Trial Separation Dos and Don'ts

If you’re unhappy in your marriage but intimidated by the finality of divorce, it may be time to consider a trial separation. 

A trial separation can help you see what life would be like without your partner. It can give you the space and breathing room to figure out whether the relationship is worth salvaging and, if so, what issues the two of you should focus on.

The term “trial separation” could be used to describe a lot of different types of arrangements, from a five-day period in which two people live on different floors of the same marital home to a five-month period during which they live in separate states. The particulars of your separation are up to the two of you.

That said, we think you should consider some important dos and don'ts before you part ways with your spouse. Before you even do that, it’s a good idea to sit down with your spouse and share your intentions, concerns, and goals regarding separation.

Clear communication is key

You may be tempted to rush into your separation without talking about it first, especially if one or both of you are feeling some strong emotions. We invite you to slow down anyway – even if you’re aching to speed things up.

Why? Knowing what you each want from your time apart and giving voice to the concerns you both may have can help you get more out of your trial separation. 

Are you a passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive communicator? Learn what licensed marriage and family fherapist Annie Wright has to say about these communication styles here.

Discuss these important points before the separation

Your intentions

What are your intentions for this time apart? In other words, what do each of you hope to accomplish by living separately? 

Some couples simply need a breather from one another. They believe that after a break, they will reunite and start fresh. Other couples are not so sure. They want to see if they would miss their spouse or feel lighter without them. 

Your intentions may fall somewhere in between these two extremes. That’s okay. The point is not to judge your reason for separating. Rather, the point is to understand what you hope to get so you are more likely to get it.

Your concerns

Are you worried about any aspect of your pending trial separation? For example, are you worried about where the children would stay? If so, talking with your spouse may help. Together, you might brainstorm a solution such as a temporary stay at the grandparents or a simple custody schedule.

Kids aren’t the only concern people have when entering a trial separation. Here are some other common worries:

  • You might worry that your trial separation could become permanent
  • You might worry about your ability to afford to live apart
  • You might worry that other people will judge you
  • You might worry that you are making a mistake

Discussing these concerns with your spouse may sound hard. But when you explore your fears, you shed more light on the heart of the matter. 

Suggested: Should You Divorce? What to Do When You Can’t Make Up Your Mind

Your expectations

Without good communication, the two of you might have vastly different ideas about what your trial separation looks like. For example, during this time, one spouse may hope to attend couples therapy and go on “dates” with the other spouse as a means of rehabilitating the relationship. The other spouse may expect to go “no contact” for a while and maybe even date other people.

Regardless of what your expectations are, communicate them before you separate. That way, neither person is caught off-guard or inadvertently hurt by the behavior of the other.

Legal separation is a type of separation different from trial separation. A legal marital separation keeps spouses apart indefinitely. For example, there is usually formal property division, child custody rulings, spousal support orders, and more.

Do clarify (and adhere to) ground rules

Make sure each person understands and agrees with the boundaries you will set and the roles you will play during your trial separation. Here are some questions to answer ahead of time:

  • Where will each person live?
  • How will you co-parent while apart, and where will the kids live?
  • Who will pay the bills, manage bank accounts, and other financial duties?
  • Who will take care of the pets?
  • When will you communicate?
  • Will you date each other?
  • Will you date other people?
  • Will you attend therapy to work on your marital problems?
  • How long will this separation period last? Is there an end date?
  • How will you re-evaluate your relationship when it comes time to do so?

Do take time for yourself

As 50% of the relationship equation, your thoughts and feelings about this relationship matter. A lot. During your trial separation, take time to reflect on how this arrangement makes you feel. What can you learn about yourself? Your relationship? Your needs and desires? Whether you decide to stay with your partner or permanently split up, your mental health and well-being will affect your quality of life. 

While away from your spouse, use the time wisely. Invest in self-care. (This means different things for different people. Read our list of 101 self-care ideas here, and consider filling out this free downloadable self-care worksheet.) 

You might consider drafting a trial separation agreement before beginning your separation. The agreement can spell out whatever details you feel should be addressed now: for example, whether you will attend marriage counseling, the period of time you anticipate being apart, and whether one person will provide spousal support to the other during your time apart.

Don’t become reckless

In this unusual time of your life, you may feel tempted to abandon your usual sense of decorum. In fact, your body may be caught in a stress response that causes certain impulses – such as your human impulse to fight or flee.

With that in mind, here are a few important reminders:

  • Remain respectful of your spouse in your words and actions. 
  • Don’t retaliate or seek revenge – even if you think they deserve it.
  • Don’t badmouth your spouse to others – especially your kids.
  • Don’t rush into a new romantic and/or sexual relationship in an attempt to avoid the hard feelings associated with your current relationship.
  • Avoid rash actions such as making large purchases or overdoing it on alcohol or other vices. 

It’s worth noting that you might need someone to lean on during this time. Family members and friends may seem like your first line of defense, and indeed, they can be very helpful as you go through this time. But you might also want to work with a mental health professional who can help you reflect on your experiences and keep your own best interests at heart.

The benefits of a trial separation include the fact that it’s not permanent. The two of you can try life apart, work on yourselves and your relationship, and decide later on to get back together – or get divorced.

Don’t forget to prioritize your kids

You love your kids, but in the heat of your current struggle, it can be easy to lose sight of what matters to both of you most: Their physical and emotional well-being. Check in with them often, and present a united front as parents if you can. They need to know that even when separated, both parents love them unconditionally and will not abandon them.

In the spirit of your kids’ best interest, therefore, we suggest the following:

  • Establish a clear custody and activity schedule they can refer to
  • Allow them to spend ample time with both parents 
  • Avoid fighting with your spouse in front of them
  • Do not use them as messengers between yourself and your spouse

Suggested: Understanding and Protecting Kids’ Mental Health in Divorce

Senior Editor
Communication, Relationships, Divorce Insights
Melissa Schmitz is Senior Editor at Hello Divorce, and her greatest delight is to help make others’ lives easier – especially when they’re in the middle of a stressful life transition like divorce. After 15 years as a full-time school music teacher, she traded in her piano for a laptop and has been happily writing and editing content for the last decade. She earned her Bachelor of Psychology degree from Alma College and her teaching certificate from Michigan State University. She still plays and sings for fun at farmer’s markets, retirement homes, and the occasional bar with her local Michigan band.