Many people are facing the idea of a trial marital separation. Many of them don’t want the separation or are very reluctant about it. However, their reluctance is unfortunately met with a spouse who is sure that the separation might actually benefit or help their marriage. Understandably, many spouses are reluctant to believe this and worry that their spouse has an ulterior motive. For example, a wife might say, “my husband has been talking about a trial separation for about four months. Last weekend, he actually looked at apartments. It is starting to dawn on me that this is actually going to happen. I am so worried that we are going to end up divorced. But when I bring these concerns up to my husband, he acts as if this is actually going to help our marriage. He describes the whole thing as just, ‘slowing down to catch our breath and to enhance our marriage.” Frankly, I think this could all be posturing. Sometimes I feel like he’s only trying to get me to agree to the separation so that he can eventually divorce me. Or at least so that he can experiment with being single in order to see if he actually wants to pursue a divorce. I want to give him the benefit of trying to believe what he says, but it’s difficult. Does his argument have merit? Can trial separations actually help or enhance your marriage?”
I believe that in the right circumstances, they can help sometimes. I’ve definitely seen some marriages helped during a trial separation, but I’ve seen plenty of marriages that have been hurt by separating (or that have even ended because of it.) I do notice trends in both groups. So, below, I’ll go over some common denominators of the couples whose marriage is actually helped by the separation.
It Helps When You Have A Plan: Without any doubt, the marriages that I see hurt the most by the trial separation are the ones where the decision has been made in haste and at the height of emotion. This happens when there has been a huge fight or things have deteriorated so much that one or both people just throw up their hands and walk away for a while. While this can be understandable, it can also be damaging. Generally, these folks don’t have any plan. They just want a break.
The problem is that without a plan, the marriage and/or the reconciliation just sort of flounders. Both people can be waiting for the other to make the first move or to take the initiative and then things just get awkward. So after a while, the couple are not only not getting along, but they’re having a hard time communicating, so the issues with the marriage only get worse.
If you absolutely can not avoid separating, then make it work to your advantage. Have a very detailed, methodical plan. Find a counselor and make appointments ahead of time. Do not leave anything to chance. Having to meet regularly for counseling will help to avoid many of the pitfalls that couples with no plan fall into.
It Helps When Both People Are Committed To Making A Good Faith Effort: When people leave their marriages for a separation and indicate that they’re going to “see” or “gauge” how they feel during it, that’s always somewhat troubling. In some cases, they actually do end up missing their spouse so things work out to the benefit of their marriage. But in other cases, they sort of just drift apart. In my observation, a trial separation works best when both people can say, “listen, we really want to stay married so we’re going to come together regularly with that shared goal. But right now, we’re just going to take a break.” When you come at it from this angle, you’ve set an agreement where you’re going to be working together toward keeping your family intact if it is at all possible. When you make this commitment, it drives the actions that you take and the behaviors that you embrace during your separation for a much better outcome.
It Helps To Agree To Check In Regularly And To Work Toward Improvements: Following up on the above, when you’re both committed to making the marriage better, the natural progression of this is to regularly check in with one another and honestly discuss what has been working and what hasn’t. This allows you to stop whatever is deteriorating the marriage and to continue on with (and hopefully increase) what is actually improving things. It is very helpful to openly talk about this because what you find to be helpful (and what you think is working) could be very different from your husband’s perceptions. Anything that you can do to put these things on the table and be honest about them makes a successful reconciliation much more likely.
Couples That Learn From The Separation Can Have Stronger Marriages: When I hear from couples who tell me that their marriage is better after their separation, most admit that the separation made them appreciate their spouse more. When they were alone, they often realized how much they took their spouse for granted or how much comfort their spouse’s presence actually gave them. These insights can increase feelings of intimacy and allow a sense of “us against the world” that can actually enhance your marriage. Because you don’t want to separate again, you’re more likely to address problems the second that they come up and fight really hard to make your marriage work.
To answer the original question, with intention, the separation can improve some marriages. You have a much greater chance of this if you go in with a plan, commit to regular communication and checking in, and commit to making a very strong effort toward clear improvements. However, if you just “wait and see” what happens and don’t regularly communicate or strive to improve things, then sometimes the separation will actually make the marriage worse and contribute to a divorce.