A trial separation is an informal agreement between two spouses to live apart. There are no legal agreements, and lawyers or judges are not involved. By comparison, in a legal separation the spouses decide to live separately and write a legal separation agreement that defines the terms and conditions of property distribution, child custody, and the division of assets and liabilities.
Sometimes couples first separate on a trial basis and then move to a legal separation and then a divorce. The spouse who has decided that he or she wants a divorce may use a trial separation to let the other spouse down easily. One spouse may not have any indication that he or she actually wants to divorce, until the separation is in place. Spouses contemplating a trial separation should figure out what is really going on. A spouse who does not wish to save the marriage in the long term only prolongs the misery in a trial separation.
A trial separation happens when spouses try to decide whether or not to divorce. Trial separations may show the individuals that they are happier away from their spouse. Likewise, a separation may reveal to the spouses how much they love and miss being with one another. Separation is not usually the first step in attempting to repair a marriage. Couples often choose to seek counseling first. Trial separation is a last resort.
Separating on a temporary basis is often to take a break from marital conflict. Solving complex marital problems under the stress of living every day with the other person may make it harder to view the marriage objectively. By engaging in a trial separation, each spouse can clear his or her head and think through the problems in peace, which also makes it easier and calmer to discuss the marital issues when the couple does get together to talk. A trial separation gives both spouses a cooling off period to work through any negative emotions about the marriage or the spouse. The separation gives time for soul searching. Spouses don’t have to spend money on an attorney to take care of any legal issues. On the other hand, financial obligations remain during the time of the trial separation. For example, if one spouse buys a car during a trial separation that debt will be considered marital debt should they decide to divorce later on.
Andrew Rusbatch, the coauthor of Save My Marriage Today, advises that the key to success in a trial separation is clear terms and conditions for the separation. Rusbatch also states that a spouse should pay attention to red flags, such as constant thoughts of leaving the marriage and a lack of resolution to major continuing arguments.
Spouses who separate on a trial basis without a clear expectations (such as an end date for getting back together) are likely to fail. Both should agree on the duration of the separation. They should also consider counseling services and schedule regular dates with each other.
The success of trial separations in righting a floundering marriage is hard to know because by comparison divorces are recorded but informal separations are not. Trial separations may crack, if not break, the bedrock of marriage, which is trust.
Couples who separate often reunite only to later falter and divorce. Trial separations produce strange reversals: the person who wanted to separate (the leaver) may find that he or she now wants to return just as the person who did not want to separate (the left) now finds that he or she likes living alone (or with someone else).
Sometimes a couple separate to work out their marital difficulties, and then one spouse decides he or she likes living alone, so the separation drags on – or ends in a divorce. One spouse may tire of the limbo land and issue an ultimatum. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. A spouse determined to end the marriage should be forthright.