Separation and divorce by David Clarke for Unsplash

Choosing Between Separation and Divorce

Perhaps you’re undecided… or just not ready. Perhaps you want to ease your way out the door to avoid the responsibility of making a final decision. Or perhaps you simply need time to think about what you have, what you want, and the power you have to connect the two. Whatever your reasons for trying to decide between separation and divorce, remember that knowledge (and preparation) is power.

Divorce is complicated, to say the least. And every divorce is unique to the couple divorcing.

The same can be said for separation. Often it’s a prelude to divorce. And sometimes it’s even a permanent arrangement. But, whatever its motivation, every separation, like every divorce, is unique to the couple involved.

Before you think that separation has no guidelines or guardrails, however, read on. Both separation and divorce come with important considerations and consequences.

There are three different types of separation: trial, permanent, and legal. 

As we look at the distinctions between them, keep in mind that your legal rights and obligations are always at the mercy of your state’s laws.

  • Trial separation

    Before making a permanent decision to dissolve or resolve your marriage, you and your spouse decide to live apart.

    The distinguishing characteristic of trial separation is that, in the eyes of the law, you are still married. Nothing really changes with regard to your legal status or rights.

    Because you are still married, your assets and debts are still held by both of you.

    You and your spouse may want to write up an informal separation agreement regarding things like finances and time with the kids. Down the road, if you decide to divorce, this informal agreement can be used as a baseline for the formal divorce agreement.

    If you and your spouse decide not to reconcile but still aren’t ready to divorce, your separation becomes permanent.

  • Permanent separation

    You’re not divorced, but you’re also not planning to reconcile.

    In terms of legality, permanent separation can get a little tricky. It can almost seem like pieces of both separation and divorce.

    Every state has its own laws regarding permanent separation, but the date of permanent separation matters.

    Why? Because, similar to divorce, this is when the acquisition of assets and debts becomes separated.

    This is also when things can get messy. It’s important, therefore, to be clear and committed regarding your separation.

    No going out for a casual date night or one-glass-of-wine-too-many hook-up with your ex, for example, as this could blur the line of separation. And that could complicate matters if, say, one of you comes into a large sum of money (or a large debt).

  • Legal separation

    This form of separation is the most similar to divorce. It is unique, however, in that you are no longer married, but you’re also not divorced.

    Just as with the other forms of separation, therefore, you are not free to remarry.

    Legal separation, as with all family court matters, has state-specific guidelines. In some states, one spouse can file a petition with the court. A judge will enter an order regarding matters like division of assets, alimony, custody, and child support.

Does Separation Always Lead to Divorce?

You may wonder if your marital separation will lead to divorce.

In many cases it does. And the court order already in place can be used as a baseline for the final divorce decree.

Why would a couple choose legal separation when it limits what they can do with their lives going forward?

Often, there are financial considerations at the heart of the decision. Perhaps one spouse has a job that provides the family’s health insurance. Perhaps there are religious considerations (think “Irish divorce”) or a desire to keep the family legally intact for the sake of the children.

(For more information on the three types of separation, read Divorce Net’s “A Guide to Different Types of Separation”.)

Keep in mind that some states require a physical separation before beginning the divorce process. 

If you live in a state that requires this vs. just a “cooling-off period,” you will have additional financial considerations to weigh. You and your spouse will have to budget for two places of residence. And you will have to have a tightly held agreement as to the management of spending, expenses, and time with the kids.

Breaking All Connections

The biggest and most obvious difference between separation and divorce is the finality of divorce. Assets and debts are legally divided, custody is decided, and both partners are free to remarry. 

Separation, on the other hand, is a sort of Limbo. This can be a “period of unknowing,” a “transition,” a “cooling off,” or even an “arrangement of convenience.”

But keep in mind that, if you envision living your life in a permanent relationship with someone you love, ongoing separation will be crippling. You will have to weigh more than just the potential financial benefits of keeping your marriage legally intact.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for couples with a lot of wealth and complex investments to refrain from divorce solely on financial grounds. 

Neither wants to part with the assets and lifestyle to which s/he has become accustomed. And money, even more than love or emotions, becomes the guiding force.

Finding Love Again

But what happens when the desire for love and commitment comes out of hiding? Do you start a relationship with someone new while under the guise of being “separated”? Do you just expect that person to “understand” that you “can’t leave because of the money”?

Whether you should seek a separation or a divorce is yet another heavy consideration when you are in an unhappy marriage.

Of course, if you and your spouse haven’t done everything you can to work on your marriage, that should be your starting place.

But, once you are convinced of irreconcilability, it’s important to educate yourself on your options. Information is always your ally.



Separated? Wondering if you should divorce? It’s helpful to know that it is normal for life to be completely abnormal for a while, for extremes to take over, for us to be unrecognizable to ourselves for periods of time.

Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner with them through the emotional and oftentimes complicated experience of separation and divorce. Learn what’s possible for you—and your precious life. Schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation with SAS and choose not to go it alone.

Marital separation

Will Your Marital Separation Lead to a Divorce?

Is this a new beginning… or the beginning of the end? It’s the million-dollar question when it comes to marital separation. It is about space to figure things out or space to ease your way out?

