As a hopeful healing process between marriage and divorce, separation is a relatively uncommon middle ground. According to data reported by Payless Divorce divorce services, the percentage of separated couples barely surpasses 2 percent, even in states with the highest reported numbers.
Whether an informal arrangement between two people or a legally drawn-up agreement, no separation is completely average – each is as complex and nuanced as the individuals involved. While separation can be anything but typical, a look at concrete data helps give shape to what often seems to be a messy situation.
Separation Length by Type
While organizations such as the National Center for Health Statistics report data on marriage and divorce (reporting 2,140,272 marriages and 813,862 divorces in 2014, the most recent year data was collected), similar hard data for separations is more difficult to come by on a large scale. Separations are often personal agreements made between couples and not legally recorded arrangements such as marriage and divorce.
On a national level, the most recent data was collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009. In their “Number, Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorces” report, the Bureau found that the average duration between the first separation and the first divorce for the average American was a little less than a year, typically lasting about 9.5 to 10.5 months. The median time from marriage to separation was about seven years.
A Closer Look at Separation
Though it may sound like an oxymoron, separation is all about working together to create positive change in the relationship. As licensed psychology and marriage counselor Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker writes on PsychCentral, “Some people can do that [effect change] after a break of only a few days. Some people need a long time. It's not the length of time that ensures success. It's the quality of work you do.”
On a formal level, couples may draft a legal marital separation agreement. The process varies per state and may be difficult to enforce without a court order, but once the court order is obtained, the separation is enforceable until one or both parties in the relationship modify or terminate the agreement. These agreements may include spousal or child support and division of property. Spousal support duration varies widely, but child support usually ends when the child turns 18 – though some states require additional support for college students – while division of property is typically permanent.
“Estimates and Meanings of Marital Separation,” a 2015 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, notes that “In recent decades, relationship transitions have become increasingly decoupled from formal changes in marital status,” so keep in mind that the informality of separation may influence statistics.
While only about 10 percent of couples reunite after a separation, distance doesn't have to lead to divorce. A combination of mutual openness and honesty, focusing on the couple rather than the “greener pastures” of other potential relationships and a frank look at individual failings can form the foundations for a better future.
“It is not a choice to go back to the kind of relationship you had when you separated, but to work toward establishing something far more meaningful,” Chapman writes in, “Hope for the Separated.” He reminds separated couples that the “objective is not to 'get back together.' The objective is to give rebirth to your marriage.”
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- iMOM: Separation: It Doesn't Have to Lead to Divorce
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Health Statistics: Marriage and Divorce
- PsychCentral: How Long Should a Separation Last?
- LegalZoom: How Long Does a Marital Separation Agreement Last?
- DeepDyve: Estimates and Meanings of Marital Separation
- Chapman, Gary (2008) "Hope for the Separated: Wounded Marriages Can Be Healed." Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers
- The Independent: Taking a Break is Hard to Do
With a diverse professional background and a decade of experience as a freelance writer, Dan has contributed lifestyle content -- from fashion to travel to fitness and more -- to publishers including Chron, Fortune, Sony, GlobalPost, ModernMom, Moviefone, Salon.com, Techwalla and dozens of others.