Love? It’s complicated. Marriage? It’s difficult. Divorce? It’s messy. In the relationship chain, the path to ‘happily ever after’ is strewn with obstacles, challenges, temptations and adjustments. Unfortunately, not everyone can make the journey and that’s when the vow of ‘till death do us part’ is replaced by ‘divorce do us part’. However, before reading the laws, there is one list that couples should bear in mind as an attempt to save a struggling marriage – the trial separation checklist.
Trial separations have become very common now. It is a process where a man and woman, instead of separating from a marriage, decide to take a break from living together. This has to be a mutual decision governed by certain guidelines and ground rules so that they can judge their marriage objectively. At the end of the period, they take a call on whether to opt for legal separation or come together again.
With an expert on board, let’s navigate the same to gain a deeper understanding. Shazia Saleem (Masters in Psychology), who specializes in separation and divorce counseling, is here to share with us what trial separations are like and how to go about one.
Are Trial Separations A Good Idea?
Before we get into how to act during a separation, let’s understand if and why it’s a good idea in the first place.
A trial separation? Yes, it’s a good idea because many couples find more perspective when they live separately. Some then decide to come back together, others realize that they are better off apart and can end things on good terms. Trial separations provide the much-needed cushion before taking any drastic step. Moreover, it gives hope to a couple.
Celebrities, as always, lead the way in these matters. Way back in 2013, the gossip mills were abuzz with rumors that Hollywood’s golden couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett were splitting up. Turns out they did have problems and they were on a trial separation. Whatever they did worked because they certainly got back together stronger.
Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones’ is another trial separation success story. They had a rather tempestuous start to their much-discussed marriage. One doesn’t know what their trial separation checklist was but it looks like they followed it to the T as the couple has gotten back together and still enjoy a stable marriage.
Of course, not everyone can boast of such success stories and there are plenty of skeptics of the idea. Some experts feel it is a dangerous waste of time while others believe it’s a good way to infuse a dose of perspective into a marriage. But regardless of the end result, there are quite a few plus points here.
Related Reading: How To Accept Your Marriage Is Over
The benefits of a trial separation
Shazia explains, “A trial separation is a mutual and thoughtful decision. This kind of a last chance really allows your relationship to survive the test one final time. There is a good chance that the consequences of the trial separation might be less biased, not influenced by external factors and is certainly always better than jumping into a divorce.”
Those who have gone for trial separation will tell you that it has its own numerous benefits. For starters, it pulls you away from the negativity and bickering and also allows you some time on your own to clear your mind. But how else does it help? We tell you.
- Breaking a set pattern: Brad Browning, a marriage and divorce coach, says in his video that trial separation can’t be a solution to the problems in marriage but should be seen for what it is – a last ditch attempt to save a marriage. “Most often problems arise in a marriage when couples are stuck in a rut and make the same mistakes over and over again. Separation can be a way to break that pattern temporarily,” he says
- Ends petty disputes: Sometimes petty disputes add to the overall problems. Maybe your wife is angry that you don’t help do the dishes. Perhaps you are annoyed that she doesn’t turn off the TV. Well, when there are no dishes or TV to bicker over during the trial separation both of you might learn to not sweat over small things which otherwise leads to bigger fights. “It can help end the day to day drama,” says Browning. Unless you are practicing trial separation in the same house. In that case, the onus of ending the fights and improving communication comes down on both of you and must be done consciously
- Gives you perspective: So you dislike your husband/wife. But when you take time off from each other, you might actually realize how worse life can be if you are not with your spouse. Will the formal separation definition be a better alternative to your relationship status than the ambiguity of a trial separation? You will know the answers to these questions when you opt for the latter
- You may become more positive toward your spouse: The cooling off period might help you shirk the negative emotions you have thus far associated with your partner. It might lead you to be grateful for the things you may have taken for granted. Perhaps the trial separation boundaries resulted in you moving away from and not meeting your children and now you may realize how important the ‘family’ as a whole is to you
- It can save you money: If you go for a legal separation, not only is it a long drawn process, it also leaves you poorer because of the lawyer expenses involved. In this case, you might be able to see your marital problems in a different light without the help of a lawyer. Of course, this depends how well you follow what to do during a trial separation
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Trial Separation Checklist
Trial separations have their benefits but there is a flip side too. As Browning says, “It might not help in the long run if you go back to the same pattern when you get back together. To make a concrete difference, you need to make changes permanently.”
To make it work, it is necessary to follow trial separation boundaries and some regulations, even if they don’t have a legal binding. Just the way there is a divorce checklist to be followed if you are legally separated (regarding children, property, visitation rights etc), even an informal arrangement like this one needs a marriage separation checklist to guide you through the same.
