Shelly heard the car door slam and checked the clock on her nightstand. Three AM! Joe* had some nerve to rub his social life in her face. She tried to fall back asleep but tossed and turned for the rest of the night.
This was absolute torture. They had made the decision to divorce ages ago. Their home was their most substantial asset and they needed to sell it in in order for both of them to afford suitable living situations going forward.
The realtor had assured them they'd priced their house realistically and that they'd be able to find a buyer within six months. But this had been dragging on for over a year, and they hadn't had any legitimate offers to consider. When they first agreed that they'd be able to work out separate living arrangements within the home to give each other enough space and dignity, they were both optimistic they would be able to cooperate so they and their children would survive the transition emotionally unscathed. What they didn't anticipate was how living under one roof would dampen their spirits and compromise their abilities to transition to new lives.
Just ask any matrimonial attorney or therapist. They'll report that one of the most excruciating casualties of our current financial and real estate downturn has been the emotional toll on families when their hands are tied, and they're not able to sell their home in a timely manner. Once a couple determines they are no longer able to live together as a family, there is usually a protracted period of adjustment, both emotionally and financially.
The above arrangement adds an additional layer of confusion and anxiety, which often stands in the way of a comfortable transition. This is especially painful if either or both members of the couple have lasting or ambivalent feelings about ending the relationship. Seeing each other daily may be like picking a scab, repeatedly drawing pain at each encounter. What becomes cruelly hurtful is to be confronted by reminders that the other has moved on in his life. Even if there is an attempt to show sensitivity or discretion, there will be ongoing hurts and humiliations that cannot be avoided.
So what steps can families take, when they have no choice, but to live separated, together?
First off, if you can, make sure to get closure. Clarify if there is a possibility of reconciliation or else there may be mixed messages. Either or both of you may put too much emphasis on words and gestures, hoping they mean something they don't. This can leave either of you vulnerable or humiliated, and ultimately may increase the wrath, when it becomes apparent that feelings are not reciprocated.
No matter how you ultimately behave in front of the children, the situation is bound to cause upset and confusion, at least some of the time. If you treat each other shabbily, the children usually cringe and are uncertain whether to intervene, hide or endure. When parents do have the maturity to remain civil, and even cordial, it's not uncommon for the children (and often the partner) to slide into denial, praying that maybe things have improved and the breakup can be forestalled. When they are inevitably reminded that the breakup is indeed happening, the hurt may become fresh again.
To head off this confusion it will be important to clearly communicate what has and will be happening, and why the family is living in this transitional stage. If the breakup is definite, an unambiguous message that this is an interim step while the adults are planning for the next stages, may head off some insecurity and confusion.
Details and financial particulars need not be spelled out to avoid introducing a level of worry and fear that the family may not have the means to sufficiently care for the children. At all times, it will be very important for both of you to reassure the children of your commitment to their well-being and your intention to cooperate as best as you can under the situation.
If possible, you should define who's in charge of what, and who will be paying for it. Trying to set up a structure and routine both of you can commit to, and the children can count on, is enormously important. We all know how much more secure children feel when their routines are predictable. At a time of family upheaval, this becomes all the more important. If you and your ex-partner can communicate that you're on the same page with values and expectations, you'll be better able to join together to head off the children playing one against the other.
Even if you're furious with each other, if you can find it in your hearts to encourage your children to have independent, loving relationships with the other parent, you'll be minimizing a conflict of loyalties. Both of you should be more comfortable if you each have established private space in the home, so you have a secure, comfortable place to relax and safeguard important belongings.
Be mindful of common civilities. Setting boundaries and respecting personal space will be important, especially in tight quarters. There will be times neither of you wants to see the other's face! This offense will be magnified if there's been a rude disregard for previously agreed upon courtesies. When emotions are raw, it won't take much to set off volatile upheavals. In other words: You know the very things that will push buttons and cause the wrath of your ex.
If you are hurting, you may be tempted to do the very things that will trigger an explosion, and to then innocently say "what's the problem?" For example, if you use your ex's car, don't let them discover you've left their gas tank on dead empty first thing in the morning, as they head off to work. Replace the milk carton if you're the last one to use it, so they won't discover there's no milk for the morning cereal. Avoid sarcasm or blatant evidence that you are enjoying the "good life" while your partner may be wallowing in a place of sorrow or anger. If you can both agree to spending a certain amount of time apart from the home, it gives everyone a chance to let off steam and for each of you to have quality time with the children.
Your children will be watching your every move, and will take their lead from you. If you speaking civilly and respectfully, there is a tacit message that they are expected to behave the same. Be aware, that today's children are unusually tech-savvy. Be discreet with your laptops and smart phones, deleting histories as you go along. Assume that your children will be secretly devouring your technology trails. You should be ever mindful there's a very good chance they'll be privy to personal communications you intended to stay private.
Be mature and discreet about your social activities. While we all enjoy adult companionship when we are lonely, this is an especially fragile time for the children. You want to clearly communicate to your children that their needs are a priority. Introducing your children prematurely to your new "friends" is not only inconsiderate, but hurtful and confusing.
There may be few things lonelier than sharing living space with a person you once loved, when the tie has been broken. When you are lying awake in the wee hours of the morning your heart may take you to a very fragile place if you haven't built in safeguards to shore up your inner resources. Now is the time to reach out to the other people in your life who will support you warmly and positively. Involve yourself in activities that should move your life to a better place. Brush up your resume or take courses if you would like to advance your career. Networking opportunities may not only enhance your career, but offer new social contacts. Exercise offers a physical and emotional boost, and is also a means of socializing. Staying positive, and looking forward should hopefully support you and your family as you look to the future.
*Not their real names
Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens, Florida resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached at her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com.