Do Trial Separations Work?

This article was published in the Chicago Now section of the Chicago Tribune (circa 2011) as part of the Kulerski & Cornelison “The Way We War” series of articles.

Not really. Trial separations are often based upon a false premise and are not necessarily what they seem. While they purport to be a step to save the marriage, they are often the first stop of divorce in disguise.

It requires courage to tell your spouse that you want a divorce. The “dropping the bomb” conversation is so difficult most deliverers of this message do not mention divorce. They typically cop out and talk about their discontent in general, e.g. they claim to be unhappy with their lives and confused about whether they wish to remain married.  They ask for some time alone so they can sort things out.

It is easier to request a trial separation than it is to mention divorce, and it is considerably less devastating to the unsuspecting spouse.  It also allows both parties to “save face” with their friends, families, and coworkers.  People are less shocked by news of the breakup when the parties explain that they merely want to take a little break from one another.

Aside from being an effective method of letting the other spouse down gently, trial separations can be a ploy to get the unsuspecting spouse to move out.

The unfortunate part of most trial separations is that they promise hope even when little or none exists.  This often leads to unnecessary trouble that could be avoided by being more direct with the unsuspecting spouse.

Experts tell us that the spouse who is seeking the trial separation is usually 6 to 24 months ahead of the unsuspecting spouse in recognizing (whether or incorrectly) the true depth of the marital difficulty.

The unsuspecting spouse needs time “to come to grips” with the fact that the marriage may really be ending.  However, he or she rarely gets all the time that is necessary.

The deliverer spouse typically and naively expects the divorce process to be more in accordance with his or her time schedule than with the time schedule of the unsuspecting spouse.

The deliverer, on one hand, becomes impatient and ornery when things take so long.  The unsuspecting spouse, on the other hand, is not ready to address the situation properly because he/she has been lulled into believing that the deliverer spouse may return to the marriage.

Now we have a situation where the deliverer resents the delay and the unanticipated resistance, and the unsuspecting spouse resents being pushed into something he/she does not want.

This is combustible mix.  The deliverer’s initial lack of foresight adds a second, and easily avoidable, level of complexity to the parties’ list of difficulties.