Trial separations — do they work?

1 February 2017

Sometimes, when it feels like you’ve exhausted all of your options and aren’t sure where to turn, the best thing can be to take a step back and get a little perspective.

In relationships, it’s at times like this that we might suggest a couple try a trial separation.

People have lots of ideas about trial separations. It’s common to worry that they’re simply a step towards breaking up, or that they won’t actually make anything better.

While this is totally understandable, trial separations can be really good way to take some time to really think about your relationship and begin to understand why you’ve been having difficulties.

How can a trial separation help?
A trial separation tends to be most useful when things are so complicated and so entrenched that it’s hard to figure out what would help anymore.

When you’ve been arguing for a long time, it can be easy to get into the same patterns, or carry out the same behaviours over and over. You may find that every attempt to address things simply leads to more conflict, or that you’ve simply ended up avoiding talking about anything, finding it easier to maintain an awkward truce.

A trial separation can help you break out of these kinds of patterns and think about your issues from more of a distance. It can allow you to talk without emotions clouding things as much. Sometimes, just having the time and space to de-stress is enough to help you start to think about things differently.

And of course, they can also be a way of understanding what it would be like to separate on a permanent basis, which can help you get a new perspective on your relationship. Sometimes, experiencing what it would be like if you didn’t work through things can be a strong motivator for finding a way to do it.

How to make a trial separation work
Trial separations are rarely a simple process. There’s a lot of potential for feelings to be hurt, and also a whole range of practical considerations to work through.

If you’re thinking about trying a trial separation, before doing anything, it’s important to sit down and talk it through in detail.

What’s really important is to set very clear boundaries about what the trial separation is going to involve and why you’re doing it. Trial separations aren’t simply about spending less time together and seeing if it makes things better. It’s about taking a different approach – giving yourself a chance to look at your relationship while taking the time and space to gain a better view.

It’ll be important to think about things like:

How long you’ll separate for. We tend to suggest three to six months as a reasonable amount if you’ve been together for a while, but this will depend entirely on what you think will work best as a couple. It’s common for each person to have different ideas on things like this, so it’s important to be open to meeting in the middle if necessary.

Why you’re doing it. One of the biggest issues with trial separations is a sense of uncertainty about where it’s all going. While at first you might feel you just need to get away, it’s important you’re thinking of this as a shared journey with a shared goal. You need to be clear on what the point of the separation is and that you’re going to be working towards this together.

How often you’ll meet. We recommend meeting regularly to discuss how you’re getting on and talk about the problems that lead to the separation in the first place. You may want a little time before starting to do this, but it is important that you make this a part of the process going forward as this will be crucial to making any changes.

Practical arrangements. If you live together, you’ll need to come to a decision on who’ll be moving out without anyone feeling like it’s been forced on them. You’ll also need to talk about things like finances (including details like joint accounts, bills and so on) so that there are no misunderstandings, as these can easily create further conflict.

Arrangements with children. If you have children, it’s important to figure out a schedule for visiting. You’ll also need to think about what you’ll tell them about what’s happening. This will depend partly on how old they are, but as a rule, it’s usually better to be open and honest about this sort of thing – even young children can usually pick up on more than we might assume.

How do we do it?
Of course, it’s easy to say all of the above, but having these kinds of conversations in reality can be very tricky.

We’d recommend ‘Relationship Counselling’as a first port of call. This can be a really useful way of making sure that both of you are clear on what the process is going to involve and why you’re doing it. Your counsellor will have guided couples through this before and will be aware of the potential pitfalls and difficulties that it can involve.

It can also be really useful to continue seeing your counsellor as part of maintaining contact during the separation. That way, they can help you continue to communicate in an open and positive way and keep you focused on the shared goal of working through things together.

If you’d like to talk through your relationship with one of our relationship counsellors give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

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