Erica, a college freshman at the time, was one of the few people not surprised when her best friend’s parents, Marcy and Jim Blume (last names have been changed), announced they were getting divorced.
“They haven’t slept in the same bedroom for years,” Erica told her mom — something she knew from a decade of sleepovers at her friend’s house.
Marcy and Jim are among a growing number of long-married couples who decide to separate but continue to live together. There are a number of reasons that people do this: Economically, one or both might not be capable of supporting himself, the divorce itself might be too expensive, or they might not be emotionally ready to formally and permanently split.
While some try to keep the arrangement under wraps, plenty of others are straightforward about it. At work, the gym and the country club, men and women are spilling the news that although emotionally they’re residing in Splitsville, physically they’re still living under the same roof.
The phenomenon of being "separated but together" is a new kind of normal, particularly for couples over age 50. Often they have been married for 20 or more years and jointly own a home and other valuable assets, says Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist in Southern California and the author of 13 books on relationships, including Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.
Whether couples are staying together because they (consciously or unconsciously) are holding out for a reconciliation or because they feel they can’t afford to maintain their lifestyle on their own, they need to take some a few important things into consideration.
In many states, a couple needs to live apart physically for a certain period of time (often a year) before they can begin divorce proceedings. So basically they’re just kicking the can down the road. And sometimes, staying together can actually cost people money. Until legal proceedings have begun, each partner is liable for the other’s debts — both from past plus any new ones. In extreme cases, one person might empty joint bank accounts or transfer shared property ownership into his or her own name.
Given the spike in divorces after age 50 and grim economic realities for many of these people, potential cohabitors need to weigh the pros and cons of the arrangement. If staying under one roof seems to be the most acceptable solution when divorce isn't feasible, at least in the near-term, it’s essential that the couple establish some ground rules so that cohabitating doesn’t turn into a nightmare.
(MORE: How to Tell Your Adult Children You're Divorcing)
The Ties That Bind?
According to Tessina, the most common thing that keeps people together is money — or more to the point, the lack thereof. One example: The pensions and savings that were supposed to sustain a retired couple won’t stretch to cover two separate households at the same standard of living. Other possibilities: college expenses, debt or simply the inability to make ends meet on their own.
Fear of losing her home was Marcy Blume’s motivation. “It sounds silly, but I knew that when Jim and I truly divorced, unless I won lotto or something, I’d never have as nice a kitchen again for the rest of my life," she confides. "I wasn’t ready to give that up.”
The new economic reality that comes with divorce goes beyond having a comfortable home. End a marriage and you no longer have two paychecks — or two full Social Security checks — coming in. Living in two homes also means two sets of utility bills and divorced people often wind up paying more in taxes. In many states, all assets in a long-term marriage — saving and investment accounts, primary (and second) homes, boats, valuable jewelry, businesses — get divided (often in half) and one partner also might end up having to pay the other alimony. Plus if there are children living at home, the burden on the primary guardian might be unmanageable alone.
And then there are the oddball issues you don’t think about until they come up. “Something that really hung us up was what to do with the burial plots,” says Britt Danforth, who continued to cohabit with her estranged husband for nearly two years after their emotional connection and sexual life ended.
Britt and her former husband, Peter, had bought two of the last remaining burial spots in the graveyard behind the historic Congregational church in the small New England town where they had both grown up — and where members of their families had been interred for more than 200 years. They no longer wanted to be buried next to each other, but neither wanted to sell the adjoining plot to the other.
“In the end, we sold to someone else in the town, got a good price and divided the money equally," she says. "But until we could get over that hurdle, neither of us was going to budge from the house."
(MORE: For the Sake of the Kids)
Separated but Still Parents
Some estranged baby boomers continue to live together “for the children,” even after they’ve flown the nest. “We wanted the kids to feel they could come home for Christmas,” says Ian Kent, whose three children in their 20s have careers in Los Angeles, half a continent away from their suburban Chicago childhood home. Ian and his former wife, Karen, continued to live in their spacious house for two years after they decided to divorce.
