When a marriage has reached a breaking point, separation is an option for couples who want to try and work out important issues before opting for the finality of divorce. For some couples, a separation can be beneficial by giving spouses the space they need to try and fix problems in their relationship.
Separation usually means one spouse has moved out of the marital home but it’s not necessary if there are financial constraints or you want to maintain a sense of stability for your children. If you and your spouse are still living together but want to separate, you’ll need to establish physical boundaries that maintain the intent to separate for the time being. That means sleeping in separate bedrooms and not engaging in romantic or sexual intimacy.
Family therapists suggest limiting your separation to somewhere between three and six months to reach an informal agreement about issues like childcare and financial matters while the marriage is still intact. A trial separation can be helpful if a couple is hoping to reconcile. The first step is to know why you are separating and to make that clear to your partner. You don’t want to seek a separation without the consent of your spouse. It’s important to prioritize your relationship and to refrain from badmouthing your partner in front of your children.
If you plan to pursue a legal separation you’ll want to find a family law attorney to help file paperwork with the court. While a legal separation does not end a marriage, it frees you from living under the same roof. A legal separation agreement divides property, outlines who will continue paying the mortgage, utilities, and other financial obligations, and sets custody arrangements. The agreement can protect you in court in case your spouse decides not to abide by the obligations outlined in the contract. Couples who are legally separated continue filing taxes jointly. Also, you may be able to continue to receive health insurance coverage provided by your spouse’s benefits during a legal separation.
For couples that are struggling to get along, taking a physical break apart may help make the relationship stronger. For others, spending time apart will create more strain on a fragile bond. The outlook for reconciliation varies on the circumstances of each couple and their relationship. Studies have shown that while most separated couples end up divorcing, nearly 15% remain separated long term. 10% of all married couples in the U.S. have experienced a separation and reconciliation in their marriage. (Howard Weinberg, the Journal of Marriage in the Family, Feb. 1994.)
If you are considering a separation it’s a good idea to talk with a professional first to create a plan that will help you reach your goals. Separation can give you time to work on yourself and reflect on some of the behaviors that might be driving you and your partner apart. It offers a glimpse of what life apart is actually like without your spouse. How you respond to that experience will help you decide the path that works best for your future.
By Debra Schoenberg