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Divorce: kept together by debt?

The first step is to recognise that although you don’t love each other any more, you still care about each other, and recognise that you now have parallel lives rather than entwined lives

May 28, 2012 | By:

Divorce can mean a drop in both partners’ living standards and – particularly if assets have lost value – a split that is too expensive. Celia Dodd considers the problem

Marriage_Debt_Angry-couple-620 Bigstoc

Is the mortgage all that’s keeping you in the same house?

Money – or the lack of it – has a big effect on love. And while it’s no surprise that the dire state of the economy has led to a rise in divorce rates, there is an ironically opposite position: the same financial pressures that can crush relationships can also make couples reluctant to go for the decree nisi.

With the invariable drop in both partners’ standard of living, some couples cannot afford to split. Others are delaying divorce proceedings in the hope that the economy will recover and perk up the value of their assets.

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However, for plenty of other couples, the recession has become a convenient excuse to avoid broaching the scary subject of parting; to avoid facing up to what’s really wrong with the relationship.

For any couple, money is just one strand in the tangle of reasons for and against separating. It’s so much easier to kid yourself that you’re staying together because you can’t afford to part than to break the cycle of lethargy and face up to big questions about emotions and sex.

At the same time, there’s the nagging feeling that breaking up means a terrifying new start on so many levels, not least financial. It’s much less challenging to continue living the same old parallel lives, no matter how horribly stuck you feel.

Living in limbo, no longer in love

But is it wise to carry on living under the same roof with someone you’ve fallen out of love with? Surely it simply piles the pressure on to an already strained relationship?

It doesn’t help that there is likely to be an imbalance, with one partner already emotionally detached – and perhaps heading into new relationships – while the other isn’t. That’s the view of agony aunt Suzie Hayman, author of Moving On: Breaking Up Without Breaking Down. She has counselled many couples who have consciously decided to stick together even though their marriage was over.

She says: “At least if you break up or divorce, you have some closure. But when your partner turns his or her back on you without actually walking off, it can be incredibly painful, and it is very hard to stand aside and say fine, we’re only doing this for practical purposes.

“It’s unfair, not only on the other partner but on the children, who often feel guilty if their parents’ relationship isn’t working well. Even more so when they are adult and have left home.”

What’s so sad is that the recession has forced a return to the bad old days, when divorces were difficult or even impossible to come by, and there was no alternative to sticking out an unhappy marriage. We’ve all heard stories of couples who shared a house but never spoke to each other, who led separate lives and communicated only through notes. It is most people’s idea of a living hell.

Amazingly, Suzie Hayman insists it doesn’t have to be, if both partners are grown-up about it all. “If couples are prepared to sit down and talk about their priorities, it should be possible to thrash out an alternative arrangement where you can give each other safety and security and support, but are also able to do your own thing,” she says.

“The first step is to recognise that although you don’t love each other any more, you still care about each other, and recognise that you now have parallel lives rather than entwined lives. It has to be acknowledged.

“If you don’t communicate you can drift on in an incredibly painful and difficult limbo. That’s totally unsatisfactory. Neither of you is happy and you’re living a lie. That’s when the children can get very anxious and unhappy, because they know something’s wrong but they can’t put their finger on it.”

Communication leads to understanding

Of course it’s always possible – although don’t bank on it – that couples who start communicating properly for the first time in years will be surprised to find that the spark between them reignites. An objective view, from a good marital therapist, can be incredibly helpful in this respect – even if only one partner goes.

When people start to think about what once connected them, and what was good about their relationship, it is possible to see a way of sorting out what went wrong – and to recognise the importance of what still connects them.

This is one unexpected positive side of the recession: for some couples, delaying divorce offers a valuable breathing space, and possibly even a second chance.

• For further advice visit Family Lives, a charity providing help and support in all aspects of family life