To Divorce Or Separate? Experts Weigh In

Story courtesy of YourTango

By Claire Daniel

The news that Courteney Cox and David Arquette were separating after 11 years of marriage sent ripples of distress throughout America's tabloid-reading community and beyond. Really? thought many, surprised by personal sadness over public figures' private lives. The dissolution of this marriage hit home for many Americans perhaps because, despite the celebrity characters, the story is infinitely relatable.

"A lot of people are going through stuff like that, and it just helps to kind of hear a celebrity that's experiencing the same kind of things," said Arquette, who has been doing his part to keep the public informed. (Going on Howard Stern to reveal his post-split tear-inducing bad sex while simultaneously admitting he's still "in love with my wife" is one way to go about it.)

And from Courteney we have the admission, "Sometimes you just realize, 'Wow, we actually have grown apart." Who hasn't experienced that feeling?

Despite their differences, Courteney says they're not getting divorced. "I don't know what will happen, but this is not like we're getting divorced. This is a separation and I think that takes a lot of courage . . . Whatever is supposed to happen will be the best thing for us."

Deciding To Separate

Sometimes having space "really is about finding out if the grass is greener," says YourTango expert Julie Spira. "Quite often it is not [greener]. Unless your spouse has done something illegal or immoral that you cannot forgive, separation is a way to figure out if the relationship is worth saving."

According to YourTango Expert Doris Helge, a trial separation is one way to say, "I'm willing to separate myself from my emotional pain long enough to take an objective look at our drama."

This might be the case for Courteney, who, despite a rumored romance with her Cougar Town co-star, has said, "I am not doing anything. No dating." Perhaps she is just allowing herself the psychological freedom to test out the waters: Could I love another man? Perhaps it's merely a wake up call for her hubby David to get his "kookiness" together.

Divorce Or Separation?

Some couples decide to separate, but never make the divorce final--a bad idea, according to YourTango Expert Marni Battista. "A new, independent life can seem easy and carefree at first, but this distraction can remove focus from doing the work that is necessary to come back to compatibility."

"In my experience as a clinical psychologist and couples counselor over the last twenty years, I have noticed that the majority of couples desiring a 'trial' separation are merely seeking out a less uncomfortable way to transition into divorce," says YourTango expert Dr. Adam Sheck.

This doesn't appear to be the case with Courteney and David--at least publicly. What we do know is that the couple has agreed to what Courteney has called "boundaries. . . established for each other during this separation."

The Separation Contract

Battista recommends that a separation have predetermined guidelines. "If a couple chooses to separate, they need to establish ground rules that should include discussing what kind of work each person will do individually while apart, what work the couple will do together, and whether or not they will continue to be monogamous," he says.

Dr. Sheck goes even further, recommending a "separation contract." As he explains, "The purpose of this not-legally-binding contract is to state specifically the intention for the separation (to create psychological space, to work on themselves personally, etc.), the specific boundaries to commit to (dating other people, sexual fidelity) and the specific time frame or re-evaluation period for the separation."

"If the goal of the separation is to improve the relationship, there needs to be a specific action plan with specific steps taken by each member of the couple. Otherwise, it is merely an easy way (for one partner at least) to create enough space to minimize the pain of divorce and dissolution of the relationship."

For Courteney and David there are other considerations besides themselves, namely their six-year-old daughter Coco.

"Another important thing to consider during the 'trial separation' is to carefully message this arrangement to the children involved," says Battista. When couples live apart, reconcile for a length of time, and then separate again it can be very confusing to the children. Working with a child development professional together as a couple can set the stage for how they will parent as divorced or separated parents."

A trial separation really will work, "if used to grow and gather insight that can allow both parties to take some space and reflect on whether or not they want to commit to being apart, or want to work to address the issues that made them want to separate" says YourTango expert Nicolle Zapien. So no matter what you decide, choose something. Married-but-separated couples remain stuck in relationship limbo, losing the chance to grow and love more deeply.

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