7 Signs It's Time for a Trial Separation, Therapists Say
Should you stay or go? Here's when to consider a third option.
If your relationship has been on the rocks for a long time, you may begin to feel like only a drastic change—breaking up or fully recommitting—will set things right. Yet deciding whether to stay or go can be an agonizing proposition, especially when the roots of the relationship run deep. Oftentimes, even envisioning what those two possible paths might hold can feel difficult to do. However, some therapists recommend a third, less permanent way forward: trial separation.
There are some serious things to consider before deciding to go this route. For one, research suggests that between 85 and 90 percent of couples who walk this middle path ultimately choose divorce over reconciliation.
However, many therapists say that if the relationship has reached a breaking point and other options have been exhausted, time spent away from one another may help you make more clear-eyed decisions. If you do come back together, it's likely to be with a better understanding of your own wants and needs, less obscured by your current dynamics.
Wondering if you may benefit from a trial separation? Therapists say there are several signs that it may be something to consider. Read on to find out how to spot them, according to the experts.
You feel like you've tried everything.
Many couples consider separation after trying hard to repair the relationship and realizing that their sincere efforts aren't working. If talking about it in therapy, attending couple's therapy as a pair, or trying to work through your problems by other means leaves you feeling like you're going in circles—or worse, downward spirals—it may be time to consider something new. A little "time out" may help you regroup.
"When both partners feel drained and don't have the energy to address issues anymore, emotional fatigue can make even small problems seem insurmountable, and a break can provide the space needed to recharge," explains Bayu Prihandito, a life coach and the founder of Life Architekture.
Communication has deteriorated.
Many people who choose trial separation do so because communication in the relationship has broken down completely. Agreeing mutually to take a step back, perhaps even with the explicit goal of better understanding and articulating your own concerns, needs, or wants, can sometimes help recharge and reorient the conversation later.
However, some therapists suggest that if your ultimate goal is to work things out, it's best not to cut off communication completely. According to John Clarke, LPCC, a licensed psychotherapist, you can choose to live separately from your partner but still engage in couples therapy, or even intensive couples therapy. "This option, despite its inconvenience, may still be less costly than divorce," he says.
You feel persistently disconnected.
If you struggle to connect with your partner beyond the surface level, you may also find the relationship at a crossroads.
"When couples are consistently struggling to connect on a deeper, more meaningful level, it's a sign that a break might be needed to reassess the relationship's dynamics and each partner's needs," says Max Riv, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Love Discovery Institute. "It's crucial to understand that a consistent lack of connection can lead to a breakdown in communication and intimacy."
Prihandito says that in practical terms, this can leave you feeling like roommates, rather than romantic partners. "When the relationship feels more like a logistical partnership rather than an emotional and romantic one, a trial separation can help you both decide if you want to work on reigniting that spark or take different paths," he tells Best Life.
There's been a major breach of trust.
Broken trust is a common reason that people tend to re-evaluate their relationships. In extreme cases of deception—when one partner cheats, for example—this may instantly call for divorce. However, others in the same situation may wish to pursue the more moderate path of trial separation while working through their feelings.
"If there's been infidelity in the relationship, it can be hard to rebuild trust. A trial separation can provide time to heal and decide whether the relationship can be salvaged," says Michelle King, LMFT, a therapist for Ocean Recovery.
Your resentment looms large.
Any number of things could be causing resentment in your relationship: direct conflict, neglect, control issues, infidelity, or not having your needs met, to name just a few. Riv says that these resentments can poison a relationship over time if they're left unresolved. A trial separation, while not necessarily ideal, may be better than stoking the flames of bitterness.
"A separation can provide the space needed to reflect and address these issues independently. Unresolved resentments are like silent relationship killers, slowly eroding the foundation of trust and understanding," he says.
You argue constantly.
Michelle English, LCSW, a therapist with Healthy Life Recovery, says that frequent arguing and bickering in the relationship can also be a sign that a trial separation might be beneficial.
"When couples argue all the time with no resolution, it may be time to consider a trial separation to give everyone a chance to cool off," she explains. "It can also give you both time to think more objectively about the issues and come up with solutions or strategies that will benefit the relationship in the long run."
You feel trapped.
If you feel trapped in your relationship, or paralyzed by feelings of indecision, a trial separation may help to relieve that pressure. With less intensity surrounding your decision, you may be able to think more clearly.
"If you constantly feel trapped or unhappy in your relationship, it might be a sign that something needs to change. A trial separation can give you both space to assess your feelings and decide what you want out of the relationship," says King.
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