It’s a situation that can be uncomfortable at best and torturous at worst: Attempting to live together after you’ve decided to split from your former partner can be incredibly challenging, to say the least—both for you and your kids.
As a divorce coach, I’m often asked things like:
“How on earth do we co-exist under potentially hostile and awkward conditions?”
“What if I do my part and he/she is still disrespectful, obstructive, or in denial?”
“How do we not let this disrupt the kids?”
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While the imagery of a butterfly growing and developing whilst trapped in a chrysalis comes to mind, I recognize that living under the same roof as your soon-to-be ex may not be quite so lovely. But, like a pupa, you have an opportunity to grow, learn, mature, and beautify yourself inside and out. And while I have tips for you, it’s important to remember that no one (other than a judge) has any control over your soon-to-be ex. So, an important disqualifier is that while there are no guarantees with regards to your spouse’s behavior, you can most certainly do your part to ease tension and model respect for your children.
If you have consulted with your lawyer and it is apparent that, for whatever reason, a physical separation is not possible or advisable until your divorce is final, here are some ways to make the most of this interim situation.
Tip No. 1: Do something different.
When the same-old relationship patterns that probably prompted you to separate in the first place start to surface again, remind yourself that you will never again have to live in close proximity to this person. So, be aware of what is not working in your interactions with your soon-to-be ex, and consider experimenting with different approaches. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So, do something different. Is there a particularly toxic dynamic between the two of you where you can take initiative and make an adjustment?
For example, you might have certain expectations around parenting and your ex always falls short. Can you adjust your expectations now so that you’re not disappointed once the divorce is final? If your relationship is on the brink of demise, you have likely already experimented and tried different approaches either alone or with the support of a couple’s counselor. They likely did not work. But what if you could try again—either tactics you’ve experimented with in the past, or totally new ones—knowing an end is in sight? You never know, something may just click that will improve your co-parenting relationship going forward.
Tip No 2: Establish physical boundaries and divvy chores.
It may sound juvenile, but it is incredibly important to hash out household chores, as well as who has free reign over common areas. Physical boundaries and distance sends the message to your spouse that you are serious and will not fall back into old patterns. It also gives you the emotional distance you need and possibly even relief from fighting or friction. Splitting household responsibility ensures equal contribution from both parties while also making negotiations about what needs to get done to run the household as comfortable and stress-free as possible. Of course, if household roles and chores worked before, there is no need to fix what is not broken.
Tip No. 3: Create a schedule.
Consider having a schedule where you and your ex each have a turn parenting the kids. This gives each of you the opportunity to have independent time with the children in your home, without the other interjecting or imposing their opinion or control. See this as a segue into the new normal of shared parenting time. This also gives the primary caregiver—whomever that is in your household—time alone to focus on themselves. It also allows the less involved parent a chance to dip their toes into the trenches. Each of you deserve time with your children without a soon-to-be ex controlling, bickering, micromanaging, or otherwise breathing down your back. Many of my female clients express concern about relinquishing more time and control to their spouse. Now is the time to wrap your head around the fact that, barring any harm or abuse, your spouse can and must take care of his/her kids.
Tip No. 4: Talk to your kids.
Once you are sure that divorce is the direction you are headed, it is crucial to have age-appropriate discussions with your children about the changes happening. Kids have active imaginations. If they notice you are suddenly sleeping in a different bedroom, what they think is true may be much worse than reality. So, fill them in and reassure them that while there may be some changes happening, many parts of their life will stay the same. For now, you are all living at the same address, their school is the same, and their friends will stay the same.
Tip No. 5: Get financially savvy.
Whether you keep finances as status quo or decide to build a new budget for this separation phase, use this time to familiarize yourself with current and future expenses. If you have been disengaged in the finances up until now, this is a perfect time to learn more while having the security of a combined household income.
To remain one step ahead, set up a “post separation” budget and begin to forecast expenses based on what you know now. Log into any shared accounts and credit cards, note the balances and activity, and use this information to get organized. If you have not already done so, you will need to disclose all debts, assets, credit cards, and more during the financial discovery part of divorce. So, once again, these measures will put you ahead of the game. Finally, if you have never had a credit card in your name, now is a good time to open one to begin establishing good credit. This advice is by no means exhaustive, but rather the bare minimum of what is needed to start to build financial independence and empowerment.
Tip No. 6: Be respectful.
My mediator gave my ex-husband and I great advice that I continue to borrow in my work with clients: Treat your spouse or ex-spouse at least as well as you would treat the Target check-out person. I remember feeling saddened that the bar of decency was apparently that low in our marriage, but such is the state of relational disrepair many couples face.
Your next thought may be, “Well, that’s great advice, but it’s my ex who has the respect problem, not me.” It doesn’t matter; you can still do your part to model respect for your children and, quite frankly, for your future self. You want to be proud of how you handled yourself.
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Tip No. 7: Prioritize your mental health.
There’s a good chance the divorce process will test your sanity at some point. So, why not use this time to elevate your mental health? You are being stretched to the max, and now is as good a time as any to undo destructive patterns, tend to any unfinished business you may have repressed, and recalibrate so you’ve got the grit, resilience, and fortitude you’ll need to make it through this process.
I generally shy away from the term self-care, but whatever you want to call it, do even more during this time. Learn what works for you and what doesn’t. For example, I prefer exercises like boxing and barre over yoga. While I don’t like journaling, writing about my experience has been therapeutic. I shocked myself by discovering that meditation works even when my mind is racing a mile a minute. We are living during an age where the focus on self-development and growth is so bloated it has almost become gimmicky. But that just means there is something out there for everyone—and now is the time to discover what leaves you feeling just a little bit better than when you started.
Tip No. 8: Create something.
When the pressure cooker of anxiety and stress becomes too much, create something. Rollo May, one of the founding fathers of existential counseling said this about anxiety: “It’s as though the world is knocking at your door saying, ‘You need to create, you need to make something, you need to do something.’”
Creating something can be a wonderfully therapeutic way to turn the intangible into something tangible and enhance your insight into what’s happened. Harnessing the power of creativity can help you better understand yourself, your problems, and your paths to healing. What about a vision board for your life after the separation? You could keep it high level and focus on the basics—job, children, friends—or you could go into detail and redesign each room of the house or of your new pad, depending on who is vacating the marital home. Either way, find a creative and healthy way to displace anxiety, stress, and fear.
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Most importantly, remember that you get to fly eventually—even if it seems like it’s taking forever. Make the most of your time in limbo both in terms of your own development and how you restructure your relationship with your soon-to-be-ex. It’s not easy, I know. But I hope these tips ease your anxiety even a little. Your ex may be unbearable to live with right now, but as long as you are safe, and legally obligated, do your best to manage what you can. Remind yourself that you have been through a lot to get to this point! Try not to let temporarily living under the same roof be the hill you die on. Instead, let it be the branch you fly from.