A new study found no difference between troubled couples who divorced after trial separations, and couples who divorced immediately -- but it did find unique characteristics of couples who separated for the long term and never divorced.

Long-term separations (often a decade or longer) typically involved minorities, couples with low education and income levels, and young couples with children. Study leaders concluded that long-term separations are the "low-cost, do-it-yourself alternative to divorce for many disadvantaged couples."

"Separation may not be their first choice, but they may feel it is their best choice," said Dmitry Tumin, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University. The study, released this weekend at the American Sociological Association's annual conference, is based on a national survey of more than 7,000 people in the U.S. who are, or have been, married.

The numbers from the study:

  • 49 percent of participants left their first marriages.
  • 60 percent of those participants first tried marital separations.
  • 80 percent of those who first tried separations moved on to divorce.
  • Among the 20 percent who didn't proceed to divorce, 5 percent tried to reconcile and 15 percent remained in long-term marriage separations.

Study authors suspect that people who opt for long-term separations don't have the money to file for legal divorces. Or they might worry that divorces would actually make it harder to gain financial support from their spouses. The authors suspected that religion would factor into the decision -- that some couples would stay separated but not divorced because of their religious backgrounds -- but that wasn't the case.

The prevalence of couples in long-term separations is elusive because a separation doesn't necessarily require a legal filing. In Minnesota, couples can file for legal separations -- which aren't final like divorces but give husbands and wives legal terms for financial support, child custody and other matters. Legal separations aren't pursued very often in Minnesota, though there was an uptick in filings during the recession, according to data from the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

There were only 68 such filings in Minnesota in 2004, but that number increased to 108 in 2008 and in 2009.

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