Do Trial Separations Work?

Can a relationship benefit from taking a break? It all comes down to outlining clear intentions, communication, and goals.

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During the initial stages of couples therapy, a question that clients often ask me is, “Do you think we should separate?” My answer is usually, “It depends on your goals.” 

Before proceeding in therapy, it’s important for couples to understand the difference between a trial separation and a legal separation. A trial separation is an informal agreement between two spouses to live apart and there are no legal agreements, judges, or lawyers involved. This is time spent living apart and agreeing to evaluate their feelings toward each other and intentions at the end of the time period. 

However, during a legal separation, a couple who decides to live apart will use an attorney to draw up a legal separation agreement. Typically, it  outlines issues such as child custody, who pays the bills, and where they will reside during the separation.

For some couples, a trial separation makes sense because they use can use the time to honestly evaluate the relationship, work on themselves, and work on the relationship. This is especially true if one or both partners have experienced trauma or has substance abuse issues. Keep in mind, it’s highly beneficial for couples to have a timetable for the separation period and to agree upon goals.

Most of the couples who consider a trial separation have grown weary of ongoing struggles and they feel too overwhelmed to make a decision about staying together or splitting up. 

For instance, Lauren*, 43, and Justin*, 45, have been married for sixteen years and they feel challenged with the demands of raising three children, busy careers, financial stress, and ongoing communication difficulties due to the differences in their upbringing, personalities, and parenting styles.

Lauren put it like this: “Justin is a police officer who has experienced a lot of trauma at his job and previously while serving in the army while on active duty in Afghanistan. During the early years of our marriage, he was deployed twice and we never really got to know each other. Then, when each of our children was born, he was overseas and I was on my own. Now that Justin’s home, we’re like strangers and he’s always criticizing how I do things, making me feel inadequate as a wife and parent.”

Justin reflects, “I know things have been hard on Lauren with me being gone and now I work a lot of nights and have an intense job where I witness a lot of crime, even death. When I get home, I’m completely spent and it’s annoying when Lauren doesn’t set limits on our kids. They stay up too late, watch too much TV, and she doesn’t always cook dinner. The other day, she asked me to cook after I’d been up half the night so she could go out with a girlfriend.”

Interventions that can help couples reach their goals

If a couple assesses their commitment and decides their relationship is worth saving, a cooling-off period of about six months, while living apart, can help couples work through negative emotions about their marriage or their spouse. Couples therapy can be beneficial for partners who want to learn how to identify their core needs, negotiate, and agree on the goal of a planned separation to improve their ability to communicate and influence each other.

One highly effective method of facilitating active listening between couples, including those who are negotiating a trial separation, is the Gottman-Rapoport Intervention. The goal of the method is to help couples to honestly discuss their feelings and beliefs about an issue without blaming or criticizing each other. A therapist serves as a guide who assists a couple who talk and attempt to accurately reflect back to each other what they heard. 

For instance, a therapist could ask both Lauren and Justin to have a conversation about their vision for the future of their marriage while they practice listening attentively and giving each other feedback. When both partners feel understood, they will be better prepared to work out the terms for their trial separation.

Another beneficial way of assisting Lauren and Justin in understanding each other, problem-solving, and compromising while working out the terms of a trial separation, is to identify their core needs by using the Two-Oval Compromise method. 

The Gottmans recommend drawing two ovals on a piece of paper, a small one and a big one around the smaller one. They refer to this as a “compromise bagel.” Next, they suggest that couples fill in the smaller oval with the needs they can’t live without. These are the inflexible areas. Therapists can help couples keep this short by including only the needs that are essential to their happiness and relationship success. 

Next, in the larger oval, a couple lists aspects of their position that are negotiable or flexible. This doesn’t mean that they are willing to give up the need. Rather they’re open to being fluid about how they can achieve it (time, place, methods, etc.). For instance, Lauren might include going out with her friends in the inflexible (small area) of the oval but be willing to write “I can live with going out with my friends twice a month” in the flexible (large area) of the compromise bagel.

On the other hand, Justin might include putting their kids in bed by 9pm in the inflexible (small area) but be willing to write “I’m OK with them staying up till 10pm on weekend nights.” By identifying their core needs and ways they’re willing to compromise, Lauren and Justin show a willingness to work towards a productive trial separation. 

Should Lauren and Justin consider a trial separation?

