When people are facing trying times in their marriages, they may consider the idea of temporary separation…But this raises an important question: can a trial separation save a marriage?
Lately we’ve had quite a lot of questions and comments regarding separation after infidelity. So, we thought we’d re-post an article from a few years ago that addresses this topic.
A separation can often be the result after an affair has been discovered. Though we feel it is possible that being separated while trying to recover can be a good thing in some cases, it can also make it more difficult to save a marriage – unless it is done the right way, that is.
In this guest post, Dr. Dana Fillmore, an internationally recognized Clinical Psychologist, author and marriage and family expert, explains how a couple can separate the “right way” – and furthermore, how it can actually help. But if done the wrong way…it can spell disaster.
We hear lots of stories where the unfaithful spouse feels it’s a “good idea” to separate because they “need some space” or want to “figure things out,” when all they really want to do is have more open access to their affair partner. Obviously, this is not the “right way” to handle a trial separation.
We know that there are many of you who are either separated or are contemplating it and we think this article may provide some very useful nuggets if you’re in that situation.
Even if you’re not separated and have never considered it, we’d like to see your thoughts in the comment section on why you decided not to take that route.
Can a Trial Separation Save a Marriage?
When people are facing trying times in their marriages, they may consider the idea of temporary separation. They might feel like they need some space, that they need to get away from behavior that’s making them upset, or that they simply need a break from the marriage to collect their thoughts and emotions.
But this raises an important question: can a trial separation save a marriage?
Well, the short answer is yes – if (and only if) it’s done correctly. If not, it can actually end up causing a lot more damage.
So, how does a couple separate the “right way” – and furthermore, how does it actually help?
First, let’s make sure we understand the real purpose of separating. It’s not supposed to be a hasty decision, it’s supposed to be that last-ditch, “Hail Mary pass” attempt at getting things back on track when you feel like you’ve run out of other options.
When you separate from your spouse, the idea is to get a taste of what life would be like without them. It’s supposed to be a chance to reevaluate the marriage, and see if some new perspective changes the way you feel. Sometimes we’re “too close” to our problems, and once we’ve stepped away, we can see our own contributions to them, how we may have been overreacting, or discover new solutions simply by looking at things from a new vantage point.
With those guiding principles established, what does a separation “done right” look like?
For starters, you have to set some guidelines (that you both agree upon), and stick with them. If the separation is actually going to lead to some positive changes, establishing some ground rules is key.
You may have your own specific rules to establish, but there are also some general guidelines that will help make separating a source of resolution.
Here are a few of the most important:
If you decide to separate, set a time limit immediately. Your time apart should be no more than six months – and in all reality, probably shouldn’t be any longer than three months (especially if you have kids).
Establishing this time frame helps keep you focused on the real reason for the separation – to work on and improve the marriage. If you separate with no clear end in sight, you may just drift apart instead of putting in the effort to make changes and meet a self-imposed “deadline” for sorting out issues.
Live Like You’re Divorced
If the main purpose of separation is to show you what life would be like without your spouse, you HAVE to live as if you were already divorced.
This means splitting up finances (don’t close your accounts just yet, but split up your money as if you were), staying in separate places, even splitting up custody of the kids. You have to really get the sense of being apart – no sharing cars, “hooking up,” or relying on each other the way you did when you were “together.”
If you let yourself fall back into old behaviors, you’re giving yourself a false sense of what splitting up will be like, and worse, giving yourself some of the “benefits” of marriage without the responsibilities – and you likely won’t work on changing the problem areas that lead to separation in the first place.
This is a bit of a touchy subject, since many couples separate because one of them is seeing someone else, but if it can be avoided, it should be! It’s tough to work on one a relationship if you’re starting to develop feelings for another person.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, some couples DO actually get back together after dating other people – it helps them realize what they were taking for granted, and how unpleasant the “dating world” can be. This is NOT our recommended approach, but it does work for some people… You’ll have to find what works best for you and your spouse.
Don’t Change The Rules
Yes, one of the rules is about the rules themselves – but it has to be mentioned!
If you start to miss each other, good! Don’t change the rules. If you’re struggling to make your appointments and get the kids where they need to be, good! Don’t change the rules.
When things get tough, it’s your chance to learn. Don’t change the rules to make things easier on yourself, instead look for the lesson in the struggle.
The point of separating was to get a sense of life without your partner, and if it’s tougher than you anticipated, that’s a pretty strong sign that splitting up with your spouse isn’t the best idea.
You laid out the guidelines for your separation for a reason. If you change them halfway through, you risk undoing the lessons you were learning, and stopping your progress dead in its tracks.
Work On It
This last rule is the most important of all. No matter what ground rules you set, no matter what time frame you establish, no matter what your problems might be – nothing is going to change if you don’t put in some work.
This means working on both yourself and the relationship – and it will be different for everyone. If you’ve gotten to the point of separating with your spouse, life probably feels pretty stressful, and this is your opportunity to set a new course.
It could be working on things directly related to your marriage (or the problems that lead to separation), from anger management to problems with addiction, from taking parenting classes to working on money management…
It can also be peripheral things that might not have been central to the issues in your marriage, but are “problem areas” for you nonetheless. This could be getting in shape, kicking a bad habit, spending more time on a passion, etc.
The idea is to be the best version of yourself, because it will also translate into being a better spouse. When you are confident in yourself and fulfilled in your pursuits, you have so much more to offer another person in terms of connection and support. This goes for both of you.
If you aren’t working on the things that caused you to separate, the whole thing is for naught.
Remember the real reasons for separation, and make sure you’re going about it in a way that will actually lead to growth and positive change. If you’ve already separated from your spouse, but didn’t lay out the rules mentioned above, that’s ok! It’s not too late to “restart” on the right foot.
Think long and hard before making the choice to separate – and if you do, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons (and going about it the right way). If you keep these “rules” in mind, it truly can help get your marriage back on track!
Have you considered a trial separation? If so, why, and what was the result? If you did not, what were the factors that caused you to stay married? If you had to do it over again, would you give a trial separation a try?
Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks!
Dr. Dana Fillmore is an internationally recognized marriage and family expert, Clinical Psychologist and author of “Happily Ever After: How To Be Happily Married To The One You Already Married.” In her 16-year marriage counseling practice and through StrongMarriageNow.com, she has saved thousands of marriages. She is also renowned for helping individuals transform their relationships even when their spouse is checked out.
She also offers a free video series that shows you how to regain the love, rekindle the passion and save your marriage. Click here to check that out.
*Originally posted on March 6, 2015 and updated on June 9, 2020.