two rings from married couple on wet surface

Five Tips for Navigating a Structured Separation

Deciding if you should leave your marriage is a very difficult decision, and it often takes an incredible amount of work, thought, and communication to navigate a separation. It’s not uncommon for a couple to hit a point where a break or permanent separation is the best route for the relationship, and it doesn’t mean either party has given up on one another or love. 

Sometimes, a couple knows when it is time to separate. Other times, there are feelings of uncertainty. If a couple is unsure about how to move forward, I usually recommend a trial. Regardless of the marriage status at the end of the separation, it can be healthy to take some time to step back before making a final decision. One way to frame a “break” is by treating it as a “structured separation.” The following are some considerations to review when thinking about a structured separation, but keep in mind, participating in couples therapy is recommended during these conversations. 

  1. Discuss When And How You Will Contact Each Other 

Every couple will approach a separation differently. It’s essential to set up clear expectations and boundaries around communication and contact from the start to avoid further conflict. This includes living arrangements. If a couple decides to live together during the break, what kind of conversations are in bounds? What type of physical contact are both parties comfortable with? If a couple isn’t living under the same roof during the break, where is one party moving? Is texting okay? Maybe, it means no conversation at all or meeting over coffee once a week. 

  1. Agree On The Story You Tell

Get on the same page about the story that will be shared with others. Family members, children, and close friends will likely be aware of the situation, so decide as a couple what the messaging to them will be. If one person is telling the kids one thing and the other tells a whole different story, it will often lead to further conflict. Only share what feels comfortable, but be open and honest about what the expectations around sharing are. 

  1. Plan Any Self-Improvement Or Couples Work

If the goal is to improve the relationship, there needs to be some work and effort from both sides during the break. Again, every couple will have different things they want to take this time to work on. This work could include individual therapy, couples therapy, self-improvement strategies, both taking time every day to work on a hobby that has fallen to the side, etc. What matters is that the time apart is being utilized as space to reflect, grow, and move forward. 

  1. Discuss Exclusivity Or Dating

During the separation, is it expected that the relationship will remain exclusive? Is dating okay? How about sexual contact experiences with others? Setting this expectation beforehand is incredibly important in avoiding turmoil, distrust, and hurt feelings. If you decide to date other people, some couples find it helpful to agree on certain off-limit areas (i.e. the restaurant you had your first date together, the home you still own, etc).

5. Agree On The Financial Arrangements 

Squabbles about finances in the middle of a structured separation will only add stress. A couple should work together before the break begins to decide who pays which expenses. Agree on a plan, and write it down for accountability. Have a strategy in place for paying expected costs, emergencies, and non-essential or unplanned expenses. This also includes all pre-existing bills such as the mortgage and childcare.

Sometimes at the end of a structured separation, a couple decides the marriage is beyond repair, and it would be healthiest to remain separated. Other times, couples find they want to be together and can work towards sustaining a future romantically. Deciding to split doesn’t mean giving up on one another; it means recognizing that the romantic relationship has run its course. Even with the decision to separate, the friendship, care, and connection may remain. In some cases, couples realize they are better friends than romantic partners. If a structured separation is something you and your partner are considering, please reach out for a free phone consultation!