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What Is a Trial Separation and Is It a Good Idea for You and Your Family?

mother and children in kitchen

A trial separation is a physical separation between you and your spouse, without filing for a legal separation or a divorce or taking other action to address the legal status of the marriage. Many spouses agree to undertake a trial separation if they want to work toward reconciliation but need a break or a period of time to heal and try to repair their relationship. Often therapists will recommend a trial separation following events of significant stress during the marriage.

Is a trial separation a good idea for you and your family? How do you know if the timing is right? Is there a checklist for how to appropriately undertake a trial separation? How do you do a trial separation the right way?

If you are undertaking a trial separation, first, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. As stated above, many therapists recommend a trial separation where the spouses still love and care about one another but they seem to be engaged in daily behaviors which create continued, ongoing hard feelings and aggravation between one another. Some therapists advocate for a trial separation with the idea that it will allow a reasonable period of healing. Additionally, some spouses struggling with the concept of a separation and how it will affect the children want to allow a preview of the children will process and handle things in the event of a more permanent change in status. Finally, many spouses find a trial separation helpful because they are able to determine if the stressors and frustrations that they experienced during the cohabitation will be fixed or corrected by separation or if the marital issues are just as difficult when the parties are apart.

Is engaging in a trial separation a smart decision for your family?

Again, there are no right or wrong answers. The path a family takes to determine its future is determined by many factors, some of which include: the degree to which emotional hurts and wounds can be healed, each spouse’s tolerance to stress, the abilities of the parents and children to cope with changed circumstances, the issues the family and marriage is facing, among many other considerations.

As experienced family law attorneys, clients frequently consult with our office when they decide to do a trial separation or even, at some point during the trial separation. We are attorneys and not therapists, but after many years of working with families, we have become adept at helping clients weigh decisions and make good determinations about their needs and the future going forward.

Some of the things that clients have considered in supporting the decision to engage in a trial separation include the following checklist:

Marital difficulties that are situational, temporary or do not necessarily mean the marriage should end.

While the considerations can vary widely, most successful trial separations involve those where the spouses simply grew apart as opposed to those situations where the parties have experienced many years of ongoing, intense marital problems.

While these can vary significantly between spouses, the most successful trial separations that help restore the marriage are those that did not involve significant marital problems that spanned many years. Instead, the marital problems were recent and isolated from the rest of the relationship. Of course it seems obvious that a relationship riddled with drug or alcohol abuse, physical or emotional abuse or other deep-seated issues is likely not a situation that is appropriate for a trial separation.

The love in the relationship remains intact

This should be common sense, but some spouses forget the whole reason they married is they wanted to spend the rest of their life with each other. While easy to forget in the day-to-day life, if spouses still very much love each other but are overwhelmed by marital problems, a trial separation may make sense to remind them why they got married in the first place.

The spouses trust each other when it comes to the children and financial issues

Trial separation is a serious step. Spouses should not take a physical separation from each other lightly. It is an opportunity, if exploited, to negatively influence and affect the children and engage in misconduct related to finances. A trial separation therefore requires spouses to trust each other as it relates to children so that each spouse will have frequent and regular time with the children. Trial separation also requires spouses to be clear on financial issues including payment of expenses, maintaining the status quo on issues such as informal financial support for the lower earning spouse, all of which varies significantly depending on the situation.

What are situations not well suited for a trial separation?

1. A history of pervasive, domestic violence

While spouses who are victims of ongoing domestic violence during the marriage often stick in those relationships and continue to experience physical abuse, they often do so because they believe themselves without any reasonable option. Most domestic violence victims are under the physical, financial and/or emotional control of the abusive spouse.

There are exceptions and we have seen horrible violence at the hands of a homemaker against the breadwinner in the family. Abuse and the power and control dynamics that accompany it do not know limits of gender, affluence, race or other limits. At Pingel Family Law, we believe pervasive domestic violence has no place in a marriage and we rarely, if ever, have seen domestic violence perpetrators of significant and long-lasting violence change their ways.

That is also why divorcing an abusive spouse comes with significant challenges. For those reasons, our experience is trial separation usually does not change or even lessen the abuser's behavior.

2. Significant emotional abuse by one spouse against the other

While emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence, we did not put it under the domestic violence category so we can bring a greater and separate attention to it. Significant, ongoing emotional abuse is similar to domestic violence in that the perpetrator rarely changes his or her behavior just because there is a trial separation. Similar to domestic violence, there are, of course, exceptions and we speak of only our ongoing experience in such situations (in helping with family law matters for about 20 years). For these reasons, trial separation usually does not work well when one spouse is highly, emotionally abusive to the other on a frequent and continuing basis.

3. Serial infidelity

I have known husbands and wives who have engaged in infidelity but who were otherwise good people who love their spouse and their children and took great care of them. There are many reasons for infidelity between spouses. Whatever the reason, the type we see rarely, if ever, change by a trial separation is the ongoing infidelity case. While infidelity is sadly, somewhat common, pervasive infidelity throughout a marriage is not. Unless the spouses have an "open" marriage, it is also inexcusable as it shows a deep lack of respect for the other spouse and the marital bond.

Situations that involve pervasive and ongoing infidelity are also often those situations that involve ongoing emotional abuse. That is because pervasive infidelity is a form of emotional abuse in addition to an expression of complete disrespect for the other spouse and the family unit.

4. Pervasive and ongoing substance abuse

Similar to infidelity, substance abuse may be situational and limited in severity and duration. It is sometimes unfair to cast judgment on someone who develops an addiction to alcohol and drugs especially when there is no long-term history. The many different professions unfortunately have examples of those who are good lawyers and good people but escape the stress of day-to-day practice and life with a bottle, a pill or worse.

Those situations where the substance abuse existed for many years and has deteriorated the foundation of the marital relationship usually does not lead to good results after a trial separation. While there are exceptions and there are long-term addicts who seek and successfully achieve sobriety, the damage they cause to their spouse and children during the process can sometimes be too much to overcome. That is not to say a spouse should give up on the marriage simply because there is substance abuse issue. The facts of each situation control the proper response.

In summary, if you are trying to decide if a trial separation is the right or best step for your family, it is important that you understand and become educated on all of the possible outcomes, including the opportunity to work through the problems and heal/restore the marriage, as well as the possibility that the other party is using the “trial separation” as an opportunity to plan and prepare for their next legal maneuver. It is crucial to your future and well-being that you obtain advice from an experienced and knowledgeable family law attorney prior to making decisions about a trial separation. If we can help you understand your rights and think through options for your future, please call Pingel Family Law at (816) 208-8130 today to schedule your consultation!

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