In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled "To Save a Marriage, Split Up?", Elizabeth Bernstein explores temporary separations as a way for couples to step back from their faltering relationships in order to re-evaluate them. (The article focuses on marriages, but I think it applies just as well to any committed relationship.) Rather than a preliminary step to the foregone conclusion of divorce, these temporary separations, planned out carefully between partners for a predetermined length of time and with guidelines regarding finances and child care, provide a cooling-off period with the added benefit of allowing the partners to see what life will be like without each other.
But naturally, if the partners are without each other for any length of time, they may want to be with "other" others, as the article mentions:
Then there's the fraught issue of whether each party is allowed to see other people during the separation. Some therapists believe that dating is OK, as long as both parties are truly comfortable with the decision. Ms. Viken disagrees. "If one of the parties wants to date, this is not a trial separation, it's the end," she says.
As Tigger says, you just can't argue with a word like "fraught" (well played, Ms. Bernstein, well played). But if the Hundred Acre Wood isn't one of your favorite hangouts, maybe you remember the years many of us spent at Central Perk. In particular I'm thinking of Ross's meticulously crafted defense of "we were on a break" when Rachel discovered his one-night-stand during their temporary separation.
There are several reasons that the issue of dating during a temporary separation is so "fraught." As Ms. Viken says in the quote above, if a desire to see other people was a primary motivation behind the separation, that may signal that the relationship is too much danger for a temporary "break" to solve. It may imply that the separation is less about re-evaluating the relationship and more about having a chance at guilt-free cheating for a while. In some cases this may even be the stated purpose: partners (one or both) may openly proclaim that they want to see other people to relieve emotional or sexual frustration, and/or to reassure themselves that their partners are truly the ones they want to be with. (This is a common justification offered for adultery, and to be fair a temporary separation is a more honest way to go about it.) But in either case, this goes deeper than the complaints of "I just can't stand him [or her] anymore" described in the article.
Also, there is dating and then there is dating. Casually going out for dinner and a movie with someone is one thing, but intimacy—however you want to define it, whether emotional, physical or both—is another. As with everything within a relationship, it's up to the partners themselves to decide what they're comfortable with during the separation, especially regarding how much and what kind of intimacy in dating is allowed. But I would have to imagine that any intimacy during the separation would make getting back together afterward difficult (although not impossible). The explicitly temporary nature of the separation implies the hope of eventual reconciliation and renewed intimacy within the relationship, but the experience of intimacy with someone else during the separation may only make that reconciliation harder to achieve, because that hope may seem less sincere.
(Ironically, this may imply that couples may find it easier to reconcile after a "permanent" separation—one with no set ending date—than after a temporary one, especially if one or both partners saw other people in the meantime, simply because with the permanent separation there is no expectation of reconciliation and less feelings of betrayal to overcome.)
Let's learn something from Ross: a "break" is not a "break-up," and if you are in a temporary separation, remember the ultimate goal is to get back together with your partner. Given that goal, for all intents and purposes you are still involved with that person. But if your goal regarding the separation is simply to have free reign to play the field for a while, don't expect your partner to be happy to see you when you decide you're had enough.