Make Some Rules For A Trial Separation

by Sally R. Connolly, LMFT and John E. Turner, LMFT

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Here are some of the decisions that must be made and agreed upon in a trial separation.

* Will someone be leaving the home and, if so, which spouse?

* How will the household property be divided? This might include cars, furniture, electronics, dishes, etc.

* How will visits with the children be handled?

* What are the responsibilities of each spouse … for children, bills, chores, etc.

* What kind of financial decisions need to be made? Some agree that financial arrangements remain the same as they were during the marriage while others come up with a specific formula for bills/child support, etc. There is a calculator that can give a fairly simple and concrete estimate about how that can be determined. One of them is on the website, Child Support Calculator, for help with this.

* Plan for a certain length for the separation, preferably 1 to 6 months, and then evaluate whether or not to continue with the separation or to make changes. Most couples can figure out by that time whether or not they are headed toward a divorce or are healing their relationship.

 * Is there a need for a marriage counselor? Some couples want to meet with a therapist to learn new skills and understand what they need to do to change their patterns. This is a good thing to do whether or not the marriage works. You don’t want to get back into the same old pattern with another partner and it is helpful for each person to understand their contribution to the problems.

* How often and about what should you communicate? Constant interaction is not encouraged although the couple usually agrees on how often they will speak to each other. The intent for this time is to have a cooling off period and to gain some space.

* Decide together about confidentiality and who you each can talk with about the marriage and your spouse. Both should agree that they will not gossip with any other people but that each might need 1 or 2 close friends or family members to talk with during this time.

* Sex and intimacy should be discussed openly. Will you continue to be sexual with each other or will that also be precluded as part of the trial separation?

* Privacy
is important as well. Set clear boundaries around ways that each of you can feel that your privacy is respected.

* Agree that neither one of you will seek legal counsel and move toward divorce.

* Make a plan for what to do if either of you wants to renegotiate the contract.

To date or not to date during a trial separation?

This is a good time for you and your spouse to date each other, not other people.  Therapists differ on whether or not couples should decide to date others during a trial separation. If the goal is to find out if they can break patterns and develop a healthy relationship and/or fall back in love, then dating others is too much of a distraction.

The single life can seem alluring and interesting and commitments become less important. The distraction of dating complicates any effort to see if healing and change can happen in a marriage.

With that being said, many who claim a need for a trial separation are doing so because they have found or think that they will find someone else. They may already be involved in an affair or intrigued by someone special or by the single life. Their plan, no matter what they say, is to explore other options. It is far better when that is said out loud rather than when it is kept secret. 

In instances where one partner really wants to date others while the other partner does not, the agreement to allow dating is most probably the only decision to make.


Would you like help figuring out how to make a trial separation work for you and your partner?  We would be glad to work with you. We provide live and online consultation.  Click here to be taken to our online counseling enrollment page and learn how we can work together.

Can a Trial Separation Work If Both People Live In The Same House?

Some couples can separate and still live in the same house. It might seem to make sense because of finances or children. This is very difficult to do; however, because it really does not allow for the space and distance that best helps to change unhealthy patterns. Couples must set clear and specific boundaries using many of the same rules that are outlined above.

Couples who decide to try it this way often attempt it and then find that they need to do something different.

Formal Versus Informal Trial Separation

Formal Trial Separation: Some people choose to have a formal separation with papers drawn up by a lawyer and agreed to by both parties, both of whom may be represented by counsel.

There are both positive and negative aspects to this approach. The positive factors involve legal representation and an agreement that is legal and “fair”. The biggest drawback to a legal separation is that it is more likely to lead toward divorce as attorneys become involved in the emotional pull of dividing up their lives and their property.

Informal Trial Separation:  Many choose to try an informal separation. Together they decide on some of the major components for healthy distancing. Some may even choose to separate while both are living in the home, just choosing different floors and different “on call“ times with the children.

With an informal separation, there is no involvement of attorneys or the court and, when done with respect and trust, each works with the other for everyone’s best interest.

Does A Trial Separation Really Work?

A trial separation can be a message that a marriage is salvageable.  It can mean gaining an understanding of what happened during years of marriage. 

Questions like “what did we do wrong?” or “What did we miss?” are common. A trial separation means that there is a desire and a willingness on the part of husband and wife NOT to take the drastic road to divorce.  People make mistakes and can use a trial separation as a time to turn inwards and reflect on the problems and solutions of their relationship.

Would you like some help negotiating your trial separation? We would be glad to help. Consult us at Counseling Relationships Online.  We have helped others and would be glad to help you.  Click here to go directly to our enrollment page.