If you hear your spouse say, "I want a separation," you may think it's the end of the conversation. In fact, it is just the beginning.
You'll need to find out what type of separation he/she has in mind and, in most cases, negotiate an agreement—or go to court—to deal with any unresolved property, child custody, visitation, and finance issues.
Types of Separations
The first question to ask your spouse is what type of separation he/she is talking about. A trial separation is a temporary, living-apart period designed for the couple to work out their problems, with the hope of reconciling. Trial separations have no defined length; they can end after a weekend apart when you find out how much you miss each other, or they can evolve into a permanent separation or divorce. On the other end of the spectrum, legal separations—permitted in some states —are permanent arrangements similar to a divorce, and with the same issues to be resolved.
Child Custody and Visitation Issues
Ask your spouse where he/she intends to live during the separation and whether he/she plans to remain monogamous. Short-term or long-term, a separation means you have to make arrangements for any minor children. You need to address which parent the children will live with the majority of the time and how often they will be permitted to visit the other parent. You may be fine with visitation if your spouse is staying with a parent, but not so fine if he/she is moving in with a romantic interest.
In the event of a legal separation, matters such as custody and support, including spousal maintenance, must be worked out between you, or resolved by the court.
Interim Financial Issues
Even if your spouse is considering a trial separation for just a few months, bills must be paid; so you'll need to negotiate your finances during this period. If one of you is currently staying home with the kids, you'll have to determine how to divide income to cover both individual and family bills. If both of you are employed outside the home, consider maintaining separate bank accounts with a new, household account to which you both contribute. For more permanent separations, each of you should consult an attorney to be sure your financial and property rights are protected.
If your spouse wants a trial separation in order to resolve issues in your marriage, you need to get his/her thoughts on how best to make that happen. Couples committed to rebuilding a strong marriage often work with therapists during a temporary separation.
Psychologist Guy Winch says in Psychology Today that marriages are like "massive ships at sea." Once they're chugging along, it is extremely difficult for them to turn and change direction. He views separations as opportunities to change course, to alter parts of a relationship that haven't been working well previously.