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Divorced but Still Living Together?

There are four areas that seem to become the most problematic.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Divorce is not easy for any couple. Because most committed relationships begin with bright promises, the partners do not expect them to fail. But sometimes, after countless attempts to solve their problems and revive their love, one or both can no longer afford the price they are paying.

Once a couple makes the decision to end their relationship, they must then begin the arduous process of navigating that ending. Most separate out all that has bound them together and then move on to lead separate lives.

But some cannot. For a multitude of reasons, they are unable to move out and continue to live together, divorced but unable to physically separate. They have to inhabit the same space, sometimes for long periods of time.

I have observed many of these divorced-but-living-together relationships. The people who have chosen this way of life face multiple challenges. They need to decide how much to share their decision with others, how to negotiate fair participation in maintaining their situation, and how to function together in a new way that is often painfully altered from what they’d once known.

Even with the best of intentions, they often cannot accurately predict what to expect or know how to cope, especially when situations arise that they are not prepared for.

There are four areas that seem to become the most problematic. If couples can talk them out in advance and make plans to negotiate their difficulties, they have a much better chance of turning a potentially draining or explosive situation into one that has the best chance of working.

1. Other relationships

All people have needs from all of their relationships. Intimate partnerships, in particular, require their own unique combination of security and risk. When people can no longer fulfill those needs for each other, they still ache for them and will eventually seek them somewhere else.

How can divorced people who still live together feel about either ex-partner having external relationships, and how do they manage them? It would be wonderful if both did not feel distressed by these odd triangles, but mostly that is not the case. How to negotiate managing simultaneous relationships is an often anguishing and difficult process.

In some cultures, that is not so much of a problem. The men and women in ongoing, committed relationships are allowed private, tacit alternative relationships as long as the family is respected and remains the first priority. That doesn’t mean it is always preferable or even easy, but it is allowed.

In cultures where external relationships are not supported, it is a much more difficult situation to navigate when divorced couples still inhabit the same space. Opportunities on social media have become the solution for many. But people are human, and some online relationships become connections in real-time. Rarely are couples open enough with each other to share those transitions and work out new arrangements to integrate them.

If an external relationship begins to affect the couple’s capacity to communicate, negotiate, and solve the new pressures it brings, it may force the couple to reconsider their choice to live together, no matter what the cost.

2. Sharing resources

Successfully committed couples willingly share their resources and do everything they can to be fair in the process. Whether time, money, availability, love, or anything else that fuels the engines of partnership, those resources are honored and renewed by both.

When a committed relationship fails, those priorities will change, and automatic entitlement to using no-longer-common resources must now be negotiated.

Some couples do not legally divorce because they want to continue to share a resource, such as medical insurance. They agree to the terms of the divorce but do not make it legally binding. Others don’t want to be responsible for debts that the other might incur during the time they are still together. Agreeing on how, when, and why the resources should be redistributed is a crucial issue.

Making those decisions can be very stressful. What was once a common chest of available resources now morphs into two separate, private stashes, often withheld from the other. The couple has to put together a common budget for the expenses they continue to share while relinquishing access to anything beyond that.

3. Public versus private

When people decide their relationship is over but remain living together, they have to agree on who to tell and when. Both partners will need others to fill the needs they now lack and are likely to reach out to family and trusted friends for support. Yet, many couples prefer to keep their agreement private to lessen the negative impact that divorce can have on employers, social groups, or any other potential influences.

Divorced couples do not have the same social status in most societies as those who stay together. Divorced people are unjustly considered less trustable by many, and they may be denied opportunities because of that perceived failure. Many tell me that they would just as soon pretend that everything is OK to keep those potential judgments at bay. They don’t want to have to explain or defend why they are doing what they are doing.

4. The relationship itself

Couples who have decided to end their love partnership but continue living together will still have some kind of a relationship. They see each other every day, they share the same space, and they interact on a constant basis.

The ways in which they resolved their relationship issues before they decided to part makes a significant difference in how they interact afterward. Those behaviors cover the span from resentful co-existing to caring friendships that are mutually respectful and supportive. The way a divorced-but-still-living together couple think, feel, and act with each other while they are still together will form who they will become in future relationships.

Those couples who have children must decide on what, or whether, to tell them. They have to have a common story that can explain why they are sleeping in separate rooms, disappear for days at a time, or never exhibit love or affection towards each other.

From once being lovers who promised a life together, they are now effectively roommates only, destined by a mutual decision to create a different kind of relationship. Do they wash their own cars, buy their own food, share the cost of maintenance and services, have assigned times to have separate friends over? How do they share emergency responses, medical bills, gifts for others, extended family rituals? How do they expect others to participate in their unique arrangements without taking sides or trying to exert unwanted influence? How do they remain a functioning partnership knowing they are not going to spend their lives together forever?

Potential breaking points

No relationship remains benign or stable, no matter how it may appear. Though there may be a handful of people who can successfully balance being both single and married, most cannot continue living that duality forever.

At some point in time, one or the other is likely to find someone else they would prefer to be with, who will not consider being part of an unstable triangle. Or, perhaps, one partner begins to earn more money or have more opportunities than the other. What if the frustrations or restraints of the arrangement begin to build more negativity as one partner feels too trapped by them? Instead of thinking they could both use a stable base and continue to find a more satisfying life external to that structure, one or both partners become increasingly less comfortable being witnessed by the other.

When those likelihoods occur, tensions are likely to mount and the hope of peaceful coexistence will predictably fade away. Generosity dies. Resentment increases. And, unless there is truly no way out, the relationship begins to cost more than it can give.

* * * *

There are couples who feel that they have no option to leave the relationship after they are legally or emotionally divorced. Be it because of religious commitments, a lack of economic capability to finance two residences, attachments to what they have created together, a mutual love of family, or the fear that there may be nothing better out there, they continue to live together. If they both agree to relinquish their freedom in order to hold on to a lifestyle they cannot maintain without each other, they sometimes maintain that arrangement for long periods of time.

In order to succeed at that challenging task, they agree to focus on the positives of the situation rather than what they are giving up. It may not last forever, but they vow to make the best of it while it still exists.


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