divorce Recovery as a safe refuge for people healing and surviving the overwhelm of divorce. Starting her first RADiCAL support group in 2003 she's been helping women navigate the journey of divorce ever since.

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