Before divorce, you may want to consider trial separation

I explained that a planned separation needs to be a reprieve from bickering, disagreements and frequent communication.

to consider trial separation (photo credit: TNS)
to consider trial separation
(photo credit: TNS)
In the 1980s, when I first began my training in the treatment of couples, one of my first teachers was Dr. Cliff Sager, a brilliant psychiatrist and author of many marital therapy books. He taught us what I refer to as the golden rule of disengagement: when one spouse adamantly wants out, the marriage is over. Nevertheless, Sager cautioned that couples should avoid moving quickly to get a divorce, especially when children are involved, unless all attempts to save a marriage have been tried. This usually means seeking help from a marital counselor.
An alternative recommended intervention to help couples on the verge of splitting up is a trial separation. Trial separation is exactly what the words say, a trial at separating from each other for an agreed-upon period of time to allow each partner time away from the conflict zone of their marriage so they can think through what they want to do about it. Therapists who favor the idea suggest that couples are often better able to work on their differences if freed temporarily from the pressure of constantly being around each other.
YOSSI AND Sarah came to me for help with their marriage. The couple had three small children under the age of five. Sarah depended on Yossi for everything. Yossi worked very hard at running a business, which required him to make frequent business trips. Sarah became depressed and was angry with Yossi for leaving her with the children so much of the time. Almost all communication had broken down. There was no sexual intimacy and plenty of blame. Yossi felt Sarah did not appreciate his efforts to support the family. Sarah felt Yossi was never around to help her manage the house and children. Yossi could afford to pay for household and childcare help, but this was not enough for Sarah.
This led to a long time pattern of anger and blaming each other. Both were ready to call it quits and get divorced. Previous marital therapy had failed, but they decided for the sake of the children to give it one more chance. After two months of coming to sessions, they felt they were not getting anywhere and were ready to file for divorce. At this point, I suggested that before going to lawyers, they should consider taking a small break from each other, a trial separation. Both agreed to try this.
I explained that a planned separation needs to be a reprieve from bickering, disagreements and frequent communication. I told them to be honest and specific about what they each wanted from the break. Other conditions included setting time boundaries and expectations as to how long to separate and to make an agreement to have regular therapy sessions. Do not assume that your partner wants the same things as you do. I encouraged them to talk to their children honestly but avoid giving them too much information or false hope. Experts believe that during separation neither partner should date other people. Trial separation is a time to recharge your battery and take this time to learn about yourself. I explained to Yossi that when children are involved, usually the father moves out for the duration of the separation. He agreed.
During the course of the trial separation, therapy helped Sarah for the first time in their marriage to realize that she was too dependent on Yossi. She acknowledged that for most of her life she had never even thought of doing anything on her own. Therefore, Yossi not being around made her feel resentful and angry. Yossi learned to understand that he was insensitive to Sarah’s emotional difficulty. He realized that he had put too many expectations on his wife without trying to understand what she was feeling. Yossi stated that the separation had helped him to clear his head so he could work things out in therapy.
During therapy, I asked each spouse to keep a diary and to write down the triggers and thoughts that induced the anger they felt toward their spouse. I used this cognitive material to help them work through the effect that their beliefs about their spouse – much of it very distorted and misunderstood –was having on their behavior.
They remained separated for three months. For Yossi and Sarah, the trial separation was very effective. Yossi moved back into the house and the couple therapy continued for another year to support and strengthen their understanding of themselves and their spouse. In my view, trial separation for Yossi and Sarah achieved the goal. It gave them a chance to get out of their marital conflict zone and begin to grow both individually and toward each other.
Trial separations do not always work to save the marriage. Sometimes they give a couple the preparation time needed to go on and get divorced. This is not always a bad thing, because frequently after trial separation there is an amicable relationship that is established. The good news is that for many couples, trial separation is just what the doctor ordered to prevent divorce and get the marriage back on track.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. www.facebook.com/drmikegropper;  [email protected]