You know it’s going to be awkward, but you think you can handle it. You know it will tax your patience, but you’re determined to rise above the friction. And you know it won’t last forever, which is why you’re willing to live in the same house with your estranged spouse while you’re getting a divorce – and keeping your relations as civil as possible. Psychologists and divorce counselors say this unconventional living arrangement can work – if you set practical, legal, financial and emotional parameters first.
Set Practical Boundaries
As roommates, you and your soon-to-be former partner probably have well-established spaces where you prefer to eat, relax, work and sleep. These habits may change in the face of an impending divorce. So without resorting to drawing chalk lines down each room, designate “exclusive” and “shared” domains in your home, and begin with what may be the thorniest issue: the sleeping arrangements.
After you’ve come to terms on space, define household responsibilities, such as who will clean, cook, take care of the yard and tend to maintenance issues. (The laundry should be simple to divide and conquer: Each person should do his or her own. But meals may be trickier; will you still eat together, or will you each shop for and prepare your own meals?) As experience has probably taught you, a little cooperation goes a long way, especially if you both find yourself in the kitchen, ready to make dinner, if one of you arrives home later than expected from work.
Set Legal Boundaries
Safeguard your legal documents – and especially all papers related to your separation and divorce – in a place outside your shared home, where your soon-to-be ex cannot access them. (Keep these documents in a locked safe at work or at a trusted friend’s house.) Even the most “amicable” divorces can suddenly turn ugly, and you must protect your privacy.
Choose a low-key time to walk through your home together and list all of your shared possessions. Then, decide on a fair distribution of these items. This necessary exercise can trigger a wide range of emotions; if it does, cut the exercise short and resume it at another time. Remember that it’s better for you and your future ex to decide on a division of property rather than taking it to a judge.
Set Financial Boundaries
While the day-to-day expenses of running your household shouldn’t change, expectations as to who should pay for what can do a 360-degree turn during a divorce. Sit down and itemize your household budget, including the mortgage or rent payment, utilities and groceries, and decide who will pay for what. Then take the extra step of filing these receipts in a special folder after they’ve been paid. Your goal here is to defuse tension and suspicion by being “an open book.”
Make a pledge, together, not to take on extra expenses or make unnecessary purchases while you cohabitate. Now is not the time to inflame tensions or add to the extra expenses you will probably face once you finally part ways. If you suspect that your former partner is acting deceptively – opening new lines of credit, “stashing” money aside – confront him or her. And if this tack doesn’t work, consult with your attorney. Shady financial behavior often portends a divorce that is protracted over money.
Set Emotional Boundaries
If you’re not adept at holding (or biting) your tongue, now is the time to hone this skill. You may need it as you navigate the practical, legal and financial challenges of sharing a house with an estranged partner – not to mention the unforeseen problems that might surface, too. The presence of children will undoubtedly make your living arrangement even more stressful, so try to look at the situation as good training for forging a future relationship that is both civil and respectful.
Keep reminding yourself that it’s “only a matter of time” before this living arrangement comes to an end. This chapter of your life will end, and a new (and hopefully, happier) one will begin. As long as you’re still living with your partner, you might as well start creating the emotional distance that will ease the adjustment of your divorce. For example, if he or she stays out late or starts dropping hints about a “new person” in the picture, force yourself to put up an emotional barrier so that it doesn’t bother or hurt you. This too will be excellent practice for the future.