The Valley of Indecision: Trial Separation

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Diagram showing the word divorce in the middle with 2 choices coming out of it, yes or noA trial separation can have a lot of appeal for a couple thinking about divorcing. Sometimes it’s hard to finally admit that a marriage is actually over. At their consultation with me, they inquire how they can work out financials or parenting plans while they “just spend some time apart to see what happens.”

If you come to me to negotiate a trial separation, I certainly can help you sort things out. But the most important thing for the two of you to clarify is what your actual intentions are.

The key question is, what additional data are you looking for to make the decision of whether to keep or end your marriage?

Trial Separations Are Hard on the Children

As hard as limbo is on adults, it’s even harder on children. If children believe there is a chance that Mom and Dad may reunite, they try to intervene. They may not understand or even be aware of any rules set between the parents about what will or won’t happen during the separation. Children calibrate their parents’ behavior and end up angry at one or both of them. Why can’t Dad stay for dinner? How come Mom isn’t coming to the show? They become confused and frustrated.

Marriage Counseling May Be Required

Initially, time spent apart may feel good and relaxing. It’s a break from the ever-present tension and difficult conversations. If the couple believes they may be able to reconnect, I recommend they work with a marriage counselor. The truth is, if problems could be solved on your own, you would have solved them. A marriage counselor can guide honest sharing in a manner that lets you hear each other.

Ground Rules

What I emphasize is that more than financial and parenting ground rules need to be established. Emotional and behavior ground rules are essential. Otherwise, assumptions will sabotage any chance of reuniting.

For example, one might say to the other: “If you thought that ignoring me was going to get us back together, well, think again.” And the responder says: “I wasn’t ignoring you, I was just giving you space.” These are two very different interpretations on how to live separately.

During a period of trial separation, couples have to be clear about their decisions regarding these questions:

  • Do you want to “date” each other?
  • Will you be intimate with each other?
  • Will you date others? Be intimate with others?
  • Will we discuss our difficulties during this time? What topics will we discuss?
  • Will it be OK to ask about each other’s feelings?
  • Will you attend family events like weddings and birthdays together?
  • What are you telling the children?
  • What are you telling your friends and family? Your bosses and co-workers?

As the couple ponders this list, they become aware of how difficult “I assumed” can be. It’s clear that if the answers to these sorts of questions are not clarified, then the spouses are very likely to end up angrier, sadder, and more disappointed than before the trial separation took place.

Postponing the Hard Decision

Sometimes a trial separation is really just postponing the inevitable. It’s scary making the decision to end a marriage. People become emotionally paralyzed and think that the valley of indecision is better than a decision.

Parents may think that this final research step is gentler for children, but, in fact, it’s disruptive and promotes anxiety. The emotional roller coaster of indecision is hard on everyone. If you decide on a trial separation, define your process and rules and agree on a deadline for the separation. Consider marriage counseling during that period. Then, make a decision; avoid temporary solutions.

If you have explored your relationship through counseling and reached an impasse, or if you both know that your marriage is over, it’s time to decide which path you will take regarding divorce. I have other blog posts that may help:

  1. How to Begin the End of Your Marriage
  2. The Big Decision: How to Start a Divorce


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Photo credit: © Can Stock Photo / fuzzbones

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