It is essential that both of you are on the same page regarding the timeline, rules and overall reason for what’s going on. Here are a few things to bear in mind and ensure that you agree on each to make this experience as smooth as possible.
1. How long should the trial separation last?
The first and foremost step in your marriage separation checklist is arriving at a decision about how long this separation is going to last. Have an end date in mind, say three months or six months and make sure that both of you agree to it. The separation agreement depends on what your goals are: is it just to see how you feel when you live apart or is the final goal to give a shot at working through your differences?
Shazia says, “The time frame depends on the two individuals involved but an ideal time duration could be six months. I believe that gives both sides adequate time to understand and assess their relationship to then decide the next step further.”
2. Discuss money, don’t hesitate
Even if it is a trial separation in the same house, do talk about this with your partner. It is an important point to include in your trial separation checklist regardless of the period or location of staying apart. What do you plan to do regarding the joint accounts and credit cards?
Your relationship is already going through some stressors. At this point, financial stress is the last thing you want. In that case, it is always healthy to talk about how to split the money during your trial separation period. Such an agreement or premature conversation will also prove handy if, in case, you decide to separate legally later on.
3. The point regarding marital home should be in your marriage separation checklist
This is extremely essential – the question of, who moves from where? Will you continue to stay in the home you married into or will your partner? At times, you can also opt for a trial separation in the same house especially if you are guaranteed personal space.
In which case, the arrangement will most likely be of two roommates as you negotiate the tricky spaces in your relationship. In that case, do consider arriving at an in-house separation agreement. Decide what spaces are yours, ascertain which ones are theirs, how much talking is allowed or if watching Netflix together in the living room is okay. The clock is ticking, so quickly have these conversations and tick this off your marriage separation checklist.
Related Reading: 9 Ways To Fix A Broken Marriage And Save It
4. Who will the children stay with?
Separation can be extremely painful for the rest of the family. If the process is a mature one, you and your spouse should discuss how it will affect the children. Who will they stay with during this period? What exactly are you going to be telling them? How to act during separation so it does not confuse the child?
Ideally, this should be a practical decision taken depending on the distance from school/college and in ways that don’t disturb their lifestyle. Also, if you are preparing for separation from your husband, your children’s feelings would be uppermost on your mind. So do think deeply about this one.
As Shazia says, “The parent’s decision about trying this method to give a second chance to their relationship must be clearly communicated to the children. Kids should ideally be involved and aware of what is happening since the overall outcome will impact their lives tremendously.”
5. Are you allowed to date?
In a messy separation, if you date or meet someone during the period you are away from each other, it can be used by your spouse as a ground for adultery. But if the love has gone from your marriage, you would be perhaps tempted to date again.
It would be best to add this clause or talk it out so that there are no expectations of sexual or emotional fidelity from each other during the trial separation. On the contrary, if either of you is particular about loyalty, then honor it. Rules regarding dating and sex must be factored into the trial separation boundaries and clearly defined to avoid complications later.
Especially if you two are practicing a trial separation in the same house, this becomes a noteworthy point for your in-house separation agreement. It’s not going to be pleasant watching another woman doing her walk of shame at 7 am out of your husband’s room as you make your protein shake in the morning. Better to clear the air about these gray areas earlier on.
6. Do not miss out on couples therapy
Often, counselors advise squabbling couples to go for a trial separation. But if you do end up doing that, do not use it as an excuse to run away from your marital woes. Remember that the objective is to see if you can save your marriage. So even during the separation period, do not miss out on your therapy schedules. These small steps might go a long way in saving your relationship.
Shazia tells us, “Couples therapy is very important during a trial separation. It is that much-needed extra support and understanding which can help couples gain a clear perspective about their own feelings. It helps them identify their issues or problems better and improves the odds of an unbiased outcome at the end.”
Related Reading: Does Marriage Counseling Work In Solving Relationship Issues?
7. Decide on a story
When a seemingly solid couple separates, tongues are bound to wag as they did in the case of Will Smith-Jada Pinkett and Michael Douglas-Catherine Zeta-Jones. The world and the rest of your family will be interested, even if the matter concerns only the two of you.
It’s best to decide on what to say and how much to reveal to the world and how to act during separation in front of the world. Ideally, you should limit the involvement of friends and family.
8. The intimacy in your own relationship in case of trial separation in same house
Sex can confuse matters and cloud judgment. But in volatile relationships, it can prove to be a turning point even if the couple is fighting a battle. If you are in the process of separating but staying together, take a call on whether you will have any intimacy at all and add this topic of conversation to your marriage separation checklist right away.
