How To Navigate A Trial Separation

Many couples who feel they have tried everything to improve their relationship and resolve ongoing issues while continuing to live together often turn to the option of a trial separation.  Although this option may seem like it is one step closer to the end of a relationship or divorce, a trial separation actually has the potential to improve relationships and promote growth if it is implemented in an effective manner.  Trial separations can provide couples with time and space apart so that an objective process of clarification and evaluation of the relationship can take place without the ongoing tension that tends to exist while couples live together.  Trial separations also allows couples to remain married while gaining a better understanding of the emotional and financial implications of a potential divorce.  

It is important to acknowledge that many individuals considering separation experience anxiety and fear about the relationship ending, especially for the partner who is not initiating it.  However there are some steps couples can take to make this process work towards their benefit as well as some factors to avoid in order to help prevent the end of a relationship.  Below are some do’s and don’ts to help implement an effective trial separation:


Establish a time frame for how long the separation will last before either partner makes a decision about the relationship. This tends to be anywhere from 3 months to a year.

Negotiate the terms of the separation so that the needs of both partners are met.  Some terms that should be considered include expectations regarding the frequency of physical and verbal contact with one another, boundaries with other people, whether intimacy will take place, how finances will be managed, and where both partners will be living.

If children are involved, establish a co-parenting plan and discuss how the separation will be explained to the children.

Maintain ongoing and open communication that focuses on listening and problem solving.

Participate in couples counseling during the length of the separation.

Individually work on behaviors and problems that contribute to relationship issues.

Seek legal and financial advice together.


Focus on who is to blame for relationship issues.

Make impulsive decisions when feeling emotional.

Alter the terms of the separation without the agreement of each partner.

Start a new relationship.

Worry about what other people will think.

Talk about your partner in a negative way to children or other family members.

Go behind your partner’s back to seek legal or financial advice or make a decision to file for divorce.

Couples who are able to agree to and implement a well thought out plan to separate for a temporary period of time have potential to save and strengthen their relationships. However, if couples determine that their relationship is not worth saving after they have taken the above steps, the stress of divorce can be lessened since the majority of the groundwork for figuring out the implications and logistics has been laid during this process.  

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT