Marital Separation Boundaries: What Should They Be? How Do You Set Them?

Many people intuitively know that it’s best to attempt to agree about several upcoming aspects of a martial or trial separation. However, knowing and doing are two different things. You can know that it’s optimal to set guidelines or boundaries and still be unsure about how to broach this topic or which boundaries are most important.

For example, someone might say: “my husband is moving out because he insists on a separation. Many of my friends who have separated say that I should try to pin my husband down on his boundaries because if I just leave everything to chance, I might never regularly talk to my husband. They say that life will be easier if we agree on the basics. This sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure what types of things we are supposed to agree on or what to set boundaries for. I worry that setting boundaries like this is actually going to hurt me because it’s going to allow for my husband to limit things.”

I understand the concern. I had the same types of concerns. I did not have the “boundaries” talk, which ultimately ended up hurting me and, I believe, making my separation last longer than it should have. My husband kept suggesting that we “just wait and see” how things went and I reluctantly agreed to this. But what that ended up meaning was that I was just waiting for an awfully long time. I got tired of waiting, so I would take the initiative and try to call or text my husband. At first, he was patient with this. But eventually he started to avoid me. I believe that if we’d set out the contact expectations beforehand, perhaps all of this could have been avoided. We did eventually reconcile, but not without a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings first. And frankly, I was the one who took the initiative. I am not sure that my husband would have, at least at that time.

Deciding On Which Boundaries Are Most Important: As far as what sort of boundaries should be set, that is going to depend upon the couple and on the circumstances around the separation. Couples who have children should make the details about their care and well-being the top priority. Who gets the children at what time? How will the spouse who moves out regularly communicate with them? There are other issues like who will take care of tasks like paying the bills or mowing the lawn? How often will you talk to one another and by what method? How would you like to handle it if something unexpected comes up? Some couples just set up a regular time to get together and to talk about household / marital things – like Friday nights or Sundays after church. Some couples have very specific communication boundaries like they won’t text emotional messages to one another because these texts can be misunderstood. So they’ll agree to only text about administrative things and to then to talk on the phone or meet face to face when they want to discuss the marriage or their feelings. Some spouses will mandate that there are no late night calls or unexpected drop ins.

Other spouses will literally pre-set the time frame of their separation. They will agree that in say, three months, they will discuss if they want to reconcile or divorce. Or some will even say that the separation will only last three months (or whatever time frame works) and then they will reconcile, hopefully ready to get to work to save the marriage. Other couples will agree to counseling at set times.

Looking back on all of this now, I can definitely see the benefit of defining as many variables as you can. I know that it might seem overly regimented at times, but I know from my own separation that sometimes, if you leave this to chance, you may be disappointed when nothing happens or when misunderstandings occur. There’s nothing worse than waiting by the phone to try to decipher how your spouse is doing or what he is feeling. I remember that experience and I remember that it caused me to act in all sorts of desperate ways that pushed my husband further and further away from me.

Perhaps if we had agreed to meet once a week (or at least to talk a few times per week,) things would not have gone downhill so quickly.  If I could go back in time, I would most definitely had pushed for regular counseling or getting together to talk about our marriage. Because, at least in that case, I’d have had the peace of mind of knowing that there would be regular contact. People are sometimes doubtful that their spouse will agree to these terms, but just like any other agreement, it’s about negotiation. Maybe you agree to liberal space if he agrees that you’ll meet regularly. Identify what is most important to you and be prepared to concede what is most important to him in exchange.

But yes, many couples do set boundaries on the issues that are bound to come up during the separation. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. And it can also help to ensure that you and your spouse communicate regularly, which is vitally important if you are interested in reconciling. Take it from me, allowing yourself to “just wait and see what happens” is a risky idea. In my sometimes painful experience, it’s best to agree upon as much as you can ahead of time and then be very pleasant and agreeable when carrying it out.  You can read more on my blog at

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