On Saturday mornings, my seven-year-old son takes his toothbrush, a book, and a toy or two to spend the day and night at my place. The trek is more symbolic than actual, since I live in a basement apartment in the house I co-own and share with his mother. On the plus side, he can do it unaccompanied and in his pyjamas. Welcome to marital breakdown in Toronto in 2019.
It’s an arrangement more common than people realize – former partners sharing a home for an extended period after separation and even divorce.
On the surface, it may seem counterintuitive: the whole point of separation is to be, well, separated. One or both partners leave the family home, parents get mad, kids get sad, lawyers get rich. So what’s driving people into ex-partnering?
Two things: housing costs and kids.
Christopher, 46, and his wife separated after 17 years together and have continued to share a house in Toronto for almost three years. (TVO.org has granted anonymity to Christopher, and to the other ex-partners in this story, each of whom requested it due to the potential social stigma surrounding their living situations.)
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“Why do people choose to continue to live together?” he says. “Because wages haven’t kept up, and housing is expensive. It’s not so much a choice — you’re just forced into doing it.”
With the spike in housing costs in Ontario cities and a parallel rise in precarious employment, many find themselves facing similar challenges.
Michelle, a 37-year-old realtor, and her husband, Andrew, 42, called it quits after 13 years. They’ve been taking turns living in a basement apartment in their west-end Toronto home for about eight months.
“We’re not in a position where one of us can move out and find an apartment,” Michelle says. “It’s very expensive in this city, so to be able to go out and find something else is crazy.”
Kids are usually the other driver for post-breakup co-habitation. Statistics from the National Institutes of Health in the United States and from Statistics Canada show that, when couples divorce, standards of living drop for all concerned (though more for women than for men). And many parents are willing to attempt to turn a failed marriage into an awkward roommate arrangement if that lets the children stay near friends and schools and avoid a reduced lifestyle.
Robert, 48, shares a house with his former partner of 30 years, from whom he’s been separated for about a year. He notes that a shared interest in keeping both parents close to the kids played a big role in their continued co-habitation but that, ultimately, the decision to live together was an economic one.
“It’s easy for wealthy people to just remove themselves from the pain. If we were independently wealthy, we could purchase separate houses,” he says, adding, “But two homes are not an option for people on a fixed income or lower salaries. Why would a family move to a one-bedroom apartment and not be able to have a comfortable life?”
Christopher sees the unconventional domestic situation as a reasonable sacrifice. “If you have kids in the picture, and you want to try to not be disruptive, then you’re more inclined to work with your ex-partner to make that happen.”
There’s also the question of keeping the house in the family, given the challenge of getting back into expensive real-estate markets individually if the family home is sold.
“We co-own a house together, and most of the family wealth is tied up in real estate. Toronto has reached the point of New York and London, where the only way you’re ever going to own property is if you inherit it,” Christopher says. “It’s better for our daughter if she can own property in the city, because that will provide her with income and security.”
There are no readily available statistics on how common such situations are, in part because they can take a variety of forms. In what’s known as “nesting,” two parents take turns living in an apartment separate from the family home; while one is at the apartment, the other takes care of the kids. Some couples will hive off a section of the house as a separate space, so that one spouse can take up permanent residence there. Others will have separate bedrooms but continue to share family dinners and even vacations.
That’s a lot of grey area. Jenny Friedland, a Toronto-based lawyer and mediator who’s worked with couples in this situation, notes that nesting “usually requires one person to not be there; otherwise, you’re just staying married. You have to distinguish between the two parents deciding they’re going to have an open relationship, but stay together.” (The open-marriage idea, with its connotations of 1970s swingers exchanging car keys in shag-carpeted rec rooms, still carries a certain stigma — that came up several times in the course of the interviews for this article, and it’s another reason it’s hard to get a handle on how many people have adopted an ex-partnering arrangement.)
Can a divided household work? Friedland says it’s not a long-term solution for most but that it can be useful as an interim measure.
“I haven’t yet met a fully successful, ongoing example,” she says. “In my experience, where people have tried it, they’ve tried it until they’ve gotten sick of it, and then they just end it. But I think it’s got a lot of bonuses for people, especially at the very beginning.”
Securing those bonuses without blowing the whole thing up is the trick, and symbols matter.
Saturday night at the Metzger grotto is boys’ night, and, because my kitchen has limited utility, and I have limited utility in it, that often means dinner at the pub down the street. This is a treat for the boy because every cheddar-draped abomination of a kid’s meal includes ice cream; this is also a treat for daddy, because they have $5 draft beer. Walking back, we enter by the side door instead of the front, as he would with his mother. There’s no practical need to use that entrance, but it psychologically reinforces the line between her and me.
What are the specific advantages of ex-partnering? Friedland points out that nesting, or a similar arrangement, can allow a parent who hasn’t previously been involved in the day-to-day routines of child care to start getting used to making dinner or getting the kids to school — basically, it can serve as a dry run for a more complete separation.
Michelle acknowledges downsides to ex-partnering (especially if new relationships enter the equation) but sees tangible benefits to co-locating with a former spouse.
“First and foremost, there’s the financial advantage — that’s the biggest one,” she says. “The other advantage for the kids is that it’s not such an abrupt disruption to their lives. It also forces you to maintain a relationship with your partner, which would perhaps be very easy to ignore otherwise. Really, the pros outweigh the cons, for sure.”
There are a lot of things that can get in the way of successful ex-partnering — money disputes, outside romantic interests, mutual loathing. If you share an incandescent hatred for each other, probably everyone would be better off if you were geographically separate. And boundaries are key: agree on them, document them, abide by them. What parts of the home can each partner be in, and when? How do household finances work in the new world? Do you talk about dating, or is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement preferable?
But if you can find the distance that works for both of you — and keep it civil — ex-partnering can work. At least for a while.
Friedland is optimistic. “I hope that more and more people will change the rhetoric of divorce from the ‘this is a schism’ approach and embrace the idea that marriages end but families don’t,” she says. “And that more people will be pursuing this type of relationship without it seeming too weird. Because it is a smarter way, it seems to me, at least at first.”
Sunday is Mommy’s day, and our son likes to get back upstairs early, since Sunday morning means screen time, and she has the better TV — and, usually, the better breakfast, although subject to plans and mood, we may still sit down to a meal all together. And he can come back anytime he wants.