Is a Trial Separation Right for You and Your Partner?

A trial separation may have crossed your mind many times as you went through the stresses and strains of a relationship that often felt like a life sentence. You’ve probably had fantasies of a trial separation where you don’t have to give up everything forever right now, but get a chance to see what it feels like and take stock. However, when the fantasy pushes on you to make it real, you may feel scared, and find a slew of positive attributes that pull you back from the brink. And so, it goes, until the noose tightens, and you consider trial separations again.

A Trial Separation – Infidelity is not the primary cause

Trial separations are rarely instigated by infidelity. When a partner has been unfaithful, the wronged spouse may throw the perpetrator out for a short period. The couple usually come back together and either restructure their marriage and make it stronger or upturn the power dynamics – where the cheater is forever the sinner who is punished and atones; while the sinned against is justified in shaming and controlling the errant one. Separation and divorce may be an option, but without the trial separation phase.

Trail separation or not?

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Trial Separation – what leads to taking the big step?

  1. A nagging heavy realization that your partner isn’t going to change and value you as you ache for.
  2. A weariness and sense of defeat that all your efforts to contort yourself in the shapes demanded of you, isn’t acknowledged or appreciated.
  3. An escalating anger that your spirit is being crushed and your self-esteem is being ground into the dust.
  4. A desperation to be free and get back in touch with your own power and authority where you can partake of life in ways that allow you to grow, mature and feel good in your own skin.

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Trial separation – what type of relationships benefit?

Co-dependent relationships benefit from a trial separation

Felicity, a 32-year-old freelance beautician felt sucked dry in her marriage to 31-year-old Trevon who managed a family restaurant. Just as in her childhood she felt she had to perform to Trevon’s expectations, and tiptoe around his sensitivities in order to feel desired, treasured and warrant affection. She imagined that if she did her own thing Trevon would feel abandoned and die without her taking care of him. She scared herself into thinking freedom meant committing ‘murder’ and she needed to stick around to ensure she wasn’t a monster. The thought of living without Trevon made her feel like a failure and a fraud, despite her fantasies of being alone on an island where she didn’t need Trevon, and he didn’t need her. Visions of a trial separation were all she had to keep her sane.

For his part Trevon felt that he had always been under the thumb of his critical father and demanding mother. Everything he had ever done for himself had gone wrong, been taken away or destroyed. He had no faith in himself and was dependent on Felicity to make him feel good. He tried to do everything he could to please her so that she would be totally dependent on him, and wanted praise and gratitude for his sacrifices. He too dreamt of a trial separation where he could play football and drink with his friends without feeling like he abandoned his wife and would be punished for it.

A trial separation worked for them because:

  • They were free of obligations to take care of one another often missing out on things for themselves.
  • They were able to pursue their own interests without guilt or shame.
  • The contrast between the constricting nature of their co-dependent relationship with the excitement and joy of being free was powerful.
  • Each was able to live without fear of criticism, judgment or negative evaluation.
  • Each was able to set their own goals and review their expectations of relationships in general and of each other in particular.
  • The couple got to know one another again as they dropped their prior expectations of one another – they saw the person behind the role that was imposed on them by the co-dependent dynamic.
  • They became friends without obligations, honoring the essence of the relationship as they transitioned out of the old and into the new.
  • Both attended individual therapy and used it to mature. They realized they no longer fitted together, and didn’t come back together as man and wife, but as supportive and loyal friends.

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Possessive relationships benefit from a trial separation

Dylan, a 33-year-old brewery manager watched his partner Marsha, a 34-year-old waitress with eagle eyes. Every time she spoke with customer or other wait staff, he felt deprived and enraged – that her time and attention belonged to him; and any unnecessary attention given to others meant there was less for him.

Dylan grew up believing that love and attention was a zero-sum game. Either he had all Marsha had to give or he had nothing because she gave it to others. His underlying depression gave way to rage that boiled over into paranoia – where he believed she didn’t truly care for him, and wanted to flock to family and friends. He couldn’t bear the time she spent with their children because it took away from what he thought he was owed and entitled to. His possessiveness came from a childhood trauma where he was put aside when a new sibling came along and he never got over it.

He wanted to own and control Marsha’s wants and needs so that she would never be attracted to anyone else the way her parents had been seduced by their new baby. It made him possessive and impossible to reason with.

Marsha was in her way possessive about her time with her kids and at work. She refused to indulge Dylan in his need to be the sole focus of her attention. She began hiding her phone, encrypting emails and not telling him about meetings she had with family and friends. Each was divorced from reality and the real world in this unhealthy bubble.

