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When couples are experiencing marital problems, they may decide to separate first before filing for divorce. The goal of separation is to spend a little time apart to allow each person to cool off, collect their thoughts, and assess the status of their relationship. It may also be used as a means of “trying out” divorce in order to see if living apart is truly what they want. It’s not unheard of for people to divorce and then realize they made a huge mistake and want to get married again. So separation is designed as a means to avoid that mistake and ensure that all divorcing couples are certain that this is what they truly want. Legal separation can also essentially become a form of procrastination. People who want to divorce but don’t want to deal with the legal hassle of it all (or don’t have the money to) may divorce informally through separation.

“Separation is very common, and is more common than immediate divorce,” says researcher Dmitry Tumin, who studies separation and divorce. “Most separations last one year or less. But a few drag on a decade or more before ending in divorce. Others stay unresolved.” He adds that “the decision to separate is driven by time spent in the first marriage, and for women, by the presence of young children.” (Jayson, 5-7-2012)

Legal separation & limited divorce

A legal separation and limited divorce are essentially the same thing; they both officially recognize that a couple has separated without actually initiating the divorce process. In countries or jurisdictions where grounds for divorce are still required, a limited divorce may be required as a first step or in situations where grounds for divorce cannot be established.

It may also be used as a means to allow couples to get their finances in order or to get settled in matters of child support, child custody, health insurance, or to take care of the steps needed to allow for the division of property, such as selling off real estate assets. Like legal separation, it requires that spouses live apart, and possibly dictates that they cannot have sexual relationships with each other or with anyone else, since they have not been granted an “absolute” divorce. By law, legal separation and limited divorce is typically a state of limbo.

What parents should know about separation

  1. Separation most often leads to divorce. Among married couples who separate, 79% are likely to end up divorced. (ibid)
  1. In a comprehensive study by Dmitry Tumin, the average length of first separation was 4 years. For those who divorced after separating, it was 3 years. Among those who eventually reunited, the average separation was only 2 years. “Three years is the point of no return,” Tumin says. “After three years, the only outcomes observed were ongoing separation or divorce.” (ibid) About 7% of separations lasted 10 years or more.
  1. Separation may not involve the formality of a divorce, but it can be just as hard on the kids. They still have a parent who leaves (often suddenly), they still must adjust to the trauma of separations, they may still deal with the chaos of dividing times between two parents and two homes, they still endure a broken family. In fact, it’s even possible that their stress and anxiety can be higher, since the future of their family is in limbo.

This doesn’t mean separation needs to be abandoned as an option to try and salvage the marriage, (if you can reunite, it’s better for them than divorce), but the length of separation should be limited. As we said earlier, the harm kids endure has nothing to do with the actual divorce certificate. It’s about the specific changes in lifestyle and parenting that a divorced family brings, and separation contains all these harmful things without the official paperwork.

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