The state of North Carolina requires a year and a day separation prior to officially filing for divorce.  Many couples on their way to divorce tend to treat this separation as the first year of their divorce. They hire lawyers, live separately, figure out a custody schedule and how to divvy up their assets, and eventually incorporate their separation agreement into a finalized divorce. For partners certain that divorce is the right move, going from separation to divorce can be a very linear process.

Partners who aren’t so sure, however, may be interested to know that the separation process can be intentionally leveraged for a purpose other than definitely divorcing.  Controlled separation is a way to avoid rushing into decisions about divorce. Couples can take the time and energy to evaluate all the options before making any lasting decisions. Partners who set up an agreement like this have the opportunity to try something different and see if they can reverse some negative patterns in their relationship, before deciding if divorce is the best option.

Traditional Separation Vs. Controlled Separation Agreement

Traditionally, in North Carolina, a separation agreement between partners can include all necessary legal decisions prior to divorce, e.g. custody arrangement, alimony, asset division, etc. In North Carolina, one partners have been separated a year and a day, the divorce can be finalized, incorporating all the decisions made in the separation agreement. This format helps to streamline the divorce process, but can end up feeling a lot like deciding to divorce up front. Alternatively, a controlled separation allows couples to define the purpose of their separation, address relationships issues while allowing both partners some physical and emotional space, and can be supported by trusted professionals who are invested in your relationship.

What Makes a Controlled Separation Agreement Different

  • Specific plan for the separation itself, rather than assuming an intention to divorce at the end of the separation
  • Time limit agreed upon by both partners, typically six months to a year
  • Guidelines for partners to follow agreed upon at the outset
  • Covers many areas of concern, including custody schedules and interaction between partners
  • Separation contract can be developed by partners or with the assistance of a professional (therapist, divorce coach, pastor etc.)

I’ve outlined specific recommendations for what to include in your controlled separation agreement and how to write one in other blog post – check them out!

Who Should Try a Controlled Separation Agreement?

Controlled separations are ideal for couples who acknowledge that there are issues in their relationship, and they’re wondering if divorce might be the answer but are hesitant to commit to the finality of divorce at this point. This couple may be experiencing a lot of conflict, feeling significant anger at one another, trying to recover from an affair/infidelity, or thinking that having some space from one another might help them hit the “reset” button on their relationship.

Typically, partners should be in similar states of mind with regard to the purpose of their controlled separation. For one partner to want to use the separation experience to work on the relationship and the other partner only be trying out divorce, a controlled separation may not be the right avenue. If this sounds like you and your partner, check out Discernment Counseling as an alternative. The are-we-on-the-same-page? conversation will need to happen at the outset of setting up the plan and guidelines for the controlled separation agreement.

Getting Support for Your Controlled Separation Agreement

While couples can certainly develop and write a controlled separation, it can be very helpful to have a professional involved to guide the process. This professional could be someone such as a marriage and family therapist, a discernment counselor, a divorce coach or mediator, or a pastor/pastoral counselor. Depending on the couple’s goals, this professional can be involved simply at the outset of the process to help the couple reach an agreement about the points to be included or also throughout the duration of the separation to support and counsel the couple toward reaching their relationship goals.

What a Controlled Separation Agreement Can Do For Your Marriage

In general, there a very few good reasons to rush into a divorce. Typically, divorce is a challenging transition for both partners and their families, and going into that decision without being certain you’re making the right choice can be daunting. A controlled separation agreement can help take the pressure off of partners who are overwhelmed with feeling like they need to decide one way or the other right now. It can also give partners time and space apart to evaluate their relationship from a different perspective. Then, partners can feel more confident in their decision to either ultimately pursue divorce or to give their relationship another chance.

You can find more information on controlled separation throughout this blog. If you’re interested in speaking with me in more depth about your particular situation and how a controlled separation might fit for your life and your relationship, all you have to do is contact me for a free 30-minute consultation at my office. I’d love to help you figure out the right next step!


Nicole Stone, MS LMFT is a relationship-minded and marriage-friendly therapist passionate about working with adults and couples facing anxiety, relationship crisis, and the divorce/separation experience.  She offers individual, couple, and group therapy services in the North Raleigh, NC area.