My colleagues who work primarily with adversarial divorces find it impossible to imagine, but in my work exclusively with couples who know they need to divorce, are able to be reasonably cooperative, and who want to stay that way, I talk to couples every day who plan to stay in the same residence after they divorce. Can it work? Well sure. We’ll look first at why couples do it, and then we’ll talk about some of the pitfalls. We’ll finish with some of the steps you and your spouse can take to improve the probability of success.
For starters, it saves money. There’s no question that, on average, keeping up two households costs more than keeping up one. Because divorce itself costs a lot of money, it’s not at all unusual for people going through divorce to be looking around for ways to save money. If you and your spouse can bear being in the same residence together after your divorce is finished, one or both of you will be able to pocket a little extra cash, and that can make a difference.
If you’re in the same residence, it makes it easier for both of you to care for your children. Both parents can be active in morning and bedtime rituals, can help with homework, can spell each other with carpooling, and can support each other with discipline.
If you’re the leaver and the left is dragging his or her feet, the assurance that nobody is going to have to move out right away may help the left agree to sign the divorce papers and keep the divorce cooperative. And this of course will save money too.
Perhaps the most common reason for living together after divorce is to pool resources to make the house payment while working to sell it (or to pay the rent long enough for the lease term to end without penalty). Both spouses know that there’s an end point, so they figure they can stay together and get through it.
One of the comments I hear most often from my clients is how much better they are as roommates than they were as spouses. I can’t tell you why, but couples often find it much easier to stay in the same residence once they have resolved the issues of their divorce.
Ah, let us count the ways. First, there’s a reason the two of you are getting divorced. What about that is going to change just because a judge you don’t know has signed a divorce decree? What are the risks that the same problems that made you decide to divorce will also make it impractical for you to live together when you’re single?
Your friends and family will be no help. If they find out you’re still living together (or are you trying to keep them in the dark?), they will decide you’re off your rocker. Play in your head the conversation you know people are going to have about you and your spouse – you know what they’re going to say, don’t you?
If you have children living in the home with you, what risk is there that you will confuse them by continuing to live together? Children respond much more keenly to what they experience than to what their parents tell them about it. If you and your spouse tell them Mom and Dad are divorcing but they see Mom and Dad still living together and behaving as if they are still married, your children may well forget the whole divorce conversation and ignore it the next time or two they hear it as well. That is, by living together after divorce, you run the risk of exacerbating the natural tendency of your children to delay their grieving; they may stay in denial longer.
And while we’re on the subject of denial, let’s deal with the two of you. If your divorce is typical, one of you is the leaver and the other is the left. One of the oldest tricks in the book is for the left to encourage living together with the leaver after the divorce is effective, secretly (or not so secretly) hoping to persuade the leaver to reunite the marriage. If you’re the leaver, do you really want to delay the grieving of the left by keeping alive false hopes of reconciliation?
Now what if those hopes the left is having are not false hopes? Then good for you. There’s a chance to save your marriage. The way to save it is not to just fall back into all the same patterns that got you to this crisis. You and your spouse need to spend some time in counseling. You’re going to need to change at least some of the ways you interact with each other, and you won’t bring about meaningful change without the hard work that comes when you confront issues honestly.
Now let’s say there’s no risk of extending the grieving of your children or that of either of you. What else might go wrong? In some states, there’s a risk that you could become married again at common law (that is, undo your divorce). The standard is what you and your spouse intend, but because we can’t crawl up inside your head and measure your brain (at least not yet!), the courts look instead at how you behave. When people behave as if they’re husband and wife, courts in some states might declare that they are husband and wife.
The best way I know to counter this risk if it’s an issue in your state is for both of you to make it ever so clear to your friends and family that you are divorced and intend to stay that way, as in “The divorce is final now. We’re living in the house as roommates while we’re working to sell it.”
Perhaps the issue most likely to trouble you if you live together after you divorce is money. In the past, you’ve developed rules and customs about how you accounted for money, how you decided what to spend, and who had what responsibilities. Now those rules are gone. Or are they? What are the new rules? Are there any old rules that remain? What money will you combine, and what money will you keep separate?
This basically works down to one word: clarity. Here are some questions I encourage you to discuss with each other before you decide to live together after you divorce:
- Is one of us still hopeful that we will reverse the divorce and save the marriage? Is this hope realistic? If so, let’s get some counseling now. If not, maybe it’s a bad idea for us to live together.
- Will our living together delay (and therefore worsen) the grieving our children need to go through? If so, maybe it’s a bad idea for us to live together.
- What is our time frame? Have we already set a date certain for one or both of us to move? If not, how will we know when it’s time?
- If one of us wants to bail out early, will we allow that? How?
- How will we pay household expenses? Is one of us required to pay child support or alimony to the other? If so, how will we make sure we obey the court’s order?
- What money will we share, and what money will we keep separate?
- Who will have access to what credit while we’re living together?
- How will all this change if one of us leaves sooner than we planned?
- How much of this are we going to include in the legally binding marital settlement agreement, and how much of it will be simply an issue of trust?
- Is there a risk of common law marriage in our state? If so, what steps will we take to avoid it?
- Is there any space in our home where one of us will not go, at least not without a specific invitation?
- Are there other spaces in our home where we need to allow one of us exclusive use for short periods of time (like a bathroom or the kitchen)? Do we need to write down a specific schedule?
- What approach are we going to take to dating? Are we permitted to bring a romantic partner into the home? When? Will we have some “ground rules” about what one spouse will do when the other brings a romantic partner to the house? How will the people we are considering dating react to our continuing to live together after divorce?
- Is there anyone whose presence in the shared residence would create difficulty or hurt feelings?
- Are we going to have sex with each other?
- How will we describe our living arrangement to friends and family? Will we say one thing to some and another to others? How will we keep our various stories straight?
- What other concerns does either of us have about this that Lee forgot to ask and that we haven’t yet discussed? (Lee’s note: when you come up with this, I’d be grateful if you’d pass it along to me.)