Could a Trial Separation Actually Save Your Marriage?

Couple contemplates a trial separation.

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Have you ever wondered if a trial separation might be just what you and your partner need to improve your relationship? If so, you’re not alone.

Some couples who are struggling (perhaps even thinking about divorce) agree to a trial separation. They hope that spending some time apart might help them come back together in a healthier way.

Or if they’re considering divorce, they feel a trial separation could give them a little insight into what it would be like to live apart before making the decision.

But many people argue that spending time apart is bound to break down an already strained relationship.

What Is a Trial Separation?

A trial separation is different from a legal separation. When couples get legally separated, there are lawyers involved in determining how money is divided or how custody is arranged. In a trial separation, it’s up to the couple to create an informal agreement together. In addition, most couples:

  • Live apart during a trial separation.
  • Decide how to pay the bills and split the money in any way they see fit.
  • Decide where children and pets will reside, if applicable.
  • Work together on determining who will manage the assets.

For some, a trial separation may be a stepping stone toward divorce. For others, it can be a cooling-off period that allows them to work on issues without the emotional intensity they experience while living together.

Potential Benefits

Separating on a trial basis could have some benefits for your relationship. These benefits may include:

  • You have time to work on yourself. Whether you want to improve your frustration tolerance, or you want to address a substance abuse problem, you might find you’re better able to work on yourself when your partner isn’t living in the same home.
  • You can work on your responses to your partner. You might exhibit behaviors that bring out the worst in your partner. Nagging, lecturing, or belittling them may be a huge source of conflict. Living apart could give you the chance to learn how to stop doing these things.
  • You might appreciate your partner more. It’s easy to take someone for granted when you’re together all the time. You might recognize how much your partner means to you when you aren’t together as much.
  • You get a chance to cool down. If you’re really upset about something your partner did (like have an affair or lie to you), being apart can give you a chance to calm down and heal a bit before you try to work on your issues.
  • You get a glimpse of what life would be like apart. You might daydream about the freedom of being single at times. Or you may have questioned what life would be like if you were divorced. A trial separation gives you a little insight into what life without your partner in the home is actually like.

Potential Risks

Trial separations can do more harm than good in some cases. Here are the potential risks:

  • You might grow apart. You might discover that you start building a life more conducive to being single, which could make reunification even more difficult.
  • It’s not a good way to let someone down gently. If you’re positive you want a divorce, don’t use a trial separation as a way to ease your partner into the transition more gently. It’ll just prolong their pain, and they may end up doing a lot of hard work for nothing.
  • Problems might not get resolved. If you’re struggling with specific issues, like trust or money, being apart can make it even more difficult to address these issues.
  • Your situation will become more public. You might not yet be ready to talk about the strain in your relationship. But friends and family members may have a lot of questions about why you’re living apart.
  • Kids may be confused. A trial separation can be tough on kids who don’t understand what’s going on. They may think you’re divorcing (or that you got divorced), and being away from one parent is likely to be difficult for them.

How to Make a Trial Separation Work for You

If you want to make a trial separation effective, it’s important to take steps that will give your relationship a real chance. Here are some things you may want to do:

  • Seek professional help. A couples counselor or another qualified third party can give you objective information about how to improve your relationship. Just make sure you are willing to work on yourself (rather than simply trying to fix your partner).
  • Be clear on your expectations. Talk about what you think the separation will look like. Will you still go on dates? Will you attend events with extended family together? What will you share with family and friends? Talking about these issues ahead of time can prevent a lot of problems.
  • Decide when and how to communicate. It’s important to be on the same page about communication. Will you call every day? Do you plan to talk a couple of times each week? Will you text throughout the day? Discuss this ahead of time to determine what frequency is likely to be best for this stage of your relationship.
  • Talk openly about money. Living separately means you may need to divide up the money differently. Who will be responsible for each bill? Will you maintain a joint bank account? Will you help one another financially? Discuss how you can work together to manage your financial situation to prevent hurting one another with money when you’re apart.
  • Establish goals. Talk about how you hope a trial separation can help you. Do you hope to heal an old wound? Are you hopeful that being apart will help improve your communication or your intimacy? Discuss your goals openly with one another.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re thinking of a trial separation, it may be a good idea to talk to a professional first. A counselor might be able to help you create a plan (before one of you actually moves out) that can help make your trial separation effective.

If you’ve already separated, reach out for help as soon as you can. If your partner refuses to see a therapist, see one on your own. Talking to someone can still be beneficial even if your partner doesn’t attend.

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