Your marriage isn’t going well. … Okay, your marriage pretty much sucks. But the thought of getting a divorce is terrifying! You’re not even sure you want a divorce. You just want your marriage to change. You want your life to change. Maybe a trial separation will help.
The problem is, everything you’ve heard about trial separations is bad. People say that a trial separation is the first step toward divorce. They say it’s the beginning of the end. Although, the way your marriage is going, you’re afraid that the end is already closer than you want.
Before you throw in the towel on your marriage or rush into a trial separation you may later regret, it helps to understand exactly what a trial separation is, and is not. It also helps to know how to structure your trial separation to give it the best chance possible of actually working.
What is a Trial Separation?
The term “trial separation” has been defined as everything from “an informal splitting of a couple.” to “an experiment in living apart.” What a trial separation feels like is the end of your world … or a chance to finally breathe, depending on where you sit.
But that’s what makes trial separations so tricky.
Most of the time, only one person really wants to separate. The other person wants to stay together and work things out. That’s why setting the ground rules in a trial separation is so important.
Setting out your separation rules (preferably BEFORE you separate) can make the difference between a trial separation that saves your marriage, and one that ends it.
What’s the Difference Between a Trial Separation and a Legal Separation?
A trial separation and a legal separation are totally different things. Understanding the difference between a trial separation and a legal separation is critical. Why?
Because one can save your marriage. The other effectively ends it, in all but the legal sense.
A true trial separation isn’t just the thing that happens when one spouse decides to move out of the marital home. A real trial separation is a conscious arrangement both spouses agree to before anyone moves out.
In a real trial separation, both spouses talk to each other about their expectations and the ground rules for their separation before they separate. In a perfect world, they lay out their expectations and their rules in writing.
Regardless of whether their rules of separation are written or not, though, a trial separation is still an informal arrangement. It doesn’t require lawyers. You don’t go to court to put it in place.
A legal separation is much different. A legal separation is an actual legal change in status. It is much like a divorce, except that your marriage technically doesn’t end.
In a legal separation, a couple will divide up their personal property. They will make formal agreements regarding when and how they will see and parent their children. They will also agree on child and spousal support.
True legal separations are much rarer than they used to be. In the past, they were used by spouses who needed to stay married in order for both of them to keep health insurance. Spouses who want to stay married for religious reasons may also choose a legal separation instead of a divorce.
To get a legal separation, you must go to court. You also should have a lawyer.
Does a Trial Separation Always End in Divorce?
Trial separations get a bad rap.
Lots of trial separations, maybe even most of them, ultimately end in divorce. But that’s often because the person who says they want a trial separation really wants a divorce. S/he just doesn’t have the balls to tell his/her spouse that their marriage is over.
So, instead of being honest, the spouse who really wants a divorce suggests having a “trial separation” instead.
Not surprisingly, that kind of trial separation usually does end in divorce. That couple’s marriage was over long before they separated. They just weren’t ready to sign the death certificate.
Trial separations between couples who need some time apart to work on their marriage, however, can have a much different result. Those kinds of trial separations can actually strengthen a marriage – especially if the couple gets the right professional support to help them along.
If you’re thinking of a trial separation, and you honestly want to try to save your marriage if you can, then how you manage your trial separation matters … a lot!
Managing your trial separation properly starts with creating a structure that will give you the best chance for success. To do that, you need three things:
- Rules; and
The 3 Things You MUST Agree on If You Want Your Trial Separation to Work
#1. GOALS: You Must Agree on Your Goals (… or at least be honest about them!)
If you think you’re separating to work on your marriage, but your spouse thinks you’re separating so you can figure out how to live apart, you clearly don’t have the same goals!
Knowing your goals, and agreeing on WHY you’re separating and what you hope to achieve by separating before you actually separate is critically important. If you don’t do that, you risk dooming your trial separation from the start.
Even if your trial separation goes along swimmingly, once your spouse discovers that you “were less than honest” about what you wanted when you separated, all the good you did during your time apart is going to go down the drain.
So, how do you agree on your goals? You start by deciding what you want and talking about it with your spouse. If you don’t know what you want, that’s fine. But if you’re leaning more toward divorce than reconciliation, tell your spouse that!
Will your honesty propel your marriage into divorce? Maybe. But, if it does, your marriage was already on life support anyway!
#2. RULES: You Must Agree on the Rules of Your Separation
One of the main things that differentiate a trial separation from separations that are really unofficial divorces is rules. Real trial separations have rules. If possible, those rules should be in writing.
Here are twelve rules you need to establish if you want your trial separation to work.
12 Rules for a Successful Trial Separation
1. Have a clear end date.
Trial separations are meant to be exactly that: trials. They are meant to be a time during which a couple works on figuring out whether to stay together or split for good.
In order to keep your trial separation from morphing into a de facto divorce, you’ve got to put a limit on it.
Most trial separations run for about six months. If you’re apart too much longer than that, your chances of ever getting back together diminish enormously.
2. Figure out your living arrangements.
Obviously, if you and your spouse decide to separate, someone is going to have to move out. You need to figure out who that will be.
But, you also need to decide the rules surrounding your original home. Can the person who left come and go as s/he pleases? Since both you and your spouse still own (or lease) the home together, the spouse who left may still feel like that’s his/her home, too. But, then what about the staying spouse’s privacy?
It helps to set out the house rules on the front end.
