Trial Separation: Does It Really Work?

If the prospect of divorce scares you half to death, consider this a good sign. The fear is telling you to slow down and proceed carefully. Instead of making an impulsive decision about divorce, you might consider a trial separation. This interim step allows you to take a “time out,” to see what life would be like living apart, and to review all your options.

How does a trial separation work? More to the point, does it really work? Or is it just a stepping-stone to the inevitable?

In my experience, well-planned trial separations can be enormously helpful. Yes, they do save some marriages but, just as important, they ease the stress of divorce if that’s how events end up playing out.

Here are two real-life examples of trial separations.

My Client, Heather*: “I grew in ways I could not have known were possible, which adds to my overall confidence level as a human being. He moved back home three weeks ago. Some adjustments need to be made, but overall it is wonderful!”

For Heather, a trial separation saved her marriage. The time apart gave Heather (the non-initiator) a chance to understand where her marriage was struggling, to live on her own, and to see that she’d be okay.

Meanwhile, our work together gave her the confidence she needed to set boundaries and make her expectations clear. (Her husband was a bit surprised when he discovered she was not going to be a doormat throughout this period!) After nearly a year of living separately, the couple is now living together again while continuing to strengthen their marriage.

Heather reported, “I have one friend who is in a terrible, terrible marriage, and she told me that my story gives her hope.”

A visitor to my blog, Sue*:  “I think a trial separation gives you a chance to really experience what it’s like to live without one another. … It gives you the breathing room you need to make a clear-headed decision on your relationship.”

Sue reached out to me after reading my previous post Thinking About a Trial Separation? 10 Questions to Ask Yourself. Sue shared how she and her husband took the opportunity during their trial separation to figure out who would pay for what, how they would share custody of the children, and to see how these arrangements would play out in reality. Then, when divorce eventually did take place, the negotiations were a lot less stressful than they could have been.

“Despite our feelings of potential loneliness and the idea that this could be the beginning of the end, we made things much easier by putting together our agreement ahead of time,” Sue told me. “We’ve both stuck to the agreement 100 percent (with the exception of one or two details). I do have to say, this has been the most positive experience I’ve ever dealt with. We still help each other whenever we can, and there are no hard feelings on either of our sides.”

“I may have lost my husband, but by choosing the trial separation, I got my best friend back.

What’s your plan?

Who should move out? How do you handle expenses? Can you date? It is best to set the ground rules before the separation starts, not after. Obviously, logistics and finances may require some modification as things play out but, in general, don’t change the rules after you and your spouse start living apart. Emotions will be high, and trust may be low.

Successful separation depends on your effort, your consistency, and how well you stick to your plan.

What do you mean by “successful separation”?

The answer to that one is different for each couple and depends on your goals and your hopes for where your relationship may or may not go. If you’d like to discuss your unique situation, contact me. I’ll help you set up and/or transition through your trial separation so you can enter, live, and exit the separation with less confusion and more clarity.

Have you ever attempted a trial separation? How did it work for you? Whether you and your spouse ended up reconciling or divorcing, I invite you to share your experiences so others can learn from them.


*The stories are true, but the names have been changed.

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