When your heart is aching and your head is buzzing with what to do, you’re obviously in an emotional quandary: a separation or a divorce? Or can I somehow force myself to just stick it out?

If that last question causes a nauseous dread and quickly falls into the bucket of impossibilities, you have a couple of choices.

The Options Available to You

You can start a marital separation or you can go straight to filing for a divorce.

A natural question, however, is the statistical link between separation and divorce.

Is there a mystery connection there that you won’t know until you’re in it? Will you somehow be sucked into an “inevitable” divorce without wanting it or being prepared?

The answer isn’t as black-and-white as you might hope.

The “absolute,” therefore, is going to reside with you and your spouse.

You may be overthinking when to leave your husband. That’s to be expected, especially if you have been married a long time.

You may also have a lot of fear about stepping out on your own, either in a marital separation or a divorce. This is understandable, and you certainly aren’t alone.

But this is the fork in the road where your complete honesty—first and foremost with yourself—can ultimately be decisive.

Statistically, 80% of couples who enter a marital separation end up divorcing. And, on average, they remain separated for three years before finalizing their divorce.

On the other hand, 10% of those who separate end up reuniting, on average within two years.

Making Separation Work for You

And therein lies the call for your fearless and complete honesty, both with yourself and with your spouse.

If the two of you are struggling in your marriage but know you want to work things out, you can use a separation to your advantage.

That means you will have to be clear about the rules of engagement—and disengagement.

If you’re truly separating to work on your marriage, then you need to separate and work on your marriage. No dating, no accepting fix-ups, no singles functions, no online dating apps.

In that scenario, it will be important to keep children’s routines as close to normal as possible. Those details will also have to be worked out in advance.

Who is going to leave? Where will that person live? Will the kids go back and forth, or will you switch homes every other week so the kids can stay put?

And, if you’re committed to your marriage, despite the loneliness and uneasiness of separation, will you be going to therapy? Individual, couples, family—all these forms of therapy may be warranted to give you the best tools for healing your marriage and family.

But let’s go back to that 80% because that’s where you may be if you’re vacillating in your thoughts and decisions.

There are very good reasons that most separations end in divorce. You may not want to fess up to them at this point in your journey. But read on and contemplate the truth for yourself.

By the time most couples separate, at least one person has had one foot out the door for some time.

Let’s say that person is you.

You don’t know if you should seek a separation or divorce. You don’t know if you can handle “finality” right now.

Follow Your Intuition

It’s all (understandably) so frightening. So many moving parts. So many things to think about. There are so many things you can’t undo once they’re done. So many things you can’t predict.

But chances are you already have a strong hunch about where this is heading.

If your husband wants to stay married, but you’re staking your claim for time and space alone, you probably have your answer.

Have you been fantasizing about life on your own? A place of your own, a schedule (mostly) your own, a chance to fully express your own tastes, your rules? Is there an Inner Voice talking to you?

Even the mental escape can be a detour from marital dissatisfaction. The mind is very adept at finding ways out of pain.

Without realizing it, you end up nurturing a new mindset that doesn’t include your husband. You have a head start to the door, even if you don’t want to fully admit that’s where you’re going.

The danger of a separation to the possibility of reconciliation is the loss of proximity and contact. You’re either working back toward one another or you’re not.

And the assurance of a separation to the probability of a divorce is the loss of proximity and contact. Again, you’re either working back toward one another or you’re not.

So what happens with that 80% of separated couples who end up divorcing?

Probably the biggest factor is the tendency for at least the partner who initiated the separation to become comfortable with (perceived) singlehood.

If you are thinking about divorce or separation, or even, beginning the process, you may wish to know about Annie’s Group, our powerful, virtual group coaching program for women only.

Read more about Annie here

Side Effects of Separation

You start focusing on only the bad parts of your marriage to justify how you feel and what you want now.

You get used to seeing your kids on a set schedule and having time to yourself.

Maybe you feel excited by the prospects of a new relationship—or even an occasional dinner date.

You get used to operating on your own clock and calendar. And the thought of going back to whatever your marriage has come to represent to you feels imprisoning.

And, finally, you are away from the stimulus—or at least the reminder—of your unhappiness.

Basically, you create and get used to a new reality. And going back would be like…well, “going back”…

…or maybe just backward.

What’s important to take from this article isn’t a green light to go sign a lease on a jazzy new apartment. It’s the awareness that, through all the uncertainty, divorce guilt, and yearning for happiness, you really do have the power.

Your responsibility is to be honest—to yourself, to your children, and yes, to the marriage you entered all those years ago.

Because, if you don’t confront your truths (and personal accountability) at this moment of consequential choice, you will confront it at another moment.

And this is one of those major life journeys that a divorce coach can help you navigate.

Whether you stay in your marriage or move on to grow on a different path, coming to a place of conviction within yourself will dramatically influence your future happiness.

And there is always help for you to get there.


Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner with them through the emotional and oftentimes complicated experience of divorce. We invite you to learn what’s possible for you. Schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation with SAS. Whether you are thinking about divorce or already navigating your life afterward, choose to acknowledge your vulnerability and not go it alone.