A trial separation is a step many struggling couples take to determine the future of their marriage. The basic goal of the separation is to give each other time to clarify thoughts and gain perspective, before being forced to share those thoughts and feelings with your spouse. However, trial separations can be one step closer to divorce if the intent is not clearly understood by both spouses.
I advise couples who are considering a trial separation to use a separation agreement. This way, each spouse has transparency in what they are seeking to achieve.
Clarity and understanding will help you both best determine the next steps in your relationship. So, in a spirit of cooperation, sit down with your spouse over coffee or lunch, and talk about these five items:
Clearly Stated Reason for Separation. Both agree that things are not going well and need to improve, and both agree that a trial separation is the next step, but it is helpful to have an agreed upon statement that clearly defines the reason for the separation. This well-worded statement will act as a mission statement for the separation, and give both spouses a sense of peace as to why they are taking this step.
Length of Separation. Most couples feel that at least three months is needed to begin to clear the mind and determine the future of the relationship. But it is important that you both agree on the time before the separation begins. Having conflict over the duration of the separation may undermine its effectiveness altogether, so it is important to come to agreement. Also, set a date and a place to meet at the end of the trial period to discuss the next step, whether is it getting back together or continued separation.
Set Clear Boundaries. How often you will see each other? What is the preferred mode of contact (phone, text, email)? Can we visit each other at our separate residences? If there are children involved, how do we navigate visitations and transferring children to the other parent? Agreeing on these matters will avoid conflict during the separation. I recommend that couples agree to not have sex during the separation, so that each person can stay focused on sorting out their own issues. If you remain intimate, it could cloud your thinking or be a quick fix to feeling lonely. Also, I strongly advise not to date anyone else during separation. Doing so would only add more complications to already existing issues, and make finding solutions to marital problems much more complicated.
Therapy and/or Coaching. In order to accomplish the goals of the separation, therapy or coaching is always a good idea, either as a couple or individually. A good therapist or coach will be able to help you clarify concerns and enact a suitable treatment plan to address those concerns. Also, a good therapist or coach can help you determine if the differences are irreconcilable.
Address Financial Obligations. During the separation, financial obligations need to be maintained. In addition, having two separate residences will probably add to the financial burden. It is important to decide how bills are paid separately or together so one spouse does not incur the brunt of financial obligations.
If the goal of a trial separation is to determine individual and marital issues and how they are to be addressed, a clearly defined separation agreement can help you avoid unforeseen pitfalls and help you achieve your goals. Hopefully, it can be a useful tool to help each spouse understand the challenges of the marriage.