By using constructive methods of enhancing attunement, such as The Gottman-Rapoport Intervention and The Two Oval Compromise method, a skilled couples therapist could assist Lauren and Justin in the process of beginning to compromise, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and building a loving relationship, whether or not they decide to attempt a trial separation. 

Rather than focusing on finding fault with one another, Lauren and Justin might reconnect regarding the shared meaning that brought them together in the first place and decide to renew their commitment to their marriage. Or, if during couples therapy they decide that a trial separation would be beneficial, a therapist’s role is to help them map out the guidelines. If a temporary separation is done in the right way and for the right reasons, and there are clear agreements, it can help couples gain perspective on their relationship and actually strengthen it. 

According to author Tinatin Japaeridze, what some refer to as one’s “need for space from a partner” is a legitimate cry for just that—space. She posits that both men and women sometimes need quiet time to find what’s vital to their relationship and a planned marital separation can sometimes save a marriage.

However, marital separation can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can allow a couple time to deal with the issues that are pulling them apart without the emotional intensity that comes with living together. If planned in a thoughtful way, they can agree to meet regularly with a couples therapist to work on their issues and air their grievances. Implied in this approach is the hope that the relationship might repair and continue if both partners are on the same page. Some refer to this break time as pressing pause, rather than the stop button.

But in some cases, time apart can cause you to further detach from your partner and be disappointed when you reunite and find that the same patterns of annoying behaviors exist. This is especially true if one or both of you don’t take responsibility for your part in the breakdown of the relationship or is unwilling to attend therapy sessions. Further, taking a break might cause individuals to ruminate about their problems and strategize their next move rather than using the time apart to repair their relationship. 

8 Tips for a Trial Separation:

  1. Be specific, honest, and vulnerable about your concerns and what the break will look like. Don’t worry about pleasing your partner. This is the time to assert your needs.
  2. Set boundaries and expectations. This includes ground rules and expectations such as talking about the duration of the break. Discussing the following questions will help you set boundaries. Is it acceptable for you to text or call each other daily? Is it okay to have sexual intimacy with each other? Is it okay to stop by each other’s residence unannounced?
  3. Make an agreement to have regular therapy sessions. Focusing on working on your relationship patterns will greatly enhance your chances for success. Your therapist can help you decide how often you should see each other, if sexual activity is acceptable, etc.
  4. Don’t assume that your partner wants the same things that you do. Remind yourself that your relationship broke up for a reason and people don’t change overnight.
  5. Talk to your children honestly but don’t give them too much information or false hope. If your children are younger than age twelve say something like: “Mommy and Daddy need time to figure out how to get along better so we’re going to try living apart. We both love you and will make sure that you see a lot of both of us.” Kids older than twelve can handle a little more information, such as: “We’re not sure if we’re going to work things out but we want to give it a try.” Never express negativity about their other parent or bad mouth them.
  6. Don’t date other people while you’re living apart. It’s impossible to build trust—an essential aspect of intimacy—if you’re romantically or sexually involved with someone else.
  7. Recharge your battery and take time to learn more about yourself so you can view your relationship with a fresh perspective.
  8. Stay optimistic and connected with your partner. It’s important to stay in touch with your partner in old and new ways such as cards, letters, and/or a weekly dinner out. A planned separation needs to be a reprieve from bickering, disagreements, and frequent communication.

According to Susan Pease Gadoua, L.C.S.W., author of Contemplating Divorce,  a break can be a healthy antidote for many couples who make a commitment to working on their relationship with the intention of dealing with the issues that divide them. The phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder” characterizes couples who don’t have extremely high conflict or abuse and are receptive to therapy to work on ways to improve communication and increase positive interactions. A trial separation can give you and your partner a chance to respect one another’s view of your problems—even if you feel that they’re wrong or shouldn’t feel the way they do. 

One thing is almost certain. If you and your partner are not willing to compromise, then the relationship isn’t likely to improve. However, if your marriage doesn’t seem to be meeting one or both of your needs, agreeing to take a break might be a good way to work on your issues individually. And if you’re in a long-term relationship, you might believe your investment of time and energy into the relationship is a good reason to try to work things out.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW is a licensed therapist and author. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, TheGoodMenProject, The Gottman Institute Blog, and Marriage.com. Her new book, out now, is THE REMARRIAGE MANUAL: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around. Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com.

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