partner thinking about divorce or breaking up

Trial Separation vs. Unstructured Separation: Which is Better for Reconciling?

A trial separation is best used when both spouses want to build their relationship. Unstructured separations are much more helpful when only one spouse wants to reconcile. Let’s talk about why.

trial separation must be used with caution
No separation, trial separation, or unstructured separation? Which will give your relationship the best chance of surviving?

Trial separation is a method commonly used by marriage counselors when husband and wife both want to reconcile, need to de-stress, and limit ongoing damage. It may or may not be the best choice for your situation.

As I have covered in other articles/podcasts, marriage counseling is only helpful when both people want to reconcile. This is because working and talking together about things two people both want to achieve creates connection.

On the other hand, if we try to work and talk together when we have different goals, different ideas, and different feelings, it creates more division. People become polarized in their differences and emotional connection decreases. For these reasons, marriage counseling is not good when only one person wants to reconcile. The result of doing that would typically be amicable divorce rather than reconciling.

Marriage counseling is not a lifeline if you have been rejected

Many men and women try to get their spouse to go to marriage counseling even if their spouse does not want to reconcile. They believe that the therapist is going to try to talk their spouse into reconciling. The fact is that a counselor cannot talk your spouse into having feelings that he or she does not have. So instead what happens is the counselor will focus on the problems that you are having in your relationship.

No man or woman was ever turned on to a relationship by talking about problems.

If you were single and trying to attract someone you were really interested in, would you do that by getting together to talk about problems? I hope not. (If so, you are likely still single and I don’t know what you are doing here). Attracting is about being attractive, similar, and enjoyable. People want to be with people who are similar–not people who try to convince them their thoughts and feelings are wrong.

Marriage counseling can be really helpful if you and your spouse already both want to reconcile. Then it is useful to clarify what the problems are, identify destructive patterns, and talk about what you both want from the relationship. Because you both want a better relationship with each other, it can help you to connect. It is also helpful to practice talking together in a new way with good listening and validation skills. Good marriage counselors can help you with this.

Sometimes though, the relationship is not building even when both husband and wife want it to. Their connection in marriage counseling is not enough to undo the damage caused throughout the week. That is when a trial separation can be helpful.

When a trial separation can really help

Trial separations help by:

  • reducing time spent in conflict together,
  • reducing neutral time spent around each other, and
  • increasing positive time spent together.

This is important because…

Relationships grow according to the percentage of positive time spent together.

You probably hate math, but let me give you a few examples of how this works:

  • If you are together 20 hours per week, but it is all negative or neutral, then you have zero percent positive time together and your relationship will only get worse (0/20=0 or 0%).
  • If you are together 20 hours per week, but only 2 hours of that are positive, then you have 10% positive time together. Your relationship will get worse, though more slowly than if you have no positive time together. (2/20=.10 or 10%)
  • If you are together only 1 hour per week, but it is positive, then you have 100% positive time together and your relationship will grow rapidly. (1/1=1.00 or 100%). This is the idea behind trial separations. It is also why relationships build quickly when people are single or having affairs.

You must do whatever it takes to decrease negative time together and increase positive time together. Having no contact would decrease all the negative time to zero, but would also result in zero positive time. This is why I am not a fan of just giving space or going no contact.

I always tell people that first they need to stop any damage they are doing. This greatly reduces negative time together. Then they need to use relationship building skills. This increases positive time together. Then they need to use boundaries to stop their spouse’s damaging behaviors.

Success can only be had by taking the right steps in the right order, at the right pace.

Many times people can do these steps while still living together, but if things have gotten too tense, or too bad, then it may be necessary to separate in order to improve the relationship. Not to separate in this situation would guarantee the end of the marriage, which would be right around the corner.

Trial separations require some agreed on rules to make sure that the relationship is building and stabilizes before living together again.

Rules are something we agree on. Boundaries are something we decide for ourselves, regardless of whether our spouse is in agreement or not.

Rules for trial separations

Because the reason for a trial separation is to improve the marriage, couples need to avoid doing things that damage the marriage.

At a minimum, the rules for a trial separation should be:

  • the couple do not live together or share the same home at the same time,
  • there must be ongoing positive contact,
  • both must remain faithful,
  • sex is stopped until emotional intimacy is restored,
  • separation is time limited (typically no more than three months),
  • an evaluation follows the time limit to see if the relationship is improving and whether separation needs to continue.

If contact stops or there is unfaithfulness, then the trial separation should immediately change to an unstructured separation. Continuing a separation with no contact or with unfaithfulness will make things worse, not better.

If your spouse wants to date others or have time to figure out what he or she wants, then you do NOT have a good situation for a trial separation. Trial separations are only for relationship building.

The idea of a trial separation is to stop damage and re-create the pre-marital courtship phase of the relationship. Courtship behaviors are the behaviors which actually build a relationship, in contrast to talking about problems.

We rebuild relationships by doing the same things we did when we initially built them.

How long should trial separations last?

Trial separations are to increase positive time together while reducing negative time together. So, they need to be long enough to achieve this trend on a consistent basis. It will do no good to get back together if most of the time is going to be negative again. That would only lead to a worsening relationship and a sense that therapy failed.

While you may have decided on a specific time frame, this may need to be extended. It depends on how well you both have been able to reconnect during the separation. Any kind of separation, ended too soon, will do more harm than good.

No harm will be done by extending a good separation in which the relationship is growing. On the other hand, great harm can be done by prematurely ending a separation.

The two biggest mistakes people make when separating are:

  • Not separating soon enough, and
  • Ending a separation too soon.

