In 1858, when Abraham Lincoln uttered the immortal words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he surely did not have in mind separating couples living together during divorce. However, those words ring as true now in the context of the nuclear family on the brink of divorce as they did then for an alienated nation on the brink of civil war.
Of necessity, it is an economic fact of life for many couples to have to live under the same roof while in the throes of divorce. Sharing my perspective as a domestic relations attorney with three decades of experience, this trend has become increasingly commonplace, albeit no less easy to navigate.
With reasons ranging from “neither of us can afford to move out” to “neither of us wants to lose the opportunity to see the children on a daily basis” to “I’m afraid I’ll be ‘one-down’ in the divorce process if I concede to move out” (on the inapplicable theory that possession is nine-tenths of the law), this predicament is more universal than many couples who contemplate divorce realize.
A variation on this is called “bird nest” custody – or “bird nesting.” In this custody arrangement, both parents establish their own, separate residences. The children stay in the family home, and the parents move in and out according to the child-custody agreement.
Here are eight tried-and-true survival tips for living together during divorce:
1. Talking with the Children
Your children (if they are of a certain age) are certainly going to notice the sea change. If one parent is moving out of the master bedroom, it would be advisable to find age-appropriate language to communicate words to the effect that “Mommy and Daddy are having trouble sharing a room right now.” If you are not ready to have “the talk” with your children for age-related, developmental, or other reasons, consider a more vanilla approach, such as “Mommy and Daddy will each get a better night’s sleep if we have our own rooms.”
2. Use a Calendar
Rather than one parent seemingly under foot all the time and contributing to the inevitable underlying tension, it is advisable to schedule (and stick to!) parent-in-charge nights. Tools, such as www.ourfamilywizard.com, are designed to make co-parenting scheduling and communications more stream-lined and efficient. Advance planning and scheduling reduce the likelihood of nightly battles over who is in charge of everything from dinner to bathtime. Moreover, since predictability and stability are key norms for each parent and each child, all best efforts to institute and maintain those scheduled rituals should be followed.
3. Collegiality and Respect
When living together during divorce, it is mission-critical for you as parents to model methods of communication rooted in collegiality and respect. While it has become almost hackneyed to advise you to treat your co-parent as if s/he were a business partner on a long-term team project who you did not particularly enjoy working with, but had no other choice, this truly is a useful paradigm to help survive the inevitable day-to-day challenges. Enough cannot be said about the modeling you are doing for your children as they bear witness to you choosing to cooperate thoughtfully and civilly under challenging circumstances.
4. Work out Financial Arrangements
Either directly or through counsel, it is also mission-critical not to avoid the difficult subject as to how ongoing expenses are going to be paid. For interim arrangements, you and your co-parent may opt to maintain the status quo, or, you may believe alternative arrangements should be instituted. In order to avoid resentment and heightening already simmering tensions, I urge couples not to simply make unilateral changes without prior discussion (and hopefully agreement).
5. Communicating While Living Together During Divorce
Some couples living under the same roof find that the less they have to verbally communicate, the better. To that end, I advise coming to agreements on the use of text or emails. That advice comes with a huge cautionary red flag: some co-parents become embroiled in a litany of endless texting/emailing, or take offense to the “tone” of the message – whether or not the sender actually intended to provoke or upset the recipient. Remember your co-worker paradigm? You would not want to be perceived at work as unprofessional or unreasonable. Attempt to limit these communications to “just the facts, ma’am” without adding color in the form of insults or thinly-veiled threats. To tamp down potential high-conflict there is no better resource that I have found than Bill Eddy’s “BIFF” communication model: Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm.
Consider this exchange:
Father: “You are always late picking up the kids. You are so irresponsible that you have to rely on your mother or babysitters to do your job as a mother. You are undependable and have no sense of responsivity and that’s why I am going to make sure my lawyer knows I deserve full custody.”
Mother [using a BIFF response]: “In my new job, I have a somewhat unpredictable schedule that does not always allow me to leave precisely at 4:00 p.m. every day to get the children. Please rest assured that I always take responsibility for ensuring the kids are in good hands if I cannot personally be there. I know you are mindful of the kids’ well-being, so thanks for bringing your concerns to my attention.”
6. “This Too Shall Pass”
There will be days when you think living together during divorce is unbearable. Try to take the long-view and focus on the fact that this arrangement is not permanent and you are working towards the goal of having your own space. The mantra “this too shall pass” may be a useful one to rely on to get you through those trying times.
7. The New Normal
Until such time as “this too shall pass” has come and gone, pride yourself on tapping into your ability to be flexible and adaptable during the new normal. And think about the kind of person you want your children to perceive you to be: that is, are you going to be the kind of individual who will make dinner for yourself and the kids but refuse to make a little extra for your soon-to-be-ex? While you are under the regime of the new normal, consider how a little effort and generosity can go a long way towards making the divided house more stable and pleasant.
8. The Importance of Self-Care
Closing the loop on where we started, funds are probably more limited now; unfortunately, this dovetails with a time when you could use a little extra spoiling. At this time, neither forego nor underestimate the importance of self-care, which can take a myriad of forms. Schedule time to go to the gym, get a manicure, have coffee with a friend, see a movie, take a pottery class. In this way, you will not only be giving yourself the essential chance to recharge your batteries, you will challenge yourself to create new pathways that make you the hero/heroine along the journey to living your best new life after divorce.
Vicki L. Shemin, J.D., LICSW, ACSW, is a clinical social worker and domestic relations partner at the Wellesley, Massachusetts law firm Fields and Dennis, LLP specializing in the fields of mediation, collaborative law, and parenting coordination. She has been recognized as a “Top Ten Attorney in Family Law in Massachusetts” and honored as a “Top-Rated Lawyer: Women Leaders in the Law.” www.fieldsdennis.com