Shazia suggests, “Having sex may lead to confusion about the overall decision. One is separating on a trial basis to properly understand where the relationship stands. It is better that a couple is not physically or emotionally too involved during that period to figure out what exactly they want in the relationship.”
A suggestion: Don’t get too close that may leave you in a dilemma regarding the nature of your relationship. You’re trying to set trial separation boundaries, not blur them.
How To Survive Trial Separation
It is still easy to draw up a trial separation checklist and the trial separation boundaries. The challenge lies in following through with them. There are emotions and possible legal implications involved.
In the movie Sex And The City, Miranda and Dave go for a trial separation after an incident of infidelity. The counselor tells them, “You don’t know if he is going to cheat again but you just have to trust each other that it won’t happen again because of the love you share.”
That is the key to negotiating a trial separation successfully. It is impossible to say whether you will end up together again or not but go into it giving it your best shot and not worrying about the outcome. It will at least help reduce the bitterness if nothing else. But there are always ways and means to survive it.
Related Reading: 13 Signs To Know If A Relationship Is Worth Saving
1. Trial separation boundaries – Do not date
Shazia says, “As adults, it is your own choice to date or not. But it is usually not advisable to date during a trial separation. The odds of giving a second chance to your relationship quickly become meager if you allow yourself to become influenced or stray even further away. This won’t give you the proper time to think about what you need to focus on about your primary relationship.”
Do not jump into the dating game even if your trial separation checklist allows you to. Take the time to focus on the relationship that is fraying, not a new one that may or may not have any possibilities. A no-strings-attached fling might be very tempting but stay away from it.
2. Reconnect with yourself
This period of staying apart is a good opportunity to connect with your inner self. Take part in healing sessions and arrive at a better conclusion at the end of your trial separation period. Try to remove the negativity caused by troubles in your marriage. Work on yourself, it might help you work on your marriage.
Shazia suggests, “Introspection and emotional awareness are key during a trial separation. One who is not happy with themselves, cannot make a relationship happy. It is important for both people to check themselves and make peace with themselves during a trial separation.”
3. Don’t consider it as a final solution
As Brad Browning says, “A trial separation can’t fix your problems until you have solved everything else.” Therefore, it should be looked at as a last resort rather than the first option. And once you sign up for it, commit yourself to it.
4. How to act during a separation? Respect the boundaries
These separations can either be a dress rehearsal for the final signature on the divorce papers or it can be an opportunity to reevaluate the terms and conditions of the current relationship and come back together. If you are going through a trial separation staying in the same house, it becomes all the more essential to honor the limitations and rules you have decided. Have healthy boundaries.
5. Never neglect responsibilities
This should also not be an excuse to shirk work or responsibilities. Be it regarding bills or children’s education or maintaining the house, do what you always used to. You haven’t walked out of each other’s life completely yet so do not shy away from day-to-day responsibilities.
Related Reading: How Do You Set Emotional Boundaries in Relationships?
Shazia concludes this guide of a marriage separation checklist by saying, “As a psychologist, I highly recommend trial separations. During my career, I have seen many couples jump-start their relationships after this golden period. Especially in long-term relationships or marriages where kids are involved, it could do wonders. It is worth giving a shot and can open a person’s eyes and help them reunite with their partner. On the other hand, even if one does choose to separate after it, it does not happen in a nasty manner and is usually done in a very understanding way.”
All in all, relationships are very personal and when they hit the rocks, each individual reacts very differently. In a bitter and negative relationship, there is no point in even trying for a trial separation because it might just not lead anywhere. But if there is hope and you still have love at the core, maybe just maybe you can breathe some life into it. Being away for a while can perhaps play a role in bringing you together.
Yes, it certainly can. If one wants to give a trial separation a go, they can do it without having to move. If you have a proper in-house separation agreement, that only helps to make it easier. Once you two decide on the rules and regulations, set some trial separation boundaries – then you are good to go.
Yes, you can as long as your partner is aware of it and okay with it. It is up to you to choose what kind of route helps you heal from this marriage. However, it is mostly not advised since it distracts you from your main goals of evaluating your own feelings about what you want and assessing your present relationship.
The point of a trial separation is to take some time off from your marriage that has been exhausting you. Instead of opting for a divorce, this time away helps you understand if you need one in the first place. Once you two take this personal space to better yourselves, you will be in better shape to understand what you want, if your relationship needs fixing and if you want to fix it or walk away from it.