If your conflict is destructive or very difficult to manage, or one that leads you to believe that the relationship is simply not working anymore, you might want to try a trial separation. Trial separations also involve a physical move, but tend to be longer-term than brief separations.
I have worked with trial separations as short as three months and as long as a year or more.
Many couples choose a trial separation after revelation of an affair or recognition of long-term dissatisfaction in the relationship. Sometimes, a person will ask for a trial separation as a cover for an affair or to be free to date, or to soften the blow of asking for a permanent separation or divorce.
What to Expect
If you choose trial separation you must understand that the relationship is at risk to end. I would suggest that you at least not go into the separation expecting that you and your partner will automatically reunite. That decision has to be left open for future consideration, which can be very unsettling and painful for one or both partners.
During trial separations, your goal may not be to work on the relationship, but to work on yourself. This must me clarified. So much will be revealed in the course of the separation. You will get a real taste of life without your partner and begin to see what it would be like to permanently separate.
Often one partner wants this type of separation more than the other. One partner may feel an enormous sense of relief at finally being free to be themselves, while the other partner feels fear, insecurity, abandonment, anger, and rejection. But surprises happen, too. Sometimes the partner who chooses the separation discovers how much he or she appreciates and loves his or her partner. Sometimes the partner who is left is the one who ends up experiencing the greatest sense of relief. Trial separations should reveal what needs to change in the relationship to make it work again. Whether both are ready and willing to work is often a battle between partners.
Making It Work
Trial separation works best if you really do go out on your own and see what it feels like to rely wholly on yourself (again or for the first time) to think, feel, reassure, and validate yourself. If you move in with a parent or relative, you may simply become enmeshed in another family system and not get the chance to flap your wings. Think carefully about this: you want to experience what it’s really like to deal with stress and manage daily living, with or without children, on your own.
It is important to make ground rules and decisions on money, sharing and caring for children, boundaries regarding space, and what is expected of each other during this time. You might want a legal agreement as well (more on this in Step 5).
If the trial separation does not result in an improved process of relating and communicating, and you decide to come back together, you run a great risk that your old patterns will continue and the same conflicts will resurface.
One additional note: the idea of being alone for a time can be very frightening. Many couples already have conflict over negotiating alone time. Add the pressures of separation and the conflict can become very intense, triggering additional feelings of betrayal, mistrust, and fear.
Whether you are planning to separate or not, I urge you to find ways to become comfortable with time alone. It’s a part of life. Take small steps if you have to, such as a solo walk in the park, going to a movie, or eating in a restaurant by yourself. We’ll explore this further in Step 8. Keep in mind that if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of being without your mate, you’re not alone.
Taking Space – How to Use Separation to Explore the Future of Your Relationship
Available in paperback and ebook editions
Audio Course: How to Structure and Manage a Separation: Step 4
Available for download or in CDs