When I was a child, distant cousins on my mother’s side served as my earliest example of a married couple living apart. He made his residence in the north; she lived in the south; they led separate lives.
My reaction at age 20?
I found it curious, but basically shrug-worthy. My world view centered on college life at the time. As for the rest, adults were single or married, and whatever else people wanted to do was their business.
Living Arrangements Vary
At 30, on the sidelines of my parents’ midlife breakup, listening to a barrage of belittling remarks about my father, I would’ve preferred my parents had found some alternative to a bitter divorce. Whatever it was that they were going through — I wanted no part of it. Nonetheless, as yet unmarried, my spectrum of relationship categories had evolved to include separated, divorced, and widowed.
Given the animosity that persisted following my parents’ divorce, no doubt part of my decision to remain single for years, the unconventional arrangement of my mother’s cousins sounded pretty damn good. She had her life and he had his. There was no family drama or financial devastation. And, to the best of my recollection, they reconfigured their living situation after their kids were raised.
By the time I was 40, I was married with two very young children, caught in the blur of mothering and working full-time. Little did I know that I would be facing my own marital challenges (and breakup) in a few short years.
Nor could I have imagined that as a last resort, I would propose precisely the sort of arrangement of remaining married but living apart that my cousins had settled on. I was desperate to hang on to my marriage (hoping someday for repair), willing to accept my spouse’s ability to do as he pleased and live where he pleased, and an indefinite separation seemed preferable to the finality of terminating the marriage.
In a recent relationship discussion in which I participated, this variation on marriage came up. In defense of my position that such an arrangement has advantages, I offer this article, courtesy of The New York Times: Why Divorce? Just Stay Separated.
Featuring several examples — among them, financier Warren Buffett and artist Willem de Kooning — the upside of long-term separation includes the inherent social acceptance of remaining Mr. and Mrs., insurance benefits, shared history, less money hassle, and more.
Additionally, the article points out that we accept vile behaviors in long, drawn-out divorces, and yet:
… couples who stubbornly remain separated, sometimes for years? That leaves us dumbfounded.
Divorce lawyers and marriage therapists say that for most couples, the motivation to remain married is financial.
What Is Legal Separation?
About.com’s article on legal separation versus divorce provides helpful and substantive detail on what separation involves. Critical to the discussion, we are reminded that state law governs marital status as well as a variety of our rights and obligations.
a legal separation does not put an end to the marriage, it enables you to live separately but remain married. During the time you are living apart, you have a court order that outlines the rights and responsibilities of each spouse.
That court order may outline spousal support, child support, and other financial matters. (Note that if you’re considering separation, this is an excellent resource.)
Note too that legal separation may not be an option in your state.
What Is Relationship Limbo?
The notion of relationship limbo can be applied in several contexts. For example, one or both individuals involved feels vaguely dissatisfied with their current status. Maybe he feels like he loves more and expresses it openly, and he would like his partner to be more committed and more demonstrative.
Maybe she wishes to cohabit, but he thinks it’s time they marry. He may be ready for what society considers a full-fledged commitment — a matter of his personal beliefs, family pressures, or even the advantages of the male marriage premium in the workplace.
Perhaps the couple is entertaining a scenario I describe as an indefinite engagement — he slips a ring on her finger with a promise to wed, but no date is set, and both are content to leave it at that.
Yet one more option might be the indefinite separation that I have described — two people living their lives apart, but retaining the advantages of legal marriage. And in the case of either the indefinite engagement or indefinite separation, this may suit the individuals themselves, though friends and family may voice their discomfort. Or, as The Times article notes, find themselves “dumbfounded.”
The Same Relationship Page at the Same Time
Relationships are complicated enough on their own, and relationship status is fraught with social, political, economic, religious and of course, psychological weight. I wish we could alleviate at least some of these burdens.
The key may be to find oneself on the same page at the same time as the person in your life — certainly not a given. Age, experience, family and cultural background will impact our partner choices and subsequent living arrangements, and external circumstances will play their role as well. We want what we are raised to want — marriage for most of us — though as the years pass, we may ask ourselves: why must we marry?
Likewise, shouldn’t we be able to say: why must we divorce?
We may be happy to love one another while living apart and single, happy to cohabit with no desire to legally tie the knot, happy to get engaged with no need to wed in the near future, delighted to marry purely for ourselves or for social, professional, and financial advantages, or we may be satisfied with the arrangement of a long-term separation.
What Makes Sense?
Divorce, of course, can be dramatic — and traumatic — for both the children and the adults involved. Too often only one party wishes the marriage to end, yet ultimately the other has little say in the matter. Or, divorce may truly be the best and even the only solution; we get through it and move forward. My caveat: It is critical that we consider children in the mix; I believe that our responsibility as parents is to honor their needs to the best of our ability.
We could debate these issues from many angles, all the while knowing that limbo is part of life in a hundred different ways. The more we feel whole as individuals, and carry that sense of self into any partnership, perhaps then we will stand up for where we are and what suits us — without needing to push, withdraw, or apologize.
As for my distant cousins, I understand now that they did what made sense for their family. What many may view as relationship no man’s land — not quite single, not quite married — must have offered exactly the advantages they desired.
To my mind, the most advantageous of all would be to cease judging others by the presence or absence of a ring, and to stop designating marriage or remarriage as the most significant measure of a life worth living.
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