Toronto Star

Sunday, January 3, 1999

The rise of the 'unseparated'


By Stella Yeadon
Special to The Star

There are days when Matt questions the unusual commitment he's made to his wife and family.

There are days when he wonders if he's made a mistake, especially when he thinks about the unpaid bills he believes his wife racked up on a wild spending spree.

But he is still, at least in a way, a family man, so on this particular morning, he wakes his wife Jenny so she can get the girls off to school. And as he leaves for work, he mentally maps out the day.

He has to be home early because Jenny is going to her night school class and can't be there for dinner. Then he remembers that his older daughter has asked to be taken to a friend's house in the evening to finish a school project. He also can't forget to do his share of the laundry and call the service station to find out how much the repairs on Jenny's car will cost.

To the outside world, Matt, Jenny and their children are a family - together at school functions, sporting events and restaurants. But inside their charming home in a small town north of Toronto, the two parents and their pre-teen daughters are adding a twist to the increasingly fluid makeup of the Canadian family. The marriage of Matt and Jenny - who live in the same house, share the chores and the household bills and raise their daughters together - is over.

`I think I can see now that I suck at marriage. I seem to do better relating to Matt now that I don't see myself as part of a marriage, but rather as the other half of this parenting team.'

Their unusual situation is not the way society, more than a decade after the introduction of no-fault divorce, expects the dissolution of a marriage to be played out. But for a growing number of baby-bomers, this is marital breakup in the '90s.

``I know what we're doing is not the conventional thinking. But tell me where it's written that the end of a marriage has to mean the end of a family. The girls are happy and know that their parents who love them are prepared to do whatever it takes to give them the best life they can,'' says Matt.

``People are so quick to say, `well, it's not working' and divorce is so expedient. I could see it in marriages where there has been infidelity or abuse. But when there's none of that, then two people should consider that the best option for them is to keep their family together.

``They should find it in themselves to have the strength. I'm not saying that's easy to do. But I can't see how divorce would be any easier emotionally and financially.''

He and his wife Jenny, both in their early 40s, are separated but have lived in the same home for the past three years. Their two daughters understand that their parent's 15-year marriage has ended. But they also know that very little has changed in their lives.

Matt still goes off to work in the morning. Jenny gets the girls off to school and most days is off herself to a part-time job. She still does many of the day-to-day domestic chores, but Matt helps more than he used to.

She makes dinner and then gets herself ready for school. Jenny has returned to college to upgrade her job skills. She and her husband have separate bedrooms.

Neither one is dating and they have not had a sexual relationship for years. But this is not a house divided, with delineated his and hers living areas.

While they don't eat dinner together very often because Jenny is off to night school three nights a week, they do make the effort to have a few meals together. When Jenny is at school, Matt is home with the girls, helping them with their homework, driving them wherever they need to be.

They share the same phone line and split household expenses proportionate to their individual income.

``What that means is that Matt pays for the bulk of our living expenses. That's tough on me because in going back to school, I'm not earning very much at a part-time job. Matt doesn't seem to have a problem with this money arrangement, but I do,'' says Jenny.

Matt sees the cohabitation agreement as an extension of the commitment he made to Jenny when they were married. That commitment is held to, despite the fact there is no legal separation agreement. Neither of them has consulted a lawyer.

But there are many other couples who do.

Larry Frolick, a lawyer for nearly twenty years who has written a book about divorce called Splitting Up, says between 20-25 per cent of the clients he dealt with asking for a legal separation continued to co-habit.

In the mid-'70s, Frolick noticed that many of the couples asking for this type of separation agreement were older. But over the years that pattern changed to include more middle-class couples between 35 and 50 with young children.

``I found it very common in my practice to be dealing with this type of arrangement. The only change I noticed was the age of the couple seeking the agreement had dropped in recent years,'' says Frolick, who quit practising law three years ago.

Is there friction in Matt and Jenny's relationship?

Sometimes, they say. But arguing and disagreements didn't play a big part in ending their marriage.

``I think I can see now that I suck at marriage. I seem to do better relating to Matt now that I don't see myself as part of a marriage, but rather as the other half of this parenting team,'' says Jenny.

Matt and Jenny are not alone in finding a solution that works for them. Approaching 50 and after nearly 25 years of marriage, Rita and Ted have ``agreed to disagree,'' but still live under the same roof.

``I do my thing, he does his, but we're both there for our children. Which is not to say we are staying together because of the kids,'' says Rita. (Couples who shared their stories asked that their names not be used.)

