Maybe you need some space to determine if your marriage can be saved. Or your partner has begun to hint or talk openly about wanting to separate. Or perhaps one of you is thinking about living apart as a first step toward divorce. When contemplating such a big transition, it is important to be aware of the different types of marriage separation. The book “Survive Marriage Separation” suggests that in some cases, separation can even save a marriage.
Living Apart in the Same Home
Sometimes financial difficulties prevent either spouse from leaving the home and setting up residence elsewhere. In this case, spouses might sleep apart in the same house; this can be regarded as a psychological separation. There is a danger inherent in this situation that fights will continue unabated, and the situation may be confusing for children. In “The Healthy Divorce,” Lois Gold suggests drawing up an informal contract with clear guidelines regarding sharing expenses and child care, perhaps including alternate weekends alone with the kids and if and when to talk about the future. However, if both parties decide to go through with a divorce, their jurisdiction may not acknowledge this cohabitation agreement as a separation. Check with the local court clerk to determine if such an arrangement will hinder future divorce proceedings.
One Partner Leaves the Home on Impulse
Out of desperation or anger, on impulse, one partner may pack up and leave the marital residence. It might be easier for the one who leaves to not have to cope with the pain and anger of the spouse left behind, or it is possible that the spouse who remains in the home is the inflexible one, leaving no choice to the other but to “run away.” In any case, this behavior does not leave much chance of repairing the marriage.
Robert Buchicchio, author of “Taking Space,” writes that a trial separation may be a way for partners to call a structured time out to try to resolve deep problems in the relationship. A trial separation can provide an opportunity for serious reassessment of the relationship and its direction. Although often one spouse wants this arrangement more than the other, many couples use this time to explore their own personal issues in psychotherapy. It is helpful to set up and monitor a trial separation with a marriage counselor.
Legal separation is closest step to an actual divorce. It includes a legally binding contract involving the courts and delineating child care arrangements, child or spousal support if relevant, and division of property. Legally, the couple is still married. Legal separation can function as a step toward divorce or can be in lieu of divorce if divorce is not possible for religious or other reasons. Furthermore, if the spouses cannot agree on separation terms, a judge may intervene to determine the terms of the separation, known as a judicial separation.
Combinations of Different Types of Marriage Separation
Over time, couples may move from one type of separation to another. For example, a couple may live together in a psychological separation and then decide to separate legally; this formal change in status may lead them reassess the marriage, after which they may decide to get back together and revoke the legal separation. Alternatively, a couple might move from a trial separation to living together to an impulsive separation and finally divorce. There are no hard and fast rules about the trajectory from separation to divorce or reconciliation.
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With an Master of Science in marital and family therapy, Sheri Oz ran a private clinical practice for almost 30 years. Based on her clinical work, she has published a book and many professional articles and book chapters. She has also traveled extensively around the world and has volunteered in her field in China and South Sudan.