The Structured Separation Agreement

Categories: Divorce, Family, Marriage, and Transitions / Change.

Occasionally in my practice there is a couple I am working with that are “stuck” and if they continue to stay together they will definitely hurt their chances of perpetual marital bliss. Yet, divorce is not something I encourage though for some it becomes a decision they must make.  Sometimes it is helpful for the couple to agree to “trial separation.”  In this post you will learn a way to go about a structured or trial separation. 


Definition: Terminating cohabitation with a moratorium on the final decision to reunite or divorce – basically a postponement of that decision for a time.

Objective: To address the ambivalence about the marriage from one or both partners.

Factors that suggest this option:

  • Extreme conflict
  • One spouse feeling increasing frustration and lack of satisfaction from the relationship
  • Harmful interactions: abuse, neglect, control
  • Indecision regarding commitment


Benefits possible from a structured separation:

  • Relief of ongoing conflict that is unproductive
  • Minimizing negative interactions
  • Breaks the tendency to take each other for granted
  • Gaining a healthier sense of independence and self-control
  • Provides a time for decision-making without pressure
  • Acknowledgement of the significance of marital problems.
  • Ability to see what divorce will be like


  I have provided an outline of the major considerations that should be discussed and agreed upon when entering into a separation agreement.



Structured Separation Agreement

Identifying the objectives – what are we trying to accomplish by separating?

  • You must both agree to do nothing that would intentionally harm the viability of the marriage (i.e., talking bad about your spouse to others, keeping the children from the other parent, carrying on an affair, etc.). 




Duration – Minimum of 6 weeks is recommended, and a maximum of 6 months



Financial Considerations:

  • What are the financial obligations you have personally and together?



  • Making agreements on who will pay for what through the separation time.  Try to keep in mind realistically how these might be in the event of a divorce.  That way you are gaining an accurate experience.


  Frequency of Contact Between Partners

  • What are agreeable terms for both of you in regards to time spent together and communication?
    • Texting, email, phone calls, face to face, written letters, etc.
    • It is recommended you find time at least once a week for one-on-one time.
    • It is recommended that you both attend marital counseling through the course of your separation agreement.


  • Sexual contact – you must reach a mutually acceptable level of sexual contact during the separation time.


Frequency of Contact with Others

  • What are the rules you both want for each other in regards to “dating” others?  This is important to spell out specifically. 
    • Are there certain people who are to be avoided?


   Privacy and Issues of Trust

  • Both must agree about what the children will be told about this separation and the marriage relationship.
  • Access to the others’ mail, email, voicemail, accounts, etc. 
  • No unannounced spontaneous visits or time spent tracking the other person.
  • What are you both going to tell other people?  Make sure your message is agreed upon by both of you. 


  Contact and Responsibilities with Children

  • Visitation schedule/custody arrangements
  • What are you going to tell the children?  Explain the rationale/purpose of the separation to them.  Give realistic assurance that you love them and will be there for them, and that this separation is in no way their fault. 
  • Scheduled family activities at least once a week
  • Which parent will be responsible for various activities and duties with the children?


  1. Excellent outline that provides fair & equal access of marital concerns – assuming that both parties involved are capable of making mature, responsible decisions.

    What do do suggest if one person denies the situation, and only believes that it’s all (divorce) or nothing?

  2. Patrick Ward

    If the other person is not willing to do this middle step, then this step is not an option. The all/nothing stance is often a ploy to keep the status quo and avoid any change in the relationship. I would suggest an intensive marital seminar such as in this situation.

  3. tammy m

    Dear Dr Ward,
    I found your structured separation very interesting as my husband and I have had some serious issues in the past year after being together for over 25 years. I told him last summer that I felt a temporary separation might make us appreaciate one another more and take each other for granted less, however, he could not believe I had suggested such a thing.
    tammy m

  4. chip

    my wife and I are considering this (more her than me) and she seems to think the kids should stay at one location and we as parents should take turns staying at the house. is that how this usually works?

  5. Patrick Ward

    Chip, people have done it that way. It can work, especially if the purpose is to give the two of you a break from constant conflict that is negatively affecting the children. I would recommend the two of you to establish regular times to discuss the marriage during the separation.

  6. Kent

    Thank you for your insights. This is what I was looking for when a fellowship brother suggested that I look into a structured separation for our situation. Several of the factors and benefits ring true in our relationship. Thanks again.

  7. Selina

    Dr. Ward,
    I really appreciate your approach towards rectifying marriages. I really would like to attend your program;however, I reside closer to Cleveland, OH. Can you recommend a program that is similar to yours in that area?

  8. larry carroll

    if you do a trial separation, do you have to file an agreement with the court?

  9. Bekah

    I can understand how being in the same residence makes it more difficult to be separate, at the same time, but I don’t want to make spouse leave the secure environment, he needs this more than I, and I don’t want to drag the kids out of the house, nor do I wish to be separate from her more than I am, as I already work entire weekends, and since he works during the week, it would be unfair to have him manage the week nights too. Is it ridiculous to assume this might work if we structured the time I the house? I am probably ready for divorce, but am willing to see if further distance would help me appreciate anything that may be left of our relationship, plus, financially, really can’t afford divorce right now. Tx

  10. Brenda

    Dr. Ward, I had an affair almost a year ago and my husband is still having trouble bringing up the past and “punishing” me for the wrong g that I did. We have been through 3 marriage counsellors and it seems that things are getting worse. We have 2 precious children. My husband makes me swear that I will not leave him no matter what. We have both became verbally and physically abusive. I have had 3 suicide attempts. I just don’t know what to do.

  11. Patrick Ward

    Brenda, you must insure your safety – from yourself as well as others. If you are at risk for self-harm please go to the nearest ER. If you live in the US, it should be clear that nobody can make you stay married, and you don’t owe it to him just because you had an affair. Your marriage requires that BOTH of you work on getting through this and healing. Making amends is a part of the forgiveness process and is a short-term stage in that process – its not a punishment sentence that goes on and on. I recommend that you both read “After the Affair” by Janice Abrams-Spring.

  12. I HIGHLY recommend Affair Recovery for anyone desiring to keep their marriage (honestly…even if you are not sure or are ambivalent) It saved my marriage and totally changed my life overall.

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