Living apart is for building relationships, while living together is for maintaining relationships. Therefore, always build your relationship to a level you want to maintain before living together again. Planning to live together and to continue building the relationship is a bad strategy.

Living together takes away the desire for relationship building that is naturally there when we are living apart.

If your spouse desperately wants to live together again, all that motivation will be gone once you do live together.

Suppose your spouse is unsure about reconciling or really doesn’t want to…

Trial separations with a spouse who wants out of your marriage

If you have a spouse who wants to get out of your marriage, he or she may agree to a trial separation, but it’s not because of a mutual desire to rebuild your relationship. For such a spouse, it is a step toward their freedom. They will look forward to the day when the trial separation is over so that they can move into a permanent separation. Or, the trial separation itself will be better than living together, so they will not be motivated to build the relationship past a friendship.

You will either receive regular rejection or an alternating pattern of closeness and distancing. This is because your spouse will maintain the distance required for preventing getting back together. The likelihood of their dating others is also high, regardless of any rules they have agreed to. This is because they are not concerned about reconciling.

For your uncommitted spouse, the trial separation is a time of experimentation without the danger of divorce. This is because you have agreed to a time limit and to re-evaluate. (This is why I say that any violation of trial separation rules should change the separation to an unstructured one).

Many men and women want a trial separation in order to be able to cheat and distance in a sanctioned way. Often they will say they need time to figure out what they want. Such trial separations will not result in reconciling.

Do not agree to a trial separation if you want to reconcile and your spouse does not, is unfaithful, or doesn’t want ongoing contact.

Instead, use an …

Unstructured separation

An unstructured separation does not have a time limit or rules. It does have boundaries.

Reminder: Boundaries are what we will or will not do. They have nothing to do with a spouse’s opinion or agreement.

Let me teach you using an example:

Suppose my wife wanted to separate and was not interested in reconciling. First, I would want to know why and would hopefully do a good job of being calm and listening to her reasons. Then, I would do my best to validate her by agreeing and empathizing with what I truly could. I might suggest a way we could work on making things better, but if she didn’t want to, I would not try to argue or convince, as that would create more distance.

Then, I would empathize with her desire to separate and not work on improving our relationship.I would work cooperatively with her to separate.

I would however let her know that if we are not going to be working on our relationship, then I will be preparing to divorce and move on to other relationships. I would let her know that there will be no ongoing dating, family outings, and such and that we would be making a clean and permanent break.

This is my boundary, whether she likes it or not, and the reason is because…

If I want to reconcile I must not help her to have her cake and eat it, too.

My plan will be to continue to be a desirable man, and to use good connection skills when we have contact, without pursuing her. My hope will be that she will feel that in divorcing me she will be losing someone valuable, that she will not enjoy the separation, become conflicted about her decision, and will start to pursue me.

Reconciling happens by attracting, not by pursuing.

If she were conflicted, I still would not date her unless she were interested in giving our relationship a go and was being faithful. If she were, I would not immediately take her back, but remain separated while we courted each other, just like before we were married. There would be no structure on that, just like there wasn’t before we were married.

At no point would I ever promise to reconcile, nor would I be any more committed than she was.

People commit in order to get commitment. Being too committed to your spouse encourages divorce, not re-commitment.

This is the path to reconciling when a spouse wants to separate without working on the marriage, or wants to separate and divorce.

How well that works will depend on:

  • how bad our relationship was before separating,
  • how desirable I am as a partner for my wife,
  • how good my connection skills are whenever we have contact,
  • how secure I can be in not pursuing her,
  • how available other men are who are more desirable than me.

This approach works for both men and women.

For people who are not very desirable, don’t have good connection skills, or who don’t have good boundaries, then they have to learn. Otherwise, there is no reason for their spouse to reconcile with them.

The alternatives

There are always alternatives. They are not likely to work, but that won’t stop people from giving or selling them to you.

Here are some bad alternatives. You could:

  • continually create rejection by pursuing your spouse.
  • continually create conflict by arguing with your spouse.
  • reject your spouse and go no contact so your spouse will supposedly miss being with you, even though he or she wants to get away from you anyhow.
  • threaten your spouse with financial hardship or custody issues so he or she will come to hate you.
  • date other people to supposedly make jealous a spouse who doesn’t want you anyway.
  • beg, cry, and make apologies and promises repeatedly to show how unattractive you really are.
  • quote Scripture and be judgmental so you can appear like a real hypocrite.
  • enlist the aid of your spouse’s family or friends to create sides and your spouse’s contempt.
  • go to marriage counseling so you can talk about problems repeatedly until you both give up (this one is good for letting go and is often why a departing spouse will do it).

If you believe any of those alternatives will work for you, please do them before working with me. Then, if it works for you, you won’t need to work with me. If it doesn’t, then you will be more motivated to do what I teach. I will be happy to tell you specifically what you need to do in your situation, but you will need to do it to have success.

The universal principle for good relationships

The only way to make and keep a relationship is to become the kind of person someone would not want to lose, and then put them in the position to lose you if they reject you.

This is true:

  • when you are first dating,
  • when you single and are committed,
  • when you are married and in a good relationship, and
  • when you are married and your spouse wants to separate.

In other words, it is always the way to have a good relationship.

For further help

If you need skills for reconciling with a spouse who wants to separate, but is not interested in reconciling, or with a spouse who wants to divorce, the most helpful resource will be my Re-Connections Coaching Package. This package does not involve your spouse in any way. It will provide you with intensive one on one training in areas where you need it so that your spouse will once again desire you and not want to lose you.

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