The Differences Between Separation and Divorce

February 18, 2019
Ending a marriage is never easy, especially if there are children involved. However, do you know the differences between separation and divorce? Understanding the legal and emotional aspects is important to protect the well-being of everyone involved.

Separation and divorce might seem like the same thing, but there are important emotional and legal differences between the two that affect everyone involved. Both spouses are affected and, if they have kids, then they also suffer the consequences.

If you choose to end your marriage, it’s important to know exactly what you’ll be dealing with. The first step is usually separation. The second, more definitive step is divorce.

The differences between separation and divorce

On one hand, you have separation. This is when the spouses no longer live together. However, there are no legal implications to being separated, unless the couple makes it legal in court.

In Spain, there is a concept known as “de facto separation” that doesn’t have any legal implications for third parties. In other words, the spouses decide to end their relationship and stop living together, but they’re still legally married. Divorce, on the other hand, has legal implications for third parties and completely dissolves the marriage. This process has to go through court.

A couple standing on a broken bridge.

Two similarities and three differences between separation and divorce

There are three legal differences between separation and divorce. If you’re thinking about legally ending your relationship, it’s important to keep these things in mind:

  • While separation doesn’t dissolve the marriage, divorce does with a divorce decree from a judge.
  • Divorce severs all economic ties between both spouses. Separation only severs these ties if the spouses submit paperwork in court.
  • After separating, the spouses can’t get married again to each other or anyone else. They have to get divorced first.

In spite of their differences, separation and divorce are legally similar in some ways:

  • Whether you separate or divorce from your spouse, you lose any legal right to inherit anything unless you have a will that specifies otherwise.
  • Once there’s a legal document that establishes separation or divorce, the judge will establish custody of the children, visitation rights, etc. That also includes child support, parental rights, the division of assets, etc.

Psychological differences between divorce and separation

Interestingly, separation tends to be harder than divorce. Most couples go through separation before a divorce. This phase leaves the couple in a kind of limbo. Since their marriage is still legally intact, there’s some hope for reconciliation.

In other words, the first and most difficult step can be the separation. By the time the couple goes through the actual divorce, both spouses have probably already started their new lives apart, so it isn’t as traumatic. In fact, some people feel like it’s a liberating experience.

However, another possibility is that one spouse still had the hope of saving the marriage and finally ending it legally is proof that the relationship is over. In that case, the divorce will be really hard on that spouse.

Hands holding on by the fingertips.

The grieving process

Both separation and divorce are difficult. The end of a marriage can trigger a grieving process that’s very similar to when you lose a loved one. You might experience:

  • Feeling of loss and unfulfilled expectations.
  • Feeling like a failure, which can make you feel guilty.
  • You may worry about the kids and the changes that are coming.
  • Low self-esteem, second-guessing yourself, and re-evaluating your past decisions.
  • Falling into a depression from ending a relationship with someone you’ve shared years of your life with.
  • Anxiety is very common. You might have insomnia as well.
  • If there are any domestic violence or gender violence issues surrounding the separation, the affected spouse might have post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • One or both spouses might have symptoms of maladjustment and isolate themselves.

There’s no doubt that separation and divorce aren’t easy for anyone involved. However, you have to try your best to be rational and re-direct your life, especially if there are kids in the mix.

“Relationships end, but they don’t end your life.”

-Steve Martin-

Clarke-Stewart, K. A., Vandell, D. L., McCartney, K., Owen, M. T., & Booth, C. (2000). Effects of parental separation and divorce on very young children. Journal of Family Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.14.2.304

Cherlin, A. J. (2010). Demographic trends in the United States: A review of research in the 2000s. Journal of Marriage and Family. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00710.x