5 Golden Rules For A Productive Trial Separation

The idea of trying a trial separation can be daunting. Being sure to weigh the benefits and risks and set clear rules and boundaries will help.

couple about to start a trial separation BearFotos / Shutterstock

Trial separations are often misunderstood due to the lack of clear rules and the legal informality of it all.

The legal definition of a trial separation doesn't offer much guidance, so if you don't set clear objectives for repairing your marriage while separated, things can get messy.

What is a trial separation?

A trial separation is simply an informal agreement where a couple decides to live apart for a specific period of time. It's a step below a legal separation because there's no paperwork involved. The most basic goal of any separation is to give the couple space and time in their relationship to decide on future action, particularly in saving the marriage without undue influence from each other.


Do trial separations work?

Whether or not a trial separation works depends on what your goals are. Dr. John Gottman, world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, found that trial separations can be effective if couples “honestly evaluate the relationship, work on themselves, and work on the relationship."

RELATED: 5 Things To Know Before Separating From Your Husband Or Wife (That Could Save Your Marriage)


What percentage of trial separations end in divorce?

According to a research study out of Ohio State University, 79% of trial separations eventually end in divorce, with reconciliation typically happening within two years of the separation. The numbers are definitely stacked against a trial separation saving your marriage, but if you can follow the rules outlined above, you might find yourself in the 21% who made their marriage work.

Is there any point to a trial separation?

A trial separation may be a good idea when you've hit a wall in your arguments, have personal issues you need to work on, or are considering divorce but remain unsure about it.

According to relationship coach Keith Dent, by the end of the separation period, each spouse should be able to answer these four questions based on the pain/gain model of action:

  1. What is missing from my marriage and what needs to happen in order for us reconcile?
  2. How have I benefited from the trial separation?
  3. What will I lose if we remain separated?
  4. What will I gain if we remain separated?

How does a trial separation work?

During a trial separation, what you do beyond living separately is entirely up to you. Your trial separation checklist should include boundaries around communication and visits in your separation agreement and decide on a timeframe for the separation period that fits your needs.


5 Golden Rules for a Productive Trial Separation

1. Determine a time frame for how long your separation will last.

The break should have a specific time attached to it so it doesn't just drag on without any conclusion. The time should ideally be between three and six months so a sense of urgency and sincerity is retained, especially where children are involved.

The longer the separation continues, as people settle into their new routine, the harder it is to get back to the old life. Any separation that drags on will gradually turn into two new and separate lifestyles.

2. Set clear boundaries.

It's important to know the rules of the separation — what is acceptable, what isn't. Write these rules out and stick to them.

A good rule to start with is no dating during the separation period. Once separated, some people will see the break as a license to look and an opportunity for them to start new relationships.


Lisa Rabinowitz, a Gottman Certified couples therapist, suggests keeping a no-dating rule in order to make the trial separation successful. "When you become emotionally, romantically, or physically involved with someone outside your marriage, you will be unable to focus on the important issues in your current relationship and will destroy any trust that you have between you and your spouse."

RELATED: Is It OK To Date While Separated From Your Spouse?

3. Remain committed to couples therapy throughout your separation.

There should be communication between the couple, with regular times to meet — either with or without a counselor — so that progress can be made toward reconciliation.

Communication can be difficult, as couples are likely to blame each other and recount past behavior rather than finding solutions to steer a better course together. There's usually very little listening as a couple plays the blame game.


However, separation can be a useful time to step back and try to understand the other person and their concerns. If the other person is doing the same, a better understanding of the underlying problems and how they can be sorted is likely to be reached with much less acrimony.

4. Plan for financial obligations ahead of time.

There should be clear agreement about what happens to the finances during a separation, with equal sharing of resources and children adequately taken care of.

Running two households is likely to be more expensive. Deciding who pays the bills in advance will help you avoid further arguments.

How the finances will work should be agreed upon before the separation takes place so the person left with the children doesn't bear the brunt of any financial burden that might ensue.


5. Decide if you will remain intimate with each other during your separation.

Whether you will have sex and if you will spend time with one another is paramount. The couple should reach a clear agreement as to the amount and intensity of intimacy between them during the separation.

It's better not to engage in sexual interaction while separated, mainly because it tends to cloud the issues and will delay the conclusion, especially if one person is still getting what they want without having to sort out any issues.

RELATED: 3 Very Necessary Steps To Take Before Dating After Separation

Benefits of Trying a Trial Separation

1. A separation gives you both time and space to work on personal issues.

A lot of marital issues stem from the personal issues each spouse has carried into the relationship. Separation can give you both the time and space you need to address those issues and bring your best selves back to the marriage.


2. It can serve as cooling-off period.

Trying to work out marital problems in the heat of the moment after arguing isn't the best idea. A trial separation allows you to regain composure and cool off before communicating with your spouse again.

It will give you the time you need to figure out how to say what you really mean, without letting anger cloud your judgment.

3. It may prevent a premature divorce.

Like marriage, divorce is not something you want to rush into. A trial separation can help you stop and think through things thoroughly before you make an expensive and life-altering decision.

4. Absence may make the heart grow fonder.

While you're apart, you'll be able to notice all the things your partner does that make you happy more clearly. Separation can give you a newfound appreciation for your spouse.


5. It offers you a trial run of life apart.

A trial separation is exactly what it sounds like — a trial run of separation. You can see how well you both do while living apart and figure out if you are codependent and 'need' your spouse or genuinely want them in your life.

RELATED: Why A Separation May Save Your Marriage

Risks of Trying a Trial Separation

1. You might grow apart.

When living apart, there's always a risk of growing apart. As you both try out living independent lives, one or both of you might realize your newfound freedom nourishes your soul in a way that living with your partner never could.

2. It might make you more confident about moving forward with divorce.

If you go into a trial separation knowing a divorce is sure to follow, things will only be more painful in the long run.


Do yourself and your spouse a favor and don't drag out divorce by having a trial separation before filing. It's not a good way to ease into a divorce if one partner is sure they want one. Rip off the Bandaid and just divorce if you're sure that's what you want and need.

3. Not everything can be solved with distance.

Some issues, like financial woes or lack of intimacy, are hard to address while apart. Trial separations don't fit all circumstances and can even make some marital problems worse.

4. Trial separations can be hard on kids.

Everything gets messier when kids are involved. A trial separation can be very confusing to your kids and often just as devastating as an actual divorce.

5. It makes it harder to keep your marital issues private.

Living apart isn't something you can hide from friends and family. You'll get a lot of questions about your trial separation, and the extra spotlight on your marriage could exasperate tensions between you and your spouse.


The separation will be more successful in its objectives if it's regarded as such. If it's treated as a continuation of the relationship, or as a time for both parties to act like single people, not much can be achieved from that.

There will simply be more of the same behavior without any conclusion and divorce is likely to follow.

RELATED: The 50 Best Marriage Tips Of All Time, From 50 Marriage Experts

Elaine Sihera is a contributor to YourTango.