She believes that couples who begin a relationship with plenty in common often develop different interests over time. Now that her boys are young adults, she and Ted have been able to deal with the reality that they have very different interests and goals.

But since neither one is interested in pursuing another relationship at the moment, they have made a decision to continue to live in the family home, but separately.

Kathy and Jim lived separately for about a year and a half.

Jim stayed in the family home with the couple's four children while Kathy got her own apartment in the same area. But as the months passed, Kathy felt estranged from her children. She asked to move back into the basement of the family home over a year ago.

She feels she has made concessions and personal changes that have allowed for a good co-parenting arrangement with Jim.

At a time when divorce is an accepted social norm and how-to manuals on the subject are best-sellers, how have these couples come to such a counter-culture solution?

According to Statistics Canada, after rising dramatically for two decades, divorce in the '90s has levelled off. The 1996 divorce rate, the lowest since 1985, fell 14.7 per cent from 1995.

But some observers suggest that marital breakdowns are not down drastically. One reason for declining divorce rates, they say, is the decision by couples to deal with their marriage breakdown through separation. In 1996, 695,675 Canadians said they were separated, up 15 per cent from 1991.

There is no breakdown as to how many of the declared separations are arrangements similar to these couples. But marital therapists believe there are more and more Matt and Jennies across Canada.

``Although I think there are not a large number, my impression is that we are certainly seeing more couples who decide on alternative arrangements when separating,` says Rhonda Freeman, a social worker and the director of Families in Transition.

She has worked in the field for 25 years and in recent years has noticed an increasing number of separating couples opting for cohabiting arrangements. Freeman believes that besides concern for children, economic realities are also a big consideration.

Are these separations different than ``the silent divorces'' of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, prevalent before no-fault divorce?

``Yes this is very different. It's a complete shift in attitude. These people aren't really keeping the truth from their family and friends,'' says Diane Marshall, a family therapist and the clinical director of the private Institute of Family Living.

``That's because we've come to accept the idea that when a marriage breaks up, the couple divide the assets and start over. Divorce used to look like a simple solution, (but) now people are starting to see that it's not. They're beginning to understand how traumatic it is for children and how painful a process it is for everyone.''

What these couples are finding is that the one thing they did well together was parent as a team, says Marshall.

Inevitably, this is not a story solely about other people. It's my own personal experience, too. Here's how it happened to me:

My husband Paul and I went the conventional route before deciding on our cohabiting arrangement. Paul moved out and what followed was a year of legal haggling over custody, visitation, property and financial issues, mostly through our lawyers. After thousands of dollars in legal bills, all we had was a legal separation agreement that didn't work for our family.

Paul felt alienated from our children. In the meantime, I was juggling raising three children almost single-handedly and going back to work full-time. Plus there was never enough money to maintain two households.

Our children were very upset. When our oldest daughter refused to pack her things for a weekend stay with Paul, declaring she was not a gypsy, we knew we had to do something.

What we did was stop listening to our lawyers.

Paul moved back home to live in the finished basement. A bedroom, bathroom and separate family room are his rooms in the house. The kitchen is communal space and we often eat meals together. We share a phone line, but have our own voice-mail boxes.

Household expenses are shared and we've been able to eliminate most of the debt accumulated during the time we lived separately. We've not had to sell our house. Our children have not been uprooted to another school and neighbourhood and their life is essentially the same as always.

Although money was not the only factor in our decision, therapists tend to agree that many couples are not too eager to shatter the economic stability theyhave worked hard for.

``Family finances are a big factor in why people choose to stay together, whether it's in a redefined marriage or a negotiated separation,'' says Karen Solomon-Ament, a marriage therapist.

``But it's usually not the only reason why couples opt for alternative arrangements to full-blown divorce.''

She also maintains that although these couples have opted to end their marriage, there is still an opportunity ``if the couple is prepared to do the work'' for reconciliation because they have never physically severed their living arrangement.

Jane Anne Murray, a Toronto family and marriage therapist, agrees.

``I call this the un-separation agreement. These couples have not ever made their relationship a priority. They are the ones who always did the right thing - they married young and had children and from then on every decision they made was centered on them.

``They bought homes and made career choices based on their children's needs, not their own as couple. They have always put family first and living separated in the same house is an extension of that philosophy.''

Stella Yeadon is a freelance writer with some appreciation of the fine and often tricky art of relationships.