Ashley Donald – April 2020
Most of us have seen the memes or heard the quips about divorce lawyers licking their chops for the influx of spouses looking for separations and divorces once the state of emergency and travel/movement restrictions are lifted.
The reality is that many spouses or partners elect to continue to reside together in the same home after they have separated. The reasoning can vary, but most often it comes down to money and the kids.
Being unable to take a break from separated but together life by going to a friend’s, out for dinner, to a movie or a baseball game certainly adds to the stress in a separated household. There is no question the constant close contact, financial strains, and emotional and mental impacts of the pandemic are creating pressure-cooker environments.
While in most circumstances it isn’t easy to reside under the same roof as your ex-partner, here are some tips, tricks and tools that may help relieve that pressure whether during the “Stay the Blazes Home” restrictions and after:
1) If you have children, keep them as your focus – Kids are the centre of parents’ lives. Keep it that way. Every decision needs to consider, “is this what is best for my kids right now?” This is your mantra. You need to refrain from arguing with your spouse in front of your children. If you have to bite your tongue, come back to your mantra. If you have to compromise, come back to your mantra.
2) Create separate living spaces if possible – If your home or apartment is large enough to create separate living spaces, do so. Will one person occupy the lower level primarily, and the other on the upper level? Carve out separate rooms if possible, and identify “neutral” spaces, likely the children’s rooms and kitchen. If your living space doesn’t afford you this possibility, create a schedule for room use, alternating use of the neutral spaces like living room, kitchen, even the bathroom (hot showers are a hot commodity). Once you have created these schedules or room divisions, stick to them unless the other person agrees to a new set up. The less you have to argue about, the better.
3) Communicate to your children as a unit – If you and your former spouse have decided to separate and you have decided to tell your children, do it together, as a unit, on the same team. Discuss how you will tell them, what you will tell them, and how you will jointly answer questions the kids will likely have (where will we live, do we have to change schools, did I do something wrong). If you aren’t sure how to tell your children of your separation in an age appropriate away, jointly reach out to a professional in the area of child development or psychology.
4) Create and respect personal boundaries – If you have decided to separate, be separated. Your relationship and communication style should change from an intimate partner dynamic to a more business-like relationship style. Be polite and civil but alter your expectations of the other person when it comes to intimate discussions and interactions.
5) Don’t rock the proverbial boat – Even though I’ve encouraged you to be separated if you’ve decided to separate, do not bring dates or new partners into your joint home. I wish this didn’t need explaining, but it occurs more frequently than I expect most would guess. Bringing a date or new partner into your joint home is going to create an argument. There isn’t much more to say. Avoid the argument. Go to your new partner’s home, go out to dinner, grab a hotel (all post pandemic, obviously). Avoid the stress on your former spouse and children, and the ultimate stress on you when your former partner wants to talk about it.
6) If you can’t coparent like you did while you were together, agree to days or duties – Some couples can continue to parent their children as they always did – each parent handling the tasks and responsibilities they are best at. In many separated couples that are still living together, this is no longer possible. If you can’t co-parent as you did before, create a parenting plan and schedule just like you would if you were living in separate homes. Assign days each parent is responsible for the children’s activities, meals, morning and bedtime routine. Create a schedule but be flexible. If separating days doesn’t work for you, create duties that each parent is responsible for in a given day.
7) Work on and demonstrate positive communication – It is easy when you are upset, angry, emotional or hurting because of a breakdown in a relationship to act out in anger or use poor communication. When living under the same roof, you don’t have the same luxuries afforded to those in separate homes.
While we all get angry, it is important not to act out in anger. Check your tone and body language, use “I” statements to voice your concerns or feelings. Avoid accusations and try using open ended questions when you need information. If you have kids, it is a great opportunity for you and your spouse to model good communication skills. If you find you are angry and fear you will lash out, do what you need to do to diffuse that emotion (in an appropriate way). Go for a walk, mediate, give yourself a timeout, read a book, call your mom, hit the gym (post pandemic). Diffusing this type of tension is so important for ensuring the safety of yourself and your children.
8) Make a financial plan and keep track of your expenses – From a family lawyer’s perspective, the period of limbo between emotional separation and physical separation can be difficult to deal with when we are negotiating a final agreement. Support is unlikely to be paid, and expenses are often paid from a joint account with little thought of who is paying what and who may be accruing what.
Have a discussion with your former spouse about how you will handle financial matters in the interim. Who will pay for what? Will we continue to use the joint account? Will we equally share expenses or proportionately? Will we each just pay separate bills and call it a wash? All of these are things to consider. You want to make sure for the interim that bills and mortgage are paid, and each party can fund their reasonable personal expenses day to day.
Once you’ve agreed on a financial plan (or especially if you can’t agree) keep track of everything you pay for. Mortgage, utilities, children’s clothes, groceries, interest payments – everything. Save your lawyer the time of trying to reconstruct these payments later by having a spreadsheet ready to go (I am sure there is an app for that…).
9) Manage the risk – Unfortunately, we sometimes see joint, separated households create so much pressure that an argument results in domestic violence or allegations of harm. There is no question that domestic violence or allegations will impact your parenting time with your children. In most circumstances when there is a domestic violence call, police are required to advise Child Protective Services. If you are living with your former spouse and the tension is building and arguments are more and more frequent, and none of the above tools have helped, you need to get out to protect yourself from violence or allegations of violence.
I recognize it is much easier said than done but utilize resources available to you. Lean on family, friends, and community resources to ensure your own safety and the safety of your children.
If you are living together but are separated from your partner and would like more information about your rights and obligations, call our office at 902.422.5881 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a consult with a family lawyer.