Can a Trial Separation Save Your Marriage?

It’s a question many married couples with marital problems wonder: will a trial separation work and give them time to assess their marriage and possibly save it?

Historically and statistically, the answer is no. During the 2010s, up to 80% of separated couples ended up divorcing. However, divorce rates are actually falling, and people aren’t just statistics. 

Couples separate for lots of reasons. Here are the top reasons couples agreed to a separation, as reported by the National Library of Medicine back in 2013 – the last time there was a large-scale survey on separation and divorce.

  • Lack of commitment – 70.6%
  • Too much arguing/conflict – 53.8%
  • Financial problems – 50%
  • Domestic violence – 40%
  • Substance abuse – 33.3%

These statistics only reflect when couples agreed as to the reason for separation. When asked separately, individuals often had different responses. For example, almost 60% of individuals cited infidelity as a cause for separation. One partner in 89% of marriages cited infidelity as one of the reasons. Overall, only around 31% of couples both agreed that infidelity was the reason for separating. Other surveys universally cite an 80% separation “failure” rate in which separation led to divorce. 

What is a Trial Separation and What is a Legal Separation?

A trial separation is when both parties live apart and are often in an informal agreement. Usually, one spouse leaves the home although some couples try to live in separate spaces within the same home. Courts are not involved, and the couple remains legally married. 

“A Legal Separation is a formal court process and is done with the intent to live apart,” says Tabatha A. Jecmen, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based divorce attorney with Lawrence & Jecmen, PLLC, and Certified Family Law Specialist. “A lot of people enter into a physical, trial separation before they take any legal steps.”

How Long Should a Trial Separation Last?

Trial separations are often used as a kind of cooling-off period to let a couple get some space and decide if living apart is better than living as a couple or family. Legally, there are no limits to how long a trial separation period should last. 

➤ “Physically separating helps emotions cool down so couples can assess the marriage.” – Tabatha A. Jecmen, partner, Lawrence & Jecmen PLLC.

There is no way to quantify how long a separation should last, says Jecmen and her law partner Andi C. Lawrence. “Sometimes, a break recreates a relationship,” Jecmen says, but most separations Jecmen and Lawrence work on result in legal separations to settle issues on child custody, childcare and/or child support, spousal support, assets, and then ultimately end in divorce.

The Family Education website suggests that trial separations with well thought out ground rules is an effective way to save a marriage if this is what both partners want. It prevents a premature divorce that couples may later regret and gives partners time to work on issues. They might want to seek couples therapy during this time to really work out what is affecting their marriage. 

Decide Why You Are Separating 

The question really isn’t about a timeframe but defining why you want to separate. The next step is to address problems in the marriage and decide when and how to move forward.

If one or both partners truly want to end the marriage, a years-long separation only delays the inevitable. At this point, the couple needs to establish (or re-establish) communication, set aside disagreements that led to separation, and focus on creating a sustainable post-marriage life. 

➤ “A prolonged settlement will deteriorate into hostility, even when both partners want the divorce.” Andi C. Lawrence, partner, Lawrence & Jecmen PLLC

If a couple separates to take a breather, they should agree on some guidelines and best practices recommended by marriage experts.

“Best Practices” for a Successful Separation

It may sound odd to discuss best practices for a separation. But they can help couples reach important goals, including reconciling and strengthening a marriage or avoiding an acrimonious divorce. The website marriage.com suggests writing a trial separation checklist or just a separation agreement to help.

  • No dating other people or “rebound relationships”
  • No detailed conversations other than in therapy
  • Don’t pressure the other person
  • Agree on a couples counseling therapist that both people feel comfortable speaking with
  • Be punctual for every meeting with the other spouse and children

➤ “Separated spouses often see therapists on their own as well as joint marriage counseling.” – Tabatha A. Jecmen, partner, Lawrence & Jecmen PLLC.

Therapy can also help parents assess their willingness and ability to co-parent, support the other parent, or assume physical custody.

These practices also apply to couples who understand that they will divorce, including the “no dating” rule. If infidelity triggers a separation and divorce request, that spouse needs to understand that dating can interfere with a shared goal for an equitable settlement. 

Shared Goals for Separated Couples

Separated partners can benefit from goals recommended by relationship experts. Here are a few shared goals recommended by mindfulness teacher Elizabeth Su on talkspace.com:

  • Understand no relationship is “perfect”
  • Manage your emotions
  • Identify shared core beliefs
  • Understand that disagreements do not equal disrespect

How To Communicate During a Separation

Couples need to agree to communicate in a respectful way with one another, relationship expert Rachel Pace writes on marriage.com. It’s essential whether the goal is repairing a marriage or negotiating a fair settlement and goes a long way to ease stress, particularly for couples where both partners want to continue to be part of their children’s lives.

Good communication reduces a lot of stress for families during a marital separation.

Psychotherapist Don Elium offers these practical tips about communicating during a separation:

  • Accept that conversations will be short
  • Don’t discredit the other partner’s point of view or gaslight them with comments like “you’re too emotional, we’ll discuss this later.”
  • Keep conversations away from children 
  • Be truthful; don’t appease or give in to something you don’t agree with
  • Be reasonable and willing to compromise
  • Control your own impulses to post on social media or send emails or texts when you’re upset

Separation vs. Divorce

Couples who are separated, even legally separated, are still considered married in Arizona. A divorce is what legally dissolves the marriage.

A legal separation is a formal process that involves a court approving plans to split assets, agree on custody and support, and settle other issues. It signals that the couple has been living separately and in different locations. However, a legal separation is not necessary for a divorce hearing. If you have separated from a spouse, please reach out to our law office for support. It is important for you to understand your rights if you decide to end your marriage. We are recognized as a top divorce law firm in Arizona and are ready to help you every step of the way.

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