Chained to your ex? How to live together after a divorce

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JudgeMicheleLowrance
JudgeMicheleLowrance

There’s an old saying that “love is the quest, marriage is the conquest and divorce is the detest.”

It’s no surprise that tensions caused by the bad economy have put stress on many marriages. But as a judge I am still surprised by how many divorced partners who have broken up still live together because they can’t afford separate households.

The recessionary economy has stolen the “cushioning effect” from many relationships. An argument that took place in the dinning room of the Four Seasons may be harder to resolve now that it’s held at Olive Garden. The expensive shoes that used to look beautiful are now blamed for the couple’s bankruptcy. Lavish spending that was previous considered a flesh wound now feels like a severed artery. Couples under stress put each other under a financial microscope.

Money worries can be toxic to a relationship–and poison the aftermath as well. As I tell couples in my courtroom, “Financial pressure can ruin marriage, but it may also destroy your chances of a clean break-up.” Suddenly, couples cannot afford two houses, or their house is under water, or one of them has lost their job. Living together during or after a divorce may be the only chance to survive during the financial restructuring.

Unemployment is now a key factor in breakups. The NPR–Kaiser Family Foundation Survey found more than a fifth of all Americans who have been out of work for a year or more report that relationships with intimate partners have changed for the worse. More than a third say their economic situation has affected their partners’ health and well- being. Another study by the Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies found that the loss of a job includes the loss of the psychological meaning that the job held, not only for the individual but also for the couple. Statistics confirm more couples separate from their partners in times of financial strain. Financial hardship can expose some unwelcome truths about your mate, or perhaps yourself. It may also foster a blistering debate about how important money and material possessions are to you both. It is often easier for couples to talk about sex than about money. Unspoken goals, ambitions and greed can rise up, sometimes putting your mate in a questionable light.

With the collapse in the housing market, middle-Americans often find their home to be their only asset. Many divorcing couples cannot sell their marital home in this market, forcing estranged couples to co-habit indefinitely. Other couples may be in a situation where someone strongly opposes the divorce, waiting for the economy to get better. We have always needed rules to live by in a relationship, rules to live by during a divorce, and now we need rules to handle being forcibly connected while disconnecting.

In my courtroom I order rules for behavior during a divorce especially during co-habitation. Here are some to use after you have decided who gets the bedroom with the flat screen, and who gets Monday with the rebellious teen. I call this behavior modification by court order. But you might consider them Rules for an Unwelcome Boarder.

  1. Establish a living budget during the time of co-habitation as expenses will be incurred for fundamental living expenses. It’s critical that you agree upfront who will pay what.
  2. Agree not to assume each other’s motivations. No matter how well you might know them, you can never be sure what they are thinking, and you might be connecting them to a behavior they are trying to change.
  3. Agree to swiftly acknowledge errors and mistakes you have made. If you yelled or snapped, or did something you wished you hadn’t, acknowledge it as soon as possible. The longer you wait to clear the air, the more time you and your spouse or partner has to dwell, stew, and generally become angrier.
  4. Agree that if you have an argument, you will not speak for a day unless you have figured out how to resolve the problem. Unless you have a new way of addressing the problem or a new solution, rehashing without giving yourself time to get insight is not productive.
  5. Communicate with each other only until you reach that “no turning back” level of frustration. Terminate such a session even if just one person is frustrated and the other wants to continue. Otherwise you risk sliding into the realm of animosity. When this happens, tell each other you will resume the discussion at a later date. Set a date that is mutually convenient.
  6. Agree that each of you can call for a “redo” of a conversation. If you have had some insight and now know how to do something differently, ask if you can discuss an issue that went badly before.
  7. Stop trying to get your ex to admit fault. Give up needing your spouse or partner to acknowledge your suffering. Who started the downward cycle is irrelevant, as the cycle requires an actor and a reactor.
  8. After you have an argument, agree to come up with two solutions to the problem before your discussion about who is to blame for starting the argument.


It is painful to realize how much psychological momentum it took to decide to file for divorce–and then find yourself with both pairs of shoes under the same bed (or at least in the same closet). Yes, it’s harder for healing to start when you are still living together, but there is another way to look at this. Consider yourself in a halfway house, easing out of your old world into your new, building positive patterns with your children and a spouse or partner whom you will have in your life for a very long time. This difficult time might well be worth its weight in bricks and mortar?

“Chained To My Ex” is a new series from msnbc

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Chained to your ex? How to live together after a divorce

Updated