Now remarried, Ian says the arrangement was, on the whole, a success. "It took time for Karen to re-establish her public relations career to a point where we could both afford new homes we loved," he says. "We also needed to get used to the idea that even though our marriage failed and we were no longer living the suburban dream, we had not failed as people and we had not failed our children.”
The Hidden Costs
While many “separated” couples decide to stay together because they believe they’ll save money, sometimes the reality is precisely the opposite, says Nicole Sodoma, a family law attorney licensed in North Carolina and Washington. “Many states require that couples live apart for a specific amount of time — a year and a day, in North Carolina, for instance — before the divorce can proceed,” Sodoma says.
In states that require a physical separation before a legal separation is hashed out, marriages necessarily take more time to dissolve. And the longer people are legally married, the longer they must wait to have their assets divided by a legal authority — and that they're on the hook for the other's debt.
(MORE: Divorce After 50 Calls for Special Money Strategies)
Lauren Black, who divorced her husband of 27 years after discovering he had been seeing prostitutes behind her back for most of their marriage, didn’t believe the man she had loved since college — the father of her children — could do any more harm. So when he begged to live in their basement “in-law” apartment after she kicked him out, she consented.
But that turned out to be a huge mistake. “One day I came home from work early because I wasn’t feeling well,” Lauren says. “And there was my ex, pocketing the key to our safe deposit box where we kept the deed to the house and the car titles. I immediately called the police.”
Lauren’s dramatic case illustrates how impending divorce can bring out the worst in people. That’s why Sodoma advises people who choose to cohabit before the divorce to hire “a good lawyer who will help educate them about their options — as soon as possible.”
Six Rules for Not-Quite-Separated Couples
Living together when you’re planning a divorce should be a temporary situation, Tessina says. She strongly recommends that couples follow these guidelines until the separation becomes physical and legal.
- Establish and respect physical boundaries. Separate bedrooms is a must — and ideally separate bathrooms. Give each other as much private space as possible. Word to the Wise: Assign yourselves shelves in the refrigerator and pantry. And try to avoid spending time together in the same rooms. This includes no cooking for the other person or eating or watching TV together, etc.
- Work out a financial agreement. Separating couples should keep track of every dollar they spend to ensure a more equitable division of property when lawyers begin evaluating assets. The person who paid for a roof repair, for instance, should get credit when apportioning the value of the house. Word to the Wise: Household finances should not be the purview of only one former partner. Both should have full access to all shared financial accounts and records related to joint property, debts and incoming bills until a lawyer has worked out an agreement.
- Divide up responsibilities. Be clear about who does what. Use a chart to indicate household assignments, similar to the ones used by college roommates and elementary school teachers. Word to the Wise: While disentangling your finances, chuck the shared account. Rotate bills as per your agreement. Keep good records. Let a lawyer deal withAnd turn over the management of joint saving accounts and other assets to an attorney as quickly as possible.
- Do not sleep together. Tessina cautions that if an estranged couple has sex, one of the partners may mistake the act for an overture of reconciliation. Even sleeping in the same bed platonically can blur boundaries. Word to the Wise: Tessina says if you think there's hope of a reconciliation, don't complicate things with sex. Give yourselves sufficient time and space to see if you can work things out. Then you can rekindle the romance.
- Make house rules. Is it OK to date? How about bringing a date home? Couples need to discuss how they intend to handle situations like these before they arise. Word to the Wise: Agree to renegotiate after a few weeks or months. Something that feels right at the beginning of a “separate but together” relationship may turn out to be annoying or painful.
- Draw the social lines. Also before situations occur, talk about whether you still feel comfortable attending events together, what will happen during family holidays, and what you plan to tell your friends and colleagues. Word to the Wise: Yes, people will talk behind your back when you make it public that you plan to live together before the divorce. Being upfront to friends and family means you won’t need to make excuses, tell lies or upset someone who spots you or your soon-to-be ex with a date, Tessina says.
Most important, people who plan to stay in the same home while dissolving their marriage should be clear about their motives. “A big reason people divorce is failure to communicate, and, unfortunately, arrangements like these require a lot of communication to work,” Tessina observes. Remaining in the marital home may be a work-around to the high cost of a divorce in the short term, but in the long term, it can take an emotional toll that no legal agreement will resolve.