The divorce rate is continually escalating. Many married couples find themselves at a crossroads: they are unhappy in their marriage and are contemplating divorce but feel that it is such a final step; they question whether it really is the only option. At this point many couples choose a trial separation and use this time to decide on the future of their relationship. When is a trial separation a good idea? What are the benefits and what are the possible pitfalls? How can the decision to separate be explained to their children? What should be accomplished during this time apart and what is the best time frame for a separation?

Trial separation is a good idea when a couple is continually fighting and bickering and cannot seem to see a way through this while constantly being reminded of the issues in the relationship. When the anger and hurt are so raw that the couple struggle to be rational and are essentially too close to the problem so see any solutions. When they cannot think of giving up on the relationship but also cannot see a way of continuing as they are. A trial separation is a way for marital partners to make up their mind about the marriage over a period of time so that no rash decisions are made. It is useful when the couple is not 100% sure that divorce would be the best option.

Trial separations can provide perspective: by having some physical distance from one another it can help each partner to place the problems they are experiencing in the context of their marriage, to evaluate the seriousness of the issues and consider whether these issues could be resolved. Distance means that the couple are not constantly reminded of the problems and can avoid ongoing and destructive arguing. A benefit is that each partner could realise the importance of the other in contributing to a meaning life. This could help them to re-commit to the relationship, and help them to find a way around the obstacles that are forcing them apart. A possible negative effect is that they could enjoy the freedom of the separation and realise that they want this on an ongoing basis which makes them resolve to get divorced. A separation can be a stepping stone to divorce but it can also be a stepping stone to a re-commitment to the marriage.

When children are involved it is important that they understand that the separation is not due to anything they have or have not done and that both parents will continue to play an important role in their lives during the separation (which is hopefully the case). It is best that they are told by both parents together and before one parent leaves. Children need honesty (without all the personal details) and reassurance. They could be told that Mom and Dad are not happy living together right now and need some distance and space from each other. That it is sad that this is happening but that they are doing this to avoid fighting with each other. The children need to be told that they are loved and will always be looked after. They need to know the plan, where they will live, how often they will see the other parent and how their lives will change. The older the children the more specific information they will require: explain the basics and then answer any questions asked as honestly and fairly as possible. Avoid placing blame on either parent.

It would be useful to attend marriage counselling during the trial separation. This could help the couple review the issues in the relationship, work through the accompanying emotions and find a way forward. Attending counselling requires a commitment. Therapy will be most useful when the couple are willing to discover which changes would help the relationship and are willing to implement these changes. Sometimes during the course of therapy couples decide that they are not willing to re-commit to the relationship and would like to divorce. Either way it is helpful to avoid seeing other people at this time as each partner focuses on his/her marital partner and the future of the relationship. If one or both partners would like to see other people then this needs to be discussed as it could complicate the situation and have a strong negative influence on the success of reconciliation.

It is difficult to give an estimation of the most suitable length of time for a separation. Three months to six months could be a guideline. Some couples may find that they have reached a decision in less time, others may take longer. A separation is best if it is used as a relatively short-term strategy not as on ongoing way of life. If a separation lasts too long then the marital partners may emotionally move on and readjust to life without each other which means that it essentially becomes a divorce without all the paperwork and splitting of assets. This would not be helpful for the children as in this case their parent s are not married but are not divorced. They are not together but also have not made the final decision to move on. This gets more confusing if other parties are involved, so Dad may have a new girlfriend but still be married to Mom. When a separation becomes an ongoing way of living then perhaps a divorce could be considered.