Even though the institution of marriage has long been idealized in the United States, the traditional rules our parents lived by have started to bend and break.
For instance, it has become the norm for people to live together before they are married. No big deal, right? But think about it for a minute. Just a generation ago, living together before marriage was not only unacceptable, but it would stigmatize you for life – and today, everyone does it. The people who don’t live together before marriage are in the minority. So, in just a short period of time, traditional ideas and rules about marriage have shifted to a more flexible model that better serves our needs today.
I’ve noticed the same shift when it comes to divorce. More and more people are choosing separation as an alternative to divorce. Separation was traditionally that limbo period that couples experienced after they decided to call it quits and before their divorce was finalized. That definition is changing. Today, many people are choosing separation as a longer term strategy or as an end goal in and of itself.
So, what’s contributing to this shift? And what is the potential impact?
1. Financial Reality
Instability in the job market and a lack of growth in our economy has resulted in people having fewer options, especially when it comes to divorce. Money, and the lack thereof, is often a key contributor to divorce and with the recent recessions, divorcing couples are feeling the pinch even more. Within my coaching practice, I’ve seen a rise in couples who, although “separated”, continue to live in the same house and sleep in separate bedrooms. They simply can’t afford to live separately. This kind of separation can last for years and is just one example of how divorcing couples are breaking with tradition due to the changing world around them. In some ways though, I see people using financial fear as an excuse for not making the changes that they know they need to make. The key questions to ask yourself are: what are you gaining in this scenario, and at what personal cost?
2. Divorce is Expensive
Divorce costs as much, if not more, than a wedding. Few people can easily find a way to pay their divorce attorney, especially when they are living on a single income again. So, many divorcing couples have opted to just stay separated until it makes better financial sense. In some cases, that time will come when they sell the house. Well, in today’s real estate market that can take quite a long time. Additionally, some separated couples who have businesses together choose separation as the easier path since a divorce would require their business and personal finances to be completely untangled and divided. Regardless, make sure you protect your assets with a legal separation agreement that defines division of assets and debt, alimony, child support and visitation. Without this formal agreement in place, you may not receive your share of the marital assets if your ex has drained or mismanaged them. You might also be liable for your ex’s debts and legal issues, even though you are no longer together. Don’t make your separation more expensive than the divorce.
3. Separated, But Together for the Kids
There is no way around it. Divorce changes the family structure. Society’s perception of divorce is that it hurts kids the most. I’m personally not convinced that it has to be this way if managed appropriately, but some parents don’t want to take the chance or they choose to wait until their children are off to college. So, in some cases, parents choose to informally separate. There might not be any perceivable change in the family structure beyond sleeping in separate bedrooms. Is it worth sacrificing your happiness, though, based on what you assume the impact will be on your kids? Kids know more than we think they do. And what kind of parent do you think they would prefer? A miserable one or a happy one? One person I know chose this path and when he finally told his daughter that her parents were getting divorced, her response was “what took you so long?”
4. Living in the Past, Due to Fear of the Future
I’ve seen many people in my coaching practice who really just don’t know what to do next once their partner tells them they want a divorce. There is a period of hurt, shock, confusion and anger that is sometimes hard to find your way out of. Without help, this separation can become a limbo period where you can get stuck in the past rather than living your life in the present. The separation becomes an excuse not to move forward or reinvent your life. Fear of an unknown future stops you in our tracks and sabotages your trust in yourself to build a better life. It really is purgatory. And old habits die hard. There’s a story I keep hearing over and over in my practice of the couple who were married for 15, 20, 30 years and then the wife discovers an affair. The husband moves in with the girlfriend, but still calls his wife for help with all the mundane things she used to do for him. The punch line here is that she still answers the phone and typically does what he wants! Co-dependency is a comfortable trap keeping you in old roles that no longer serve you or the person you want to be moving forward. Separation, motivated by fear, is like poking a bruise so that it never goes away.
5. Why Bother?
Lastly, many separated couples I know have no plans to ever get divorced. In these cases, their children are typically grown and they don’t believe that investing in a divorce will give them something they don’t already have. So, why spend the money? In opting for a long-term separation, these couples are also opting out of getting married again. The divorce rate for second marriages is actually far higher than for first, which suggests that they might be on to something here. And of course, this option assumes that you have a formal separation agreement in place. Without it, you are exposing yourself to a lot of financial risk with your ex.
Regardless of the reasons motivating this choice, it is important to recognize that you can create whatever arrangement works best for you during this time of transition. Think of separation as a tool that you are using to better position you and your family for success – whether it be financial or emotional. Gain clarity around what you really want for yourself in this situation. Use this tool, for as long as you need to, to help you achieve your goals. And lastly, make sure you are being motivated by what you want, rather than by what you fear. Your goals will always be stronger!