3. Decide how you will pay the bills while you’re apart.
When you’re living apart, you’ve still got to pay all of the marital bills, plus the bills for a second apartment.
How are you going to do that? Who is going to pay for what?
If you don’t set rules about paying the bills from the beginning, your trial separation can turn into a full-blown divorce really quickly!
4. Set your spending rules during the trial separation.
Paying the bills isn’t the only financial issue you have to think about when you separate.
What if one of you wants to take an expensive trip to some exotic place while you’re living apart? S/he will still be using marital money to pay for the trip. Does that mean that the other spouse gets to take the same amount of money out for something for him/herself too?!
What if one spouse runs up a huge credit card bill? It’s wise to set limits on your spending from the beginning before you create long term financial problems.
5. Talk about dating during the trial separation.
Dating other people during your trial separation can make your struggling marriage totally flat line.
On the other hand, since you and your spouse will be living separately for a while, one of you may assume that dating others is part of your deal. That’s why you and your spouse have to talk about the rules surrounding dating others.
What’s more, you MUST be on the same page about this. Either you both agree that dating other people is okay or you don’t date. (Obviously, you also need to honor your agreement, too.)
6. What about sex? (… with each other and with others.)
Dating other people is one thing, but sex takes dating to a whole new level.
Having sex with third parties affects your spouse’s health. It also dramatically increases the chances that one of you will form a more serious relationship outside of your marriage. Once that happens, putting your marriage back on track will be next to impossible.
If you think your spouse would never dream of doing that, ask! You may be surprised to discover that you and your spouse have very different definitions of “dating.” (And, if thinking about your spouse having sex with someone else makes you crazy, can your spouse still have sex with you? Hmmm.)
7. Set a schedule for when each of you will see the kids.
Once you and your spouse separate, you can’t both be with your kids all the time anymore. You’re going to need a schedule for when each of you sees the kids.
Look at your schedule for the next six months (or whatever time you have agreed on to be separated). Talk about when you will each see the kids on a weekly basis. Talk, too, about how you will handle any holidays or vacations that come up while you are separated.
(HINT: If you want to give your kids a feeling of security and stability during this period, make sure that you also let them know in advance what their schedule is going to be!)
8. Decide how you’re going to parent your kids during your separation.
Making a parenting schedule is only one small part of parenting your kids.
You and your spouse need to agree on what you are going to tell your kids about your separation. You need to talk about how you will make decisions about your kids, and how you will handle the issues that always come up with kids.
For example, who gets to decide what activities the kids participate in? What happens when the kids try to play you off your spouse or vice versa?
The more you can figure out in advance, the smoother this time will be for your kids.
9. Set rules for how and how often you will communicate with each other.
This may seem like a silly thing to waste your brainpower on. But, if you think you’re separating so you can get some space to think, you may not want your spouse texting you 347 times a day!
Or, you may be okay with texts, but you don’t want calls. Or maybe calling is okay, but “just dropping by” to visit isn’t okay.
Whatever you and your spouse decide is up to you. What’s important is that you decide something.
10. Get professional help while you’re separated.
You don’t need to go to couples counseling just because you and your spouse separated. But, if you want to dramatically increase the chances that your trial separation will end in reconciliation, you will. (Getting an individual therapist wouldn’t be a bad idea either!)
Also, you might want to talk about whether it’s okay to talk to a divorce lawyer or a financial planner during this time. You may think talking to a divorce professional at this point is wise. Your spouse may think it’s a sign that you have no faith in your marriage.
There is no right and wrong decision. Again, you just need to make one.
11. Decide what you will (and won’t!) tell your friends and family about your separation.
Unless you live thousands of miles from all of your friends and family, someone is going to notice that you and your spouse are no longer living together.
If you tell an inquiring friend that you and your spouse are “just taking a breather,” and your spouse tells that friend that s/he is now “almost single,” you’re going to have a problem! (And, not just with your friend!)
Take the time to write a short “elevator speech” that both you and your spouse can get on board with now. That will make answering questions later a whole lot easier.
12. Decide in advance what will happen if someone breaks the rules.
You can have all the rules you want, but what are you going to do if you or your spouse breaks one?
Does it matter which rule someone broke? Will you agree to talk about what happened before anyone does anything rash? Or, will breaking a rule be the last straw that ends your marriage?
Again, there are no right or wrong answers. What matters is talking about the questions, preferably before you’re in crisis.
# 3. HONESTY: You Must Be Honest (With Your Spouse AND With Yourself!)
All the rules in the world won’t matter if you just B.S. your way through them. If you really want to see if you can save your marriage, then being honest is non-negotiable.
If you don’t care about saving your marriage, then do everyone a favor.
Just get divorced. Forget about a trial separation.
I mean, seriously. What’s the point?
Being honest with your spouse, of course, can be rough – especially if you haven’t had the courage to be honest for a long time. Or ever.
Being honest takes work. It takes guts. It may even take professional help. (Hence, another reason to get a therapist!) But it is an absolute must if you want your trial separation to be anything other than a ginormous, painful waste of time.
Now, here’s the bad news. You can’t just be honest with your spouse. You have to be honest with yourself, too.
Yeah. I know.
Denial can be a beautiful thing.
You may have been telling yourself for years that everything was going to work out fine. Or, maybe you convinced yourself that you “should” want to save your marriage. But, deep down, you know you just want out. Or maybe not.
Whatever the truth is, now is the time to face it. In the end, that’s the only way you’ll ever create a marriage that’s worth saving.
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