Do Trial Separations Work?

by | Mar 1, 2020

Your marriage is on the rocks. You dread going home at night. You dread the weekends. You dread spending time with your spouse. You’re exhausted and frustrated and unhappy. You don’t like your life right now.

But the thought of a divorce is terrifying. It’s such a wrenching change, and you’re not quite ready for that. How can you find a way forward that feels safe? Maybe a trial separation is for you. A trial separation doesn’t involve lawyers—it’s just an informal agreement between you and your spouse that you will live apart for a time so you can think more clearly about what to do.

If you want a separation, try to be honest with yourself. Have you already made up your mind to divorce? Do you want a separation because you lack the courage to ask for a divorce? Or do you want a separation but your spouse does not? Are you asking for a one-sided deal? It takes both of you with good intentions to make a trial separation work.

Agree on Your Goals. If you are both separating to work on your marriage, then what is it you want to achieve? Talk about why you’re separating and be totally honest. What do you want to learn? Do you need a rest from the day-to-day struggles? Do you just need a cooling-off period? Or time to heal from hurts so you can find a way to reconciliation? Or are you living through a dress rehearsal of divorce? Are you trying to discover if it’s better with or without your spouse? Be honest with each other about what you want from a trial separation.

Do Trial Separations Work? Nancy'S Counseling Corner

Establish Common Sense Guidelines.

  • End Date. The most obvious thing to establish is, how long should your trial separation last? Talk about how long you’ll both need to make a decision about getting back together or making a permanent split. You need enough time to contemplate, but not so much time that you’re bound to drift apart. Six months is fairly arbitrary, but it’s a pretty good time frame if you both agree to it.
  • Living Arrangements. When one of you moves out, the other will hold down the fort. So what are the rules about coming and going? Will the spouse living elsewhere have to make an appointment to come home? Will he need to ring the doorbell? If this sounds petty, it is just the sort of thing that can irritate. So agree to protect each other’s privacy and how you’ll do it.
  • Household Chores. Who pays the bills? Who gets the guy to come and clean the gutters? How will you manage the expense of a second apartment? And speaking of expenses, if you shared them, will you continue? Who can use what credit cards? Who has access to what bank accounts? Figure out how you’ll operate financially during your separation.
  • Sex Life. Will you see other people? This is a tricky subject requiring absolute honesty. You both have to be on the same page here, although this is an area that’s often lopsided. One person says he wants to be open to trying new relationships while his partner does not. When you put sex into the equation, it becomes even trickier. Because having sex with a third party can put the other spouse at health risks. And sex with someone else can drive a permanent wedge that is difficult, if not impossible, to repair. Also, think about the issue of having sex with each other while you’re separated.
  • If you have kids, you have a whole extra dimension to think about. What will you tell the children about your situation? How will you parent while separated? Who will be responsible for what care? How will you handle your separation to do the least damage to your kids? How can you ensure they feel loved and secure? Develop a visitation schedule. Plan what you’ll say to them when you explain your separation to them. Make sure you have rules about not bad-mouthing each other. Think about how your children will react and what you can do to make this as least painful as possible.
  • How will you communicate with each other during the separation? Maybe you will touch base once a week or maybe you’ll text several times a day. You’ll need to stay in touch—especially if you have kids—but the whole point is to be alone for a bit. And what will you tell family and friends? You should think about what you will tell people before you’re caught by surprise. And you may want to coordinate your answer with your spouse.
  • Professional Help. When you’re separated, you may find that a therapist can help you sort out your thoughts. You may also want to seek legal advice or financial counseling. Third-party expertise can help you find a path forward.


Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here:



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