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Separated Under the Same Roof: Tips for Surviving The Limbo Phase

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You've decided to split but you're still living together. You're no longer a couple, but you're not yet independent.

Here's what three of my clients told me about "The Limbo Phase:"

Client #1
"At first I didn't want her to leave; I thought she might change her mind about the divorce. But she's sleeping in the guest room, and it hurts so much I can't stand it. Last night I yelled at her for being late for dinner. That doesn't even make sense!"

Client #2
"We don't know long how long it'll take to sell our house. Until we have answers, we don't want to tell the kids we're splitting up. So we're acting like nothing's changed, but really there's an invisible piano suspended over our heads."

Client #3
"I can't stand the sight of him. If he doesn't move out soon, well... all I can say is it's good we don't own a gun."

There are lots of reasons divorcing couples get stuck under the same roof. Some struggle over who'll stay in the marital home. Others are reluctant to make a move before they have a signed custody and/or financial Agreement. Especially in today's economy, the most common obstacle is coming up with the cash to support two households.

It's heart-rending: Mere weeks (or even days) ago you shared everything-- time with your kids, a social life, a bathroom, a bed. Suddenly, it's awkward when you accidentally reach for the same fork. Whether the very sight of each other induces nausea or you've achieved a fragile civility, you'll feel you're in a surreal new world.

For most people, getting through this time is one of the toughest parts of splitting up.

Here are some survival tips:

  • Sit down together and create guidelines for interacting. It may feel ridiculous, but the more clear you are about your mutual expectations the less room there will be for hard feelings. Who will cook, clean, pay bills? Will you share groceries, or each buy your own? How much will you communicate, and by what means?
  • Decide what you'll tell your friends, acquaintances, and extended family. Will you continue, for now, to present yourselves as a couple? Will you make your long-term plans public? Remember: whatever message you offer will make it's way back to your kids.
  • One of you will likely want more interaction than the other. If your spouse becomes nasty or ignores you when you ask about their day, stop asking. Loneliness is less painful than ongoing rejection.
  • It's a cruel irony: With the pressure to stay married off the table, the two of you may get along better than you have in years. It'll help if you remind yourself that your troubles haven't gone into spontaneous remission; this is a temporary lull.
  • If you're getting along, it's fine to continue co-parenting in the same old way. But if family dinner feels like a scene from War of the Roses, change course.
  • If things are awkward or acrimonious, try dividing time with the kids (perhaps approximating the weekly schedule you'll use post split). When you're not with the kids, make yourself scarce (go to the gym, visit a friend).But be prepared: the inevitable overlap (time when you and your spouse are both at home) will create moments of confusion and resentment. For example, if your child asks you to help with homework, are you going to say "Sorry, I'm off the clock?" Of course not. But your spouse may feel infringed-on.
  • If the tension is unbearable, consider "nesting." Set up a system whereby each of you lives and sleeps elsewhere (perhaps with relatives or in a rented apartment) when you're "off duty." You'll feel nomadic, which is one of the (many) reasons this rarely works for long.
  • If you're already dating, be incredibly discrete. Better yet, wait.
  • Because the first questions kids have about divorce are practical and basic (Who is moving? When? Where? When will we see you both? Can I stay in my school?), experts usually recommend holding off on telling kids until those pieces are in place.

    But children are emotional sponges, and won't be fooled into thinking it's business as usual when it isn't. In the absence of real answers they'll make up their own, which will be likely be scarier than the reality.

    If your Limbo Phase goes on for months, tell your kids you're planning to divorce but working on the particulars. Reassure them that you'll give them specifics as soon as you can.
  • Most couples (regardless of their level of conflict) need help navigating The Limbo Phase. Consider hiring a mental health consultant who specializes in divorce (ideally one trained in mediation) to help you think through logistical, emotional, and parenting issues. If you're already working with a lawyer, ask him or her for a referral (good family law attorneys know the value of multi-disciplinary collaboration). If you're not yet in a legal process, use your consultant to help steer you toward the most peaceful option that the two of you can agree on.*

Finally...

  • Keep The Limbo Phase as short as possible. Your divorce won't become fully "real" (for you or your kids) until you and your spouse are physically apart. A long period of co-habitation delays the process of emotional separation. Until you are truly uncoupled, you can't start the process of grieving, recovering, and getting on with the rest of your life.

  • *Even if you want to keep things peaceful, it's never a good idea to separate households without consulting a lawyer (though that lawyer could be a neutral mediator).
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