Divorcing but Still Living Together?
How can you live with your spouse when a divorce is imminent but before physical separation is possible?
Often couples have decided to divorce, and yet they cannot immediately physically separate. How can couples make this interim period of cohabiting as functional and healthy as possible — both for themselves and their children?
This article deals with the issues of living together in this place of high conflict while either working through the divorce process or preparing to do so.
Early on, talk to a mediator or a couples’ therapist to help set up some ground rules. When communication has broken down, couples are helped by having a third-party help guide a productive conversation. Establishing new ground rules may seem fantastical to spouses married for 20-plus years, but this is a new phase, and implementing some rudimentary rules and guidelines for courtesy can significantly improve the living environment.
Aggressiveness between parents is abusive to children. Yelling and screaming, name-calling, criticizing, and all other hostile behaviors should be eliminated, particularly in the presence of children. Even unspoken body language, grimaces that hold back harsh words, and disapproval are palatable and harmful to everyone within range; they are as audible as unkind words. Protecting each other and the children from this may require that spouses limit time in one another’s presence.
If spousal communications are necessary but achieving calm, respectful intercourse is impossible, spouses should schedule short times outside the home to vent or discuss, preferably in mediation or therapeutic context with a trained professional, however, if this is not practical, they can certainly agree to some limitations, such as time limits for discussions. For example, set a timer for five minutes for each spouse to share uninterrupted. Agree that the conversation ends after 15 minutes and that if either feels unsafe he/she can terminate the conversation and try again in the next day or so, once there has been ample opportunity to regroup.
Triggers and workarounds
Identify concrete trigger points for stress. For example, one spouse might be set off by unwashed dishes piling up in the sink. Agree that within 20 minutes of eating, the sink is emptied, and all dishes are securely in the dishwasher.
Perhaps running out of cream for morning coffee sets one spouse’s entire day off on the wrong foot. Agree to stock staples and establish a jar for funds to which each spouse contributes. Establish days of the week for marketing in advance. When tensions are high and emotional resources low, simple things add predictability and comfort as well as avert unnecessary flare-ups.
Strengths and honoring them
It’s equally important to take stock of what has worked and continues to work in the household. Perhaps there are some rhythms and habits that help the family get out the door in the morning, get homework done, and have bath times accomplished. Those things should be acknowledged and appreciated. Inventorying (rather than dismissing as we tend to do) all the minor (and major) contributions family members make daily — from taking out the garbage, to mowing the lawn, to starting the laundry, to paying the bills — helps to reset the focus and narrative around functionality and resilience.
Comings and goings
Reentering, and awaiting the other’s reentry to the marital home can be surprisingly stressful during this transitional period. One way to manage this stressor is to communicate about when each spouse is returning home. Awaiting the return of a spouse can be anxiety-provoking, particularly when it can mean conflict, and can be mitigated with simple behavioral modifications. Mutually establishing a schedule so that each spouse has notice and predictability when the other will be returning home helps each manage their stress.
Additionally, a simple text or voice message when on the way home, especially if there is to be even a slight modification to the arrival time, can be a gesture of care and a nod to the degree of attention the difficult situation requires.
This is a period of transition. Having some predictability and care around simply being a thoughtful co-habitant can help regulate the environment and ease the tension for the family.
Make shared spaces more efficient
Overlapping times — particularly pressured times like weekday mornings — can be helped by simple set-ups so spouses can avoid unnecessary contact when they are rushed and dealing with multiple pressures simultaneously. For example, the morning routine is difficult because both spouses are in the kitchen at the same time with the kids. Perhaps spouses are newly sleeping in separate rooms, and the early morning reunion is emotionally triggering. Set up something simple like a coffee station and to-go cups, so that the two of you can come in and go out as needed. If getting the kids ready for school together tends to be a time when things break down, or where there are conflicts, alternate mornings when one of you takes the lead and the other steps back.
Conscientiously avoiding hotbeds of conflict is one step in mastering the situation. Rather than continuing to throw yourselves into difficulty and expect yourself to do better, some forethought and planning can set you up for more successful interactions. This is important not just for the day-to-day, but for establishing a long-term ease that the family can begin to adjust to.
Co-parenting while cohabiting
This period of living together can provide an opportunity to gently transition to the forecasted parenting plan without the added complications of two separate households and only one parent being present at a time.
Even if a parenting plan has not yet been conclusively reached, parents can use this time to spend time separately with the children and have one-on-one time with the child. Perhaps one parent has “dinner duty” one night, and the other parent plays a secondary role. If used consciously, this period can serve as a practice platform for parents to alternate filing the lead and support roles; allowing a less involved parent the opportunity to take on greater responsibilities, and the traditionally “primary” parent a chance to release the reins over time. For a parent who has not been the “primary” caregiver, shifting into the primary role with the scaffolding of having the other parent close by or returning shortly, can be helpful. This can be supportive for both the parent taking on a more responsible/active parenting role and the parent beginning to make room for this contribution from the other.
Designating times when each parent will take the lead can provide the other parent with some downtime to attend to themselves and their individual needs which is even more crucial in the intense living situation.
Designated one-on-one time between parent and child has the additional benefit of strengthening the attachments, which benefits the children who are experiencing the shifts and stresses of uncertainty while the family is reorganizing.
Take the pressure off yourselves as a couple, and as a family.
This is not the new normal. This is not the destination of your familial journey. This is a very peculiar, and fraught transition time. Recognize it as such. If refraining from having mealtimes together eases tensions now, that does not mean that shared mealtimes will not be possible down the road. Honoring what is needed right now will help family members attend to their authentic needs and make room for a greater range of options in the future.
Transitions are as uncomfortable as they are necessary. Be gentle with yourselves and one another as your family shifts into a new way that will more genuinely align with the anticipated change in the marital status and living situation.
Alexander Mediation Group