In a trial separation:
- The couple starts living apart for a period of time – 3 to 6 months;
- They put in place a parenting agreement regarding their children;
- They work out a financial agreement for this interim period.
Some couples may also decide to discuss division of property, ironing out the details that would have to be worked out if/when they do pursue a divorce. Others would rather cover the bare minimum, planning just for their trial separation, choosing to deal with other issues later.
During this trial separation, some couples will go to therapy together and/or separately. Others may not, but most will take a breather from each other and give thought to how they want to go forward with their lives.
This stage is much closer to divorce than the trial separation. Couples have decided that they do not want an immediate divorce, but want to work through all of the same decisions as if they were filing for divorce. The major difference between a legal separation and a divorce is of course that neither of them can remarry.
Other reasons for choosing a legal separation:
Expats: For expats living in the U.S. under a working visa for one spouse only, a divorce would mean that the non-working spouse would no longer be allowed to remain in this country. For families with children, consequences are drastic as that spouse would have to return to the country of origin, therefore separating the children from one of the parents. For this reason, some of these couples may choose a legal separation until they figure out an alternative solution for the non-working spouse.
Non-Working Spouses: The non-working spouse is covered under the health care plan of the working spouse. A divorce would prevent the non-working spouse from remaining on that plan. The alternative is the COBRA option, at a higher premium. Note: Some firms do not allow the non-working spouse to remain under their plan in the case of legal separation, requiring them to go on COBRA.
Not There Yet: Some couples will opt for a legal separation for personal reasons, as a less radical step towards divorce. A client of mine once said: “I am having trouble saying the word divorce, so for now I would rather be legally separated.”
The majority of the separating couples that come into mediation want a divorce. Both parties have come to this conclusion, and with this plan in mind, they work through all the necessary issues that will be part of their divorce agreement.
Often times the party who initiates the separation wants to move quickly through the process. He/she will push to schedule mediation sessions at shorter intervals and to get the spouse to make decisions as fast as he/she would like them to be made.
The reality is that the mediation process can only move as fast as the slower party will allow it to. Frustrating as it is to the initiator, he/she will have to accept it. In time, of course, they will make it through the process and obtain a divorce.
Deciding to end a marriage is difficult. Sometimes having interim steps to take before making the final decision can make the process a bit easier.
Are you thinking about divorce, but still not sure it is the right move for you and your family? Might a separation be a better choice?
Comments from Social Media
There is also a process called Discernment Counseling – when it is not clear that divorce is the option the couple wants and when they are not sure that marriage counseling would be right either. Discernment Counseling provides a limited number of sessions where each person is seen by the same counselor individually and both of their perspectives are honored. They are helped with choosing between 3 paths – stay with things the way they are, move towards divorce, go for couples counseling for 6 months and then decide about the marriage. During this process of Discernment Counseling both parties look at their part in the relationship and come away with goals for what they can work on. If they choose marriage counseling, they have a clear idea of what to work on individually and in the relationship. If they choose divorce, they still both have an idea of how the contributed to the problems in the relationship. That alone can be helpful for the next relationship. You can’t divorce yourself.
I also offer Discernment Counseling. When folks come to “couples counseling” merely as a pre-divorce ritual, we do everyone a disservice. DC helps couple make a realistic assessment of how things may have gone wrong and if they are good candidates to see if they can get it right.
It sounds a little like a process I call “A Process of Disengagement”, or “A Psychological Autopsy “; where the goal is to learn how the relationship came to the the place that at least one of the partners has decided it no longer is worth continuing the marriage. The value of this is to help brake the cycle for both members of the marriage and help develop skills/tools that will be needed in co-parenting. The reality is that the odds are very high that upon divorcing, one or both will go back into the same pattern in the next relationship – Addiction to the Familiar.
There is no commitment to having the relation continue or end, only a commitment to learn from the broken relationship they have co-created. I have had a number of these over the years of doing therapeutic Coaching in private practice as a psychologist. It may or may not involve a brief trial separation as part of the process. If the couples are separated at the time of the first coaching session, I encourage them to stay separated for now, while if they are together under the same roof, I encourage them to continue that.
It’s amazing what can happen when the pressure of “fixing” the relationship is removed, and the lack of interest in investing in the marriage is actually accepted, it reduces resistance. Many of them were able to learn from the “death” of their marriage, and began an adventure of building/co-creating a new marriage relationship out of the ashes of the old. The reality is that “I am not my story, and my story affects/effects where I am starting in the present.” This is also true for marriage relationships. Bringing Mindfulness and enriched tools and nuggets of wisdom about how to approach the process of healthy change allows coaching to equip couples with new choices in the present.
The analogy I often use is, “If you have a wood stove that was banked down overnight, and the metal is cool to the touch, the white ash is cool to the touch inside the firebox, is the fire out or not? Only by digging through the ashes can we determine if any embers have been protected by the cool ash. If there are any embers, the next step is critical.
If you demand instant results, and put a big oak log on the embers, the effort will kill the embers. If you put some dry twigs and lots of oxogen, and slowly add some small pieces of dry wood, and eventually you can put that big oak log on and enjoy the fire. Healing a deeply wounded marriage is an active process – how you approach it will be a major predictor of the result.
Dr. Bruce Derman
Hi Jennifer, I have really enjoyed your website – reading the articles, listening to your broadcast interview, hearing your views and tips. A very informative, compassionate and realistic approach to an often difficult subject. We have much to learn from you – thank you
Susie de Castilho
Agreed, excellent article.
Virginia Colin, Ph.D
Very good article but something to consider is that in states like Texas there is no opportunity to file for a legal or formal separation as there might be in other states. So this has to be a factor in this decision. In concert with this article I have recently helped couples develop healing separation agreements that addresses the points you make, but also establishes parameters around individual and couple counseling as well as dating among other condiderations. I am finding more and more people coming in struggling over the decision to divorce or not, and having other alternatives to the either/or paradigm is helpful to them.
Honey A. Sheff, Ph.D.
Honey, I agree that the couple can decide on many other issues they want to cover in their separation. Couples counseling and dating are big ones but people come up with other questions sometimes that are very particular to them. Thank you for adding these two, which are important.
Congrats on your interview, Jennifer. It’s so true, living in another country is a completely different experience than visiting. Having spent several months in Italy on a couple of different occasions has,and is giving me a taste of what living here might actually be like, both pros and cons. Great work your doing, helping other expats who are moving through the challenges adjusting to a new country and a huge change in their lifestyle.
jennifer safian. divorce and family mediator divorce and family mediation upper east side of manhattan (nyc) new york, ny (212) 472-8626 firstname.lastname@example.org connect on