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Do Trial Separations Ever Work?

... and how to set clear intentions, goals, and boundaries.

Key points

  • A therapeutic separation is a structured trial separation, well-thought-out in advance, to create a therapeutic “container.”
  • Sometimes the best way to get clarity on a decision to stay in or leave a relationship is for both partners to take some time and space apart.
  • Couples need agreements about boundaries, rules, and expectations. If there are children, they need agreements about parenting.
Kampus Production/Pexels
If your relationship is still worth fighting for, a therapeutic separation might help.
Source: Kampus Production/Pexels

Do trial separations work? Can a relationship benefit from taking a break? It all comes down to outlining clear intentions, communication, and goals. The Gottman Institute recommends the following for a trial separation:

  1. Be specific, honest, and vulnerable about your concerns and needs.
  2. Set boundaries and expectations.
  3. Make an agreement to have regular therapy sessions.
  4. Don’t assume that your partner wants the same things that you do.
  5. Talk to your children honestly but don’t give them too much information or false hope.
  6. Don’t date other people while you’re living apart.
  7. Recharge your battery and take time to learn more about yourself so you can view your relationship from a fresh perspective.

I recently interviewed Stephen Sulmeyer, J.D., Ph.D., about how a therapeutic separation might benefit a relationship.

AGB: How is a trial separation different from a therapeutic separation?

SHS: A trial separation is a generic term, meaning any kind of separation to see what it’s like to live or be apart, usually as a means of testing the viability of a relationship. A therapeutic separation is a structured trial separation, one that is well-thought-out in advance, to create a therapeutic “container” for the separation and to support the couple to do the inner work they need to do to maximize the odds of gaining the clarity they’re seeking.

AGB: When would you recommend that couples try a therapeutic separation?

SHS: If your relationship still has viability, if it feels like it’s still worth fighting for, then it’s worth it to leave no stone unturned in deciding whether to stay or go. If you’re in a marriage, the stakes are even higher, and higher still if children are involved. Sometimes the best way to get clarity on a decision to stay in or leave a relationship is for both partners to take some time and space apart. This affords the opportunity to reflect, to feel, and to experience what it’s like to be apart from the other. I call this taking of time and space a therapeutic separation.

AGB: What should separating couples do to maximize the success of their separation?

SHS: People need to know their goals, why they’re doing this. What do they hope to gain? What needs to change? I’d explore with couples what fears, concerns, hopes, and needs they have Is the goal to have less conflict? More intimacy? Better communication? Knowing their goals will help them determine whether the separation has been successful.

AGB: What if just one partner wants the separation?

SHS: When only one partner wants the separation it’s important to make sure the partner who doesn’t want the separation understands why the other partner does. I remember one case where the partner who didn’t want the separation didn’t understand or believe the other’s sincerity in seeking clarity as to whether to stay together or end the relationship. She thought she was being gently dumped in a duplicitous way, so she broke the rules of the therapeutic separation and got involved with another man without telling her partner, who, as it turned out, decided after the separation that he actually wanted to marry her. But, by then, it was too late; the damage had been done.

AGB: This speaks to the importance of clear agreements. Are there different types of separations?

SHS: There could be simply a physical separation, a psychological separation, or (ideally) both. The partners could be doing work on themselves in therapy. They might have a third party, such as a therapist, facilitate their separation. They might start or continue with couples counseling.

Some people may simply be “taking space” or seeking a respite from conflict.

AGB: For how long do people typically separate? How do they know when to end the separation?

SHS: There is no one-size-fits-all solution. These things need to be talked about, preferably with a therapist who knows what they’re doing. In my experience, three months is probably the minimum length for a therapeutic separation. You need time to allow the absence of the other to sink in, for previously hidden feelings to emerge, and so forth. The “when to end the separation” question needs to be addressed at the outset, and provisions made if either partner achieves the clarity they were seeking earlier than the agreed-upon duration, or for an extension of the time if the partner feels they need additional time.

AGB: What kinds of agreements should people consider?

SHS: At a minimum, there should be agreements about whether or not there will be any contact, whether they are free to date other people during the separation, what therapeutic work they will engage in on their own during the separation, how long it will last, and under what circumstances the duration can be modified. If they’re married or have children, they need agreements about child care, payment of household expenses, parenting time, etc. They probably need a lawyer to avoid potential legal landmines such as inadvertently triggering the date of separation (which ends the period of community property).

They need guidelines around communication during the separation. Will there be periodic “check-ins”? What about holidays or birthdays that occur during the separation?

Couples need to discuss living arrangements and rules of engagement — who sleeps where, how to handle household chores, etc.

AGB: What do you recommend regarding sex during the separation?

SHS: Personally, I think both partners should be celibate during the separation. It keeps things focused on the relationship. But it’s a personal choice that the partners need to discuss and agree on. For some people, dating new people may help them gain perspective and clarity.

AGB: What if things break down during a separation? What should couples do to avoid derailing their time apart?

SHS: The separation can derail if either party fails to follow the agreed-upon rules. Both partners must sincerely commit to the separation process, including its boundaries. Just in case, they need agreements about what to do when something unexpected arises, such as a financial problem, or if one of them wants to change the rules. In such cases, they could meet separately with the therapist or mediator who helped them craft the therapeutic separation agreement and decide how to handle the specific situation.

Either partner can call a meeting if they have achieved the clarity they were seeking or if they want to extend the duration of the separation or if one of them decides they want to date other people. The main thing is neither partner should act unilaterally. That will destroy the trust that’s needed for the therapeutic separation to work.

AGB: If a couple decides to have a therapeutic separation, do they need lawyers?

SHS: If they’re married and/or have children, I definitely recommend it. There are a lot of hidden legal landmines they won’t want to step on.

AGB: What happens at the end of the period of separation?

SHS: Sometimes people create a ritual when the separation ends. It could be anything: lighting a candle, setting intentions, praying for guidance — something to elevate the reunion out of the banal and the ordinary. Some people make a formal ending with the help of their therapist or mediator. Even if they move on to divorce, some couples want to share with each other what they have learned during their separation.

AGB: If they are recommitting to the marriage, what does that look like? Is it a gradual coming together again? And how do they avoid falling back into their old patterns?

SHS: That’s a big question. It’s important to explore the coming together with an experienced therapist: What did each partner learn during the separation, what needs to change, what commitments can they make to themselves and to each other, and what specific things can they do to avoid falling back into their old patterns? I also think it’s a good idea to intentionally do things differently from before, whether that’s switching which side of the bed they sleep on or, if they were homebodies before, going out more often.

AGB: Doing things differently — a fresh start. So, what percentage of couples reconcile, in your experience?

SHS: I’ve read that about 25 percent of couples reconcile after a trial separation, which is in line with my own experience. The odds of reconciliation and clarity are greatly improved when there is absolutely no contact because that’s how it most deeply sinks in what it would be like to live without the other.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels
Both partners must sincerely commit to the separation process, including its boundaries to avoid a loss of trust.
Source: Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Most couples break up after a therapeutic separation. But the difference is they can do so with greater clarity, intentionality, and consciousness, which makes it much easier to reach a place of emotional closure and peace with the decision.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2021

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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