Should You Divorce or Separate?

Ask yourself these 10 questions to decide which path is best for youBy Natasha Burton

Ending a marriage is one of the most difficult decisions you can make. But sometimes, taking the in-between step of separation before a full-on split could be the right move for you and your family. Here, real women and divorce experts share which questions to ask yourself before you call it quits for good. Photo by Getty Images

1. Do you and your spouse both want out?
When one person wants a divorce, and the other wants to work on things, a separation could be a good option, says Jacqueline Newman, a partner at a law firm in New York City specializing in divorce. It gives the reluctant party time to adjust to no longer being married, which may smooth the in-court process. It goes more quickly and amicably when both parties are ready to divorce.

2. Do you know why you want out?

If you aren't completely sure, consider separation, advises Cari Andreani from Jacksonville, FL. She separated from her husband after three years of marriage and is grateful she took the time to identify why she thought splitting was the best option before going through with it. "We were young and thought, 'I don't have to put up with this. I can find someone else who's better,'" she says. "But many of the things we thought made us incompatible seemed petty in hindsight."

Related: Find out 10 things husbands should never do.

3. Are your marriage problems isolated to this relationship?

"If you're experiencing repeat problems in each relationship than it may be your issues and not necessarily your marriage's," says Tina Swithin, author of Divorcing a Narcissist. Relationship coach Kailen Rosenberg, founder of matchmaking service The Love Architects, suggests understanding your part in the demise of the marriage, not solely your partner's. "Ask yourself: How could you have been healthier, more constructive and more mentally, spiritually and sexually aware and available?" she says. "If you don't get this down now, you'll experience similar issues in your next relationship."

4. Why don't you want a divorce?

In some cases, a separation may be best if your morals or religion tell you divorce is a bad idea, says certified family law specialist Erin M. Childs, who's based in California. "With a legal separation, you divide up property, debts and assets, as well as deal with child custody, visitation and child and spousal support-the business end of a marriage-without dissolving the union," she says.

5. What would it take to heal the wounds of this marriage?

Learning if your marriage is salvageable takes soul searching, says Christia Sale, author of The Most Selfish Woman in America: How to Make Your Divorce the Best Thing That's Ever Happened to You. She suggests asking yourself: "Is there verbal, physical or substance abuse? Is there infidelity? Are there anger issues? Or are you just not in love anymore?" While some issues-like poor communication and needing more affection-are fixable, others-like violence or emotional abuse-aren't.

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6. Are you willing to go to counseling?

If your relationship issues are fixable, try marital therapy while you're separated, says Rosenberg. "It can highlight what isn't working and guide you toward future love," she says. On the flip side, Kate, who divorced after a few separations, says that working with a pro might help you split without regret. "My ex and I weren't ready to totally call it quits," she says. "When I decided to divorce, it was because I didn't want to keep doing this over and over. The main question I asked myself was, 'Would life without my husband be better?' I've never doubted my decision and am a lot happier now."

7. Are you sure you want to divorce?

Separation can give couples a taste for what divorce would be like-and, in some cases, scare them into working things out, says Andreani. "Separation made me realize that I wanted my husband and family and I was willing to do whatever it took to make it work," she says. Now married 16 years ("and counting," she says), she and her husband were able to move past their issues. So if you're not 100% sure about divorce, then separate until you figure it out. "It's hard to turn back once you start down the divorce road," says Newman.

8. How will separating affect your children?

While a separation can give kids false hope of their parents reuniting or make the transition back to being a united family difficult, a trial period before divorce can convince you that splitting is best. Pamela Williams Kelly, a lawyer in Memphis, TN, who separated from her abusive husband when her children were young, didn't realize how much her strained marriage had affected her six-year-old son until her separation. "My son was angry at me and raised his hand to hit me. I knew he saw something I never wanted him to see and my marriage was over," she says. "My children's happiness and welfare superseded any lingering feelings I had for their father and economic worries."

9. Are you or your spouse accumulating assets?
Splitting will certainly affect your income-especially if you or your spouse depends on each other financially. "If you have a bonus-driven job, consider starting an action for divorce to set a cut-off date for finances," suggests Newman. "However, if your spouse's job is bonus driven, you may want to separate and not file for divorce." That way, you'd still be entitled to those assets.

Related: Learn about 9 fights to have with your husband.

10. Do you or your spouse need health insurance?

Another practicality to consider: how you'll be able to obtain health care if you're on your spouse's plan. Since a separation means that, legally, you and your husband are still married and eligible for each other's medical insurance, avoid a full-on divorce if "one party has poor health, an expensive pre-existing health condition or current illness like cancer," Childs says.

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