Sammy Jo (Diffendaffer) Allen, M.S., LMFT
Trial Separation: Is it the Beginning to the End?
While taking time apart from one another can be both healthy and beneficial to a couple's relationship, there are many couples who never reunite after a separation period. Whether that means the couple maintains an ambiguous and indefinite separation or decides to carry on with divorce, the outcome CAN place additional distance between partners that never goes away. On the other hand, carefully thought out and structured time apart in the form of a trial separation can sometimes be exactly what a couple needs in order to reflect, reorganize, and ultimately reignite the intimacy in their relationship. If you and your spouse are in need of a "hard reset," read below for the best approach to healing your relationship through a period of separation.
Trial Separations Done Right
Even under ideal conditions, the outcome of a trial separation may end up with a result you were not hoping for between you and your spouse, but below are some tips on giving your separation the best chance for both reconciliation and success.
Communicate clearly about each of your expectations (or "rules") for the separation. If conversations between you and your partner escalate to the point of being ineffective, you may consider soliciting the help of a marriage counselor or certified mediator to assist you both in establishing an agreement. Clear, mutual agreements, as well as respect from both parties of those mutual agreements, are the keys to successfully navigating a trial separation.
Set a time limit for the separation. There is no magical time frame for which a trial separation "should exist," however, couples must be realistic regarding the depth and complexity of their existing conflict. A couple should prepare to give themselves time to both self-reflect and also to begin at least loosely forming new pattern before making a final decision to "move in" or "move out" for good.
Make mental and physical health a priority. Separation can be a very stressful and isolating time for an individual, but maintaining healthy social routines with your children (if you have them) and other adults is especially important during a separation. It's certainly O.K. to take advantage of opportunities for solitude and reflection, (especially when your children are under the care of your spouse) however it is important to be aware of any propensities toward substance abuse, social isolation, or other poor health behaviors that can develop following a separation or divorce.
Reassure any children involved that they are safe and that both of their attachment figures will remain available to them throughout the separation. Discuss the positive aspects of the separation, such as you and your spouse taking time for personal growth and your hopes of working together better in the end, but refrain from any negative speech or blaming of the other parent regarding questions about why the separation is happening (even if you are unhappy about the separation). If asked, it is important to be honest with children that divorce IS a possible outcome, but to assure them that you and your spouse are both striving to be a better couple.
While these are not the ONLY important aspects to successfully navigating a period of separation, the content items listed above are foundational pieces that should be a part of every trial separation. It is also important to note that often, the same type of self-reflection and healing CAN occur between couples without a physical separation, however respect of one another's needs for space and newly established boundaries may be more difficult to uphold while living in the same space. It is ideal for partners to maintain both individual and couples counseling sessions during a period of separation as these sessions can help to alleviate anxiety or fears about the outcome and purpose of the separation.