This couple were more than ripe for a trial separation. The benefits for them were:

  • Marsha got a chance to touch base with reality and have contact with whomever she pleased, when she pleased and for as long as she pleased without fear of retribution; control or denigration.
  • Dylan initially was in shock – unable to believe that once again he had been spurned for others as in his childhood. But as time passed, he too was hit with the reality that the hole inside him was cavernous and no matter how hard he had insisted Marsha fill it – he hadn’t been satisfied.
  • Marsha was able to feel more like a woman with choices, who didn’t have to hide, pretend or lie to anyone just to have a normal life.
  • Dylan fell into an even worse depression that he had been in, and sought therapy that included family of origin counseling. The therapy fed him in ways that filled the hole inside, such that he could consider having a relationship that wasn’t based on exclusive possession and control.
  • Marsha and Dylan continued to co-parent their children and feel more comfortable with one another – creating a foundation of getting back together if the path became desirable from their recalibrated stance.

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Transactional relationships benefit from a trial separation

Eric, a 36-year-old auto mechanic and his partner Dominic, a 38-year-old travel agent had been together off-and-on for five years. Eric felt constantly hurt because Dominic didn’t respond to his texts, instant messages, phone calls or social media posts quickly enough if at all. Eric felt spurned, and kept score on all the times he had boosted Dominic’s social media posts and responded to his texts immediately, but never got the same back from his partner.

Dominic liked to do things for Eric. He enjoyed bringing home take-out meals as a surprise, or plan vacations that he knew Eric would be excited about. He wasn’t one for dutiful, mechanical responding on digital platforms that to him meant being a robot. But he too kept score on whether Eric returned the favors Dominic had done for him.

Each in their own way, kept a tally of what they had done for the other or ways in which they had given attention and care; expecting the same or something similar done for them in return. Neither of them felt satisfied unless it was accounted for in their mental profit and loss columns, and they certainly let it be known. Accusations of hurt, of being the “only one” who did various jobs or showed their commitment flew around almost every day. It was always about who did more and who did less; and who owed what to whom.

This transactional relationship was not founded on a true knowledge and acceptance of one another as persons with varying needs and ways of giving and getting love. Therefore, a trial separation was much needed to get out of the negative cycle of blame, shame and dissatisfaction.

The benefits of a trial separation for them were:

  • Relief from being expected to show love only according to their partner’s ways.
  • Feeling secure enough in themselves, even if there was some initial loneliness.
  • A chance to observe other couples and learn about connecting through emotional intimacy rather than transacting demands.
  • An opportunity to discover if they loved each other for who they were or for the nature of repayments that formed the basis of their relationships.

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Merged relationships benefit from a trial separation

Finn a 29-nine-year-old independent store owner adored his partner, Tammy, a 28-year-old dress maker, and she felt the same about him. Being near each other calmed their nervous systems, enabling them to drop their guard and enjoy their environment rather than deal with the threats posed by an unpredictable world. When they were away from one another they suffered a background noise of unease and discomfort. Life without nearness and likeness of mind was to be borne with effort but not enjoyed independently. Both had missed out on the close comfort of a consistent presence in early infancy and were making up for it now.

Inevitably Finn and Tammy took turns feeling suffocating from time to time. When Tammy gave herself over to Finn, she activated the helplessness and dependency of her younger self that only the nearness of the lover can fulfill. When Finn gave himself over to Tammy, he got in touch with his wish to let go of the responsibility of self-care, putting himself entirely in her hands. But the natural life force in both of them demanded an autonomy and personal authority that couldn’t be achieved by merged minds and souls that lose vitality and creativity. Images of a trial separation flashed through their minds often. But the fear of being split apart was too scary for the images to last.

Finn and Tammy had clashes that pulled them apart so they wouldn’t be drowned in each other – providing times where they could feel and use their independent selves with confidence. However, the bursts of flames faded soon, for the comfort of merger when neither had to think or risk anything. Until, the flames became more frequent and burned longer. The merger literally burned their emotional skins forcing them to find safety in themselves but not glued onto one another. The new skin was fragile and easily ripped by new fiercer flames, coming from a deep organic part of their psyche.

A trial separation was imperative if they were to survive. The benefits of a trial separation for them were significant:

  • Establishing their own tougher skins that was a sufficient barrier to merger but that could also feel comforted by physical contact.
  • Feeling the terrors of separation and surviving it became the building blocks for them to be strong, resilient, inter-dependent and okay with and without one another.
  • Enriched by having individual thoughts and feelings that could be shared and digested together rather than eat of the same meal that kept them stuck like glue.
  • Learning about and knowing one another without fear of being discarded or swallowed up.

Finn and Tammy’s trial separation and therapy based on their early infant traumas led to so much growth on both sides that they couldn’t find a way of coming back together. There was no ready-made costume to get into and play out their new selves. The scripts and stage sets were totally different. But they did find other partners who benefitted by their growth and with whom they could tolerate separation, emotional intimacy and difference.


Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.2020

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