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A beginner’s guide to trial separation

Trial Separation 

Should you stay, or should you go? Deciding if divorce or separation are for you is rarely straight forward  

Perhaps, you know something’s not working, but you’re not sure you’re ready for the alternative. In the end you can feel stuck in limbo, unsure which is the best route.  

A third option 

Often, we see it as an either/or decision; should you stay together, or separate? But for some there’s a third option. A trial separation can offer unhappy couples the space and perspective they need to reach a conclusion.  

It gives them the opportunity to test out what it’s like to be apart. After all, you know what it’s like being with your partner; separation is the unknown.  

Taking a step back and creating a little distance can make it easier to see things clearly, weigh up the options, and decide what you both want.  

What is a trial separation? 

Trial separation is an informal arrangement made between a couple when they agree to split temporarily.

They do not require legal intervention, instead couples establish the terms of the trial separation between themselves.  

Why take a break? 

When you and your partner have reached a stalemate, or are perhaps considering divorce, a trial separation can act as a temporary cooling-off period. The distance it creates can help you reflect on your relationship and establish how you feel about it.  

For some, it’s a way of testing whether divorce or separation is the right choice for them. For others it’s a way of taking a break, before they begin working out their differences and moving forward together.  

What are the potential benefits of a trial separation? 

Separating on a trial basis may have some advantages for your relationship.

  • Greater clarity: Living with a partner you’re not getting on with can make it hard to see the wood for the trees. Issues become entrenched and gradually it can feel like there’s no turning back. Taking time out offers a break from disagreements and a chance to think clearly.  
  • Time to reflect: The physical distance trial separation brings can help you to unpick what’s happened without the influencing presence of your partner, making it easier to work out where you feel things have gone wrong and what you can do about it.  
  • Fresh perspective: Sometimes, simply creating some breathing space means you can see things from the other side better, understand each other’s frustrations and each be more willing to work together to move forward. 
  • A catalyst for change: Experiencing the potential reality of life without each other can be a powerful motivator for working things through. 
  • Testing your theory: A trial separation also offers a glimpse into what a permanent separation might look and feel like. If you’ve ever wondered if you would be happier alone, taking a break from your relationship could help you answer that conclusively.  
  • Avoiding the unnecessary: A temporary split that breathes new life into a relationship that was otherwise destined for divorce, can save couples unnecessarily ending their marriage. Not to mention helping them to avoid future divorce regret.  

What are the risks of a trial separation? 

Of course, trial separation comes with some inherent risks.

  • Differing conclusions: There’s always the danger that couples prolong the uncertainty by not reaching a conclusion at all. Or even worse, that they reach opposing conclusions about what should happen next.
  • Misunderstandings: Similarly, not being on the same page about the purpose of your trial separation can cause greater tension and new challenges to overcome.  
  • Unexpected results: Of course, there’s a chance you might find that separation feels better than you expected, making a permanent split surprisingly appealing.  
  • Abuse of trust: There’s also the risk that agreements reached in good faith are misused by one partner to let the other down gradually, while they secretly prepare themselves for a permanent separation.  
  • Going public: Even if you’ve kept your relationship issues private up until now, they’re likely to become more public as loved ones become aware of your new living arrangements. 
  • Family matters: Trial separations can be difficult to explain to children, and managing the impact on your family may outweigh the potential benefits. 
  • Financial alterations: It’s not easy to manage the logistics and financial practicalities of maintaining two households during a temporary split. The additional financial strain might be difficult to overcome. 

Clear boundaries for trial separations 

To ensure a trial separation is successful, communication is key. It’s crucial to agree a clear purpose and boundaries before you begin, so you can both enter into things on the same page.  

Boundaries you might consider include:

  • How long will your trial separation last?: Agree in advance what you think is a reasonable timeframe for the separation, factoring in what you both want to achieve. 
  • Define the purpose of your trial separation: Clearly articulate your reasons and what you each hope to gain from it. Paradoxically, a trial separation is a shared journey that works best when you have a mutual understanding of it’s purpose and are equally committed to it. 
  • Living arrangements: Agreeing who will continue living in the home you shared is a big decision. Form a plan that feels fair. You might also want to agree how close you want to remain.  
  • Financial matters: Living apart comes with additional financial responsibility. Agreeing how you will manage bills and living expenses, is crucial. For example, will you continue to support one another financially during your trial separation? 
  • Children’s Arrangements: If children are involved, agree how they’ll divide their time between parents. Create a schedule and be transparent with them about the new plan. 
  • Rules of engagement: Agree how and when you’ll communicate with and see each other. While you might want a bit of space initially, regular check-ins may help you to work through issues. Would you rather have daily contact, or would you prefer to speak to each other a couple of times a week? 
  • “We were on a break”: Be very clear about the boundaries of your trial separation and whether dating, or intimacy with others, is off limits.  
  • Tackle the shared calendar: Check what commitments are ahead and how you want to handle them? Are there any plans you want to still attend together? If you have children, how will you manage school holidays? 

Who does trial separation work for? 

A trial separation can be valuable for couples entangled in complex and entrenched issues. They’re most effective when undertaken amicably, with both partners maintaining a foundation of trust.

Open communication becomes pivotal during this period, so communicating on good terms is important.  

A trial separation is unlikely to help couples constructively resolve issues like mistrust, suspected affairs, financial strain or significant parenting differences. 

When both individuals are willing to self-reflect and change, a trial separation can help couples pave the way for reconciliation, or agree to part ways. 

How to start a trial separation 

Initiating a trial separation can involve delicate conversations. Getting support from a relationship coach may help you to create an agreement that has both of your best interests at its centre. Additional impartial support could also help keep both partners focused on working through challenges together, providing the best opportunity for a conclusive and workable outcome. 

Final thoughts

It’s natural to fear that a trial separation may signal the beginning of the end of a relationship, but for some couples it can serve as a valuable opportunity to reflect on their relationship, validate their feelings, and move forward together with clarity.

Useful links

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When ‘I do’ becomes ‘I don’t’: Navigating the path to divorce and what to do next

Thinking about divorce or separation?

What to do if you think your marriage is over

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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