Taking a break is hard to do

Trial separations are all the rage among celebrity couples. But do they give relationships helpful breathing space – or just delay the inevitable? Genevieve Roberts reports

Three months before Anna's wedding, she had a trial separation from her fiancé. "It's harder than breaking up. You really are considering two options," she says. Her partner of four years suggested they put the guests, the caterers and the venue on hold and give each other space. Anna remembers: "I hadn't been happy for quite a long time and made every excuse: I wasn't doing enough sport, I needed to spend more time with friends – dancing round the obvious issue. When he suggested putting everything on ice, it was an amazing feeling of being terrified and what I wanted."

Anna, 32, was 25 when she told her family she was trying a separation.

"They were all supportive," she remembers. "Within weeks, I'd realised that it wasn't just wedding pressure, it was the relationship. It was horrible to end it permanently, but the best thing I did."

She believes a trial separation is "a respectful starting point – the idea is you don't break up".

It's a starting point that actors Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, who have reportedly separated to "evaluate and work on their [13-year] marriage", find themselves confronted with. Reports suggest that the model and actress Rosie Huntington-Whitely is also having a trial separation from actor Jason Statham.

Official trial separations may be the preferred way of creating space for those in the public eye, but many people find relationships less neatly categorised. Christine Northam, relationship counsellor for charity Relate, says 5 per cent of her clients consider trial separations.

Penny Mansfield, director of relationship charity One Plus One, suggests the rich and the famous "have to account for themselves if they are going through a rough patch", which may lead to more trial separations.

She says: "Many couples go through a lower profile version – spending less time together, sleeping in separate bedrooms – which may be an equivalent way of finding space and working out what to do."

Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, author of The New Joy of Sex, suggests all separations are, by definition, trial separations, whatever name the couple chooses. "People contacting me who have already split up wouldn't be getting in touch unless they hoped to get back together. Couples who immediately file for divorce are not having a trial separation – everything else is, by nature, a trial. In most couples, at least one will be hoping they get back together. However, sometimes the other is sure it is over, but isn't yet saying."

The outlook for relationships after a trial separation is variable: 10 per cent of couples in ongoing marriages have split up and got back together, according to a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which also suggests that a third of reconciliations are successful, with couples remaining together a year after they split up. Couples are only half as likely to seek counselling if they are no longer living together.

Just as all relationships have their share of eccentricities, there is no one-size-fits-all trial separation. As Andrew Balfour, director of clinical services at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, explains: "For some, a trial may be a developmental move: they can't see the wood from the trees, or this helps break out of repeating patterns. It's an attempt to get emotional space and perspective because when they're together they're swept along by intense feelings. Others may be trying to wean themselves off the relationship. One partner may want it more than the other."

So, if your relationship's on the rocks, is it a good idea to take a break? A trial time apart provides space to give perspective. "It can give a chance to think without the daily stress of interacting with someone you're fighting with," Quilliam says. Her advice varies from couple to couple. "I warn that living separately won't help on its own. With professional help, there's no guarantee of staying together, but I guarantee it will help make a better decision." She says even if one half of a couple goes to counselling, "it can make a difference".

There are other advantages to a trial separation. Mansfield says: "It may be helpful for those wary of a Big Exit, particularly if children are involved." Northam adds that if there is emotional abuse, addiction problems or mental-health problems then a trial separation could be wise.

On the downside, she says it's easier to create time if partners are living together. And you're sending a message to the world that you are considering separating. "You are telling everyone your marriage is in trouble and people can't really ignore that." Mansfield agrees: "Public knowledge can add to problems if people start to take sides."

While some psychotherapists believe trial separations can help, lawyers are less enthusiastic. Tim Langton, family law specialist at Goodman Derrick LLP, says: "Lawyers rarely encourage them. A trial separation can last a week, or a year, and these are radically different." He says with short separations, couples do not need legal advice, but if one party is leaving the family home it may be difficult to return in future, if both partners do not agree. "It's a very serious step because of practical, more than legal, repercussions."

If you do choose a trial separation, Quilliam says you should make sure to be very clear about what it means, asking yourselves: "Is there a chance we'll get back together? Are we dating other people? What if we end up back in bed after seeing each other, does that mean we're back together?" Anyone who has seen the Friends episode "The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break" and the resulting fallout will appreciate the importance of establishing the rules of a break before taking one.

Mansfield recommends people take extra care when explaining the situation to children. "The worst thing to say is that you don't know what is going on," she says. "Children like security. Give them confidence that someone is taking charge, reassure them you are sorting it out. Acknowledge there is something wrong. Parents should keep children informed only up to a level they can cope with."

While there are no guarantees of reconciliation, time is of the essence: "The longer you are apart, the less likely you are to get back together," Quilliam says. "Though I've known couples separate for a couple of years and get back together, and other couples who after six weeks, one half has decided they want a divorce."

She says of Zeta-Jones and Douglas: "They have gone through bipolar disorder and cancer, which puts a strain on any relationship, particularly one in the public eye. Hopefully they are getting professional support and will make things work."

Whether you are a star or not, if you're going to give things another try, Quilliam recommends talking about what differences will help it work as well as being honest about what made you want a break in the first place.

Some names have been changed.

relate.org.uk; oneplusone.org.uk; susan @susanquilliam.com; Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships: tccr.org.uk

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