The Unselfish Divorce: Separating But Living Together

Trying times call for trying new measures. Today's economy has left many divorcing couples in a position of not being able to make a clean break and move out.
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Trying times call for trying new measures. Today's economy has left many divorcing couples in a position of not being able to make a clean break and move out. Opera singer Cassandra Manning and her husband Jeremy are one of the couples who talked about the difficulty they've had with this reality. They are not alone. Christina Aguilera and Jordan Bratman, Stephanie Seymour and her husband Peter Brant, as well as many other separating couples continued to live together for a variety of reasons.

Years ago I worked with a couple, let's call them Bonnie and Frank, who reached the end of their marital rope as partners, but not as parents. Given their financial constraints, they continued to live together. Despite their anger and resentment toward each other, they remained steadfast in their commitment to their children. While irresponsible in most aspects of the marriage, Frank always rallied around taking care of the children. I remember once Bonnie asked if I thought it would be strange if they vacationed together at Disney World with the kids while going through their divorce. Apart, neither could make the trip, for practical and financial reasons, but together they could; so I supported their cooperative spirit.
Divorce is a long process which takes time. Bonnie and Frank were at the beginning of their divorce, which is one of the most difficult phases, because it's a gray zone, an uncharted territory with no clear rules. But their exerted effort actually added up to their getting along civilly with each other and helped dilute some of the bad blood between them. Their Disney World trip became a blueprint for behaving respectfully despite their mutual anger so that they could expedite their divorce and get on with their lives. It set the stage for remaining accessible and available to each other, despite their differences. Together they made sure that their children didn't suffer and smoothly maintained the kids' schedules with school, afterschool activities and friends.

Their experience got me thinking about the unselfish divorce. For some couples it can actually be a reality rather than a fantasy to work together as you proceed through the divorce to achieve your goal of being separate. Whether you are motivated by your children, limited finances, or other practicalities, the unselfish divorce is something to aspire to. While "over and out" is always an option, the matters of money and children are making a huge difference in the freedom, or lack thereof, available to couples who no longer want to be married to each other. Some couples simply can't afford to live in two separate households with all the accompanying expenses, especially if they are paying high rent or one or both are out of a job. Consequently, spouses may have to live together indefinitely on the road to divorce until they have enough money to move out.

My book What About Me?: Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship describes getting from a me to a we, learning to share while holding onto yourself. If you don't do that, it can spell the demise of your marriage. In an ironic way, not being able to find the we while you are getting divorced can be equally damaging because it can keep you pitted against your spouse in ongoing battle. If you can put the measuring of who gives and gets more aside, and help each other through the hard time, you will get there faster. Be very clear about the expectations you have of each other with regard to joint responsibility, which will allow things to go as easily as possible. If you can reasonably divvy them up it will unite you in your common goal of separating. This creates a living environment that gives you the room to pursue an independent life from each other. Although you may still be together under one roof, by drawing clear lines in the sand you really can divide and conquer the realm of divorce. If you are willing to lay down weapons and let go of the blame and criticism, you can make an unworkable marriage a workable divorce.

This is easier said than done. It means focusing on what you both stand to gain rather than what each of you is going to lose in the process. This isn't for everyone. If there has been infidelity and betrayal, or if one person wants out but the other doesn't, the damage and pain is a huge force field to navigate.

As Bonnie was going through her divorce, at one point she told me she couldn't believe that it had come to her fighting with Frank over who would get to keep the sugar bowl (a wedding gift). I replied while she couldn't hold onto the sweetness lost between her and Frank, she could instead continue to make choices to behave in a way that didn't turn things more sour than they already were. Deciding to manage their anger constructively made a huge difference in their getting through the divorce, and it is an option for couples to strive for.

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