Excited to team up with my wife Christy Bauman on this article. We regularly work with couples who are in this stage of trying to figure out how to save or lay to rest their marriage. (Check out our marriage offerings) Check out Christy’s incredible work here and her new book.
An Option Before Divorce: What is a Trial Separation?
“Divorce” has become one of the darkest words one can utter within the church. When a couple even considers a separation, they are often flooded with fear of harsh judgments from their community. Often, when someone says they are separated from their spouse, divorce is considered a foregone conclusion. While the stigma around separation persists, we would have you consider the integrity and maturity a couple may be invited into when considering a trial separation. (Just to be clear, if domestic violence is present in your marriage, your number one goal is safety. A trial separation may work in this type of relationship but not until safety has been established and both parties must seek help right away. Please reach out to http://northwestfamilylife.org/ or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 if you are experiencing this type of abuse.)
Because divorce and separation have such stigma in the Christian circles, there are not many resources available if tragedy comes to your marriage. When my parents got a divorce decades ago, they had no roadmap to help them consider their options or to help them make the most life-giving choices in a situation, which ultimately led to the death of their relationship. Divorce usually comes when one person in the relationship breaks their covenant vows. When the covenant is broken, a relationship’s trust deteriorates quickly. As marriage therapists, we aim to hold as much of the relationship’s integrity as intact as possible.
What does that mean?
Honestly and integrity are essential when covenant has been broken. Although repentance, amends, and forgiveness are the ultimate goal, we push for, at the least, honesty and integrity to grieve and bury our losses well, even if it’s the loss of the relationship itself, to honor both the marriages’ life and death.
If a couple has endured a break-in vows or are just coming to the end of their rope with their partnership, yet are willing to give their marriage one last chance before deciding if divorce is the best decision, we encourage trying a trial separation.
Separation as Reprieve
There are many different types of separation. A trial separation can be a helpful reprieve before deciding if you need to lay to rest a marriage soul that has died.
A trial separation is often a specific period of time when a couple physically separates their living space, assets, etc. with the intent to reflect on whether a legal separation, reuniting, or divorce is the next step.
For a trial separation, each individual creates a list of their desired outcomes and needs, then together they work to combine them and compromise to form an official document of the requirements that they are each agreeing to during the trial separation. As believers, we know that God’s intention is never for death, so we work carefully to discern whether a couple has neglected their marriage soul to the point of death while striving for resurrection if at all possible. We are in the work of resurrection, but not at risk of continued harm in the relationship. If we reflect on the marriage soul concept and the age of a couple’s marriage soul, we must then ask, what is the state of that marriage soul’s health?
The trial separation allows for a time of assessment and rest for the marriage soul. When a couple continues to live in the same home, there are so many possibilities for one or the other to get triggered by simply the others’ presence.
The trial separation allows for boundaries to begin to protect the wounded marriage. We feel respected when our partner honors our requests and requirements. We ask that couples allow their brains to reprogram a bit during this season of separation. The pathways in our brain are formed when we experience an event over and over. If one partner has broken trust, this time can allow for respect and trust to be re-established. Our brain pathways light up simply when someone who has hurt us walks in the room. When we protect spaces for our brain to heal, it can allow us to form new pathways of safety.
If there is a history of physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse, we encourage the couple to see a trained and licensed therapist who specializes in trauma and abuse specific to the harm experienced in the relationship. We also strongly encourage, with a signed Release of Information, one’s marriage therapist and individual therapist to be communicating and collaborating about the plan and goals for the relationship.
Here are the questions we ask couples to individually answer and then bring together to their marriage counselor or pastor for help negotiating a compromise of the requirements. Once this is done, the couple will make and sign a document committing to follow these rules until the end date chosen.
First, define the reason for a trial separation. Why are we doing this? Ask yourselves “What do we hope to accomplish by having time apart?”
Second, you both must define an end date. This isn’t a week from now or two years from now, nor does it mean by that time you will know exactly what the future holds, but it does mean you can reevaluate what is needed at that time. Depending on how toxic the relationship has become, it is normally somewhere between a month to a year.
Third, you both must define what the living situation will be. Will one person be moving out? Will you each take turns?
Fourth, define financial expectations. Who will pay which bills? Will there be limits to how much each partner may spend? Do both partners have access to all accounts?
Fifth, communication: what are the rules of engagement toward each other? What will communication look like? Can you text? Will you communicate only in person? Do you need to schedule calls? What about emergencies? Not only should you define how you will engage each other, but how you will engage your community and what you will be telling others. It’s important to be on the same page as to how you will name this season to family members, best friends, vs. random people at work or church, etc. All of these questions are important for each couple to uniquely define for themselves.
The sixth category that must be defined is time-sharing if there are children involved. If you have grown children or no children this will not apply. Those with younger children must define clearly what time will be spent with each parent, and how you will talk to your children about the separation and what it means for your family.
Seven, it’s important to have boundaries around the physical and romantic parts of your relationship. Will you go on dates? Will you spend any time being physically intimate? We encourage folks to slowly introduce this aspect later on in the separation if it is going well and both couples are healing toward reconciliation.
Finally, both parties must commit to counseling and focusing on their own healing and self-improvement. It’s easy to scapegoat one partner as the “problem” and never address your own blind spots in the relationship. If you are looking for more resources or a worksheet to help with this, look up Karen Covy and her worksheet on trial separations which the categories above were gleaned from.
The ultimate goal with a trial separation is to rebuild trust. Whether or not a couple stays together, if they have children, their lives will be entwined for years to come. This is an invitation to work on the healthiest relationship for the entire family. Children get hurt most in the crossfires of separation and divorce when parents are so consumed with their own hurt or hate, they don’t have the capacity to raise their children as well as a healthy marriage could. You do not know what the future of your relationship will hold but you can do well to honor what is in front of you now. Our hope is this gives you another option and potential plan as you all navigate this incredibly painful and difficult season.