Separated couples continue to cohabit

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August 28, 2008


Money worries have caused a surge in couples looking to divorce. But many have discovered that, unable to sell their house, they are forced to remain living under the same roof. Kate Hilpern asks some of them how they cope



Separated but living together (SBLT) may not have the same ring to it as GSoH, but anyone scouring the lonely hearts columns may as well get used to the fact that in these lean times, increasing numbers of divorcing couples are having to stay under the same roof. The slowdown in the property market means that couples often cannot sell their house, even after their divorce has gone through the courts, while tightened lending restrictions mean it can be nearly impossible to secure a mortgage to enable one party to buy the other’s share of the property or to enable one party to buy a separate property. For many couples, including middle-class professionals, the credit crunch means they cannot even afford the divorce itself.

“When I broke up with my husband last summer, we decided to sell the house to split the equity and pay for the divorce,” says Elizabeth Western, 35, who lives in Hampshire and had been with her husband for 10 years. “But despite dropping the price twice, we still haven’t sold. So we’re stuck in a situation where we’re still not divorced and, although we try to maintain a reasonable front with each other in front of our six-year-old daughter, underneath it’s very strained and there have been times when she has seen things she shouldn’t have. The emotional impact is massive and sometimes I feel like tearing my hair out. My only saving grace is that since I’ve started telling people about it, I’ve realised how common it is.”

It’s not just marriage break-ups that are being affected by a looming recession. Relationships themselves are feeling the sting. As living costs rise, as businesses go into receivership, as jobs are axed and as debts escalate, there is a price being paid behind the bedroom door. Money worries can be as toxic to a relationship as adultery, say divorce lawyers who are seeing the evidence for themselves. Margaret Hatwood, an associate in the family department of law firm Thomas Eggar, reports that “some family law firms have never been busier”. In many cases, these lawyers are having to break the unwelcome news of a double whammy: not only has financial pressure ruined their clients’ marriage, but it may wreck their chances of a clean break, too.

Statistics confirm that more of us separate from our partners in times of financial strain. During the recession of 1990-94, divorce rates rose sharply from 153,386 to 165,018, only to fall back again as Labour came into office and the economy improved. We get married less, too, and our sex drive drops. The population fell sharply in 1976, following the recession of 1974 and its aftermath.

Psychologist Kim Stephenson believes that while in some cases financial hardship exposes unwelcome truths about the nature of the relationship, other cases reveal just how significant financial goals are to a relationship. “What the little research out there does tell us is that people often have unspoken goals about money that they don’t share, even with each other,” he says. “In times of economic boom, they just get on with it, but in times of uncertainty, resentment can kick in. ‘Well, if you hadn’t insisted on having this house or bought your 17th pair of shoes, we wouldn’t be in this situation.’ ‘Oh, and I suppose your top-of-the-range satnav has nothing to do with us heading for debt?’ And so on.”

There is evidence that people with strong relationships tend to pull together in times of adversity, says Stephenson, but where there are potential cracks, a credit crunch may be the last straw. Marriage support organisation Marriage Care reports that finance is a factor for 60% of couples who approach them.

Unemployment causes the most break-ups. One study by the Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies found that the loss of a job includes the loss of the psychological meaning that the job held, not only for the individual but for the couple.

In the US, where financial woes have been going on longer, divorce is booming. Raoul Felder, a New York lawyer who specialises in the divorces of the super-wealthy, recently disclosed that business had rocketed 40% in the past year and that he had not seen such a big jump in his caseload since 1980.

Gary O Todd, a divorce lawyer in Boston, also says that the troubled economy has boosted his client base: “Money is one of the primary reasons or causes of a divorce, and when you have a downward economy, that exacerbates the financial troubles and tensions in marriage.”

However, John G DiPiano, another Boston-based lawyer, confirms that because of the collapse in the housing market, a worrying number of his clients cannot sell the marital home, meaning that the estranged couple has to live there indefinitely. For the first time in his career, he says, he is facing the problem of negative equity. “We’re in a situation where creative problem-solving is at an absolute premium in terms of choosing a divorce attorney,” he says.

One solution he points to is a “short sale”, in which the house is sold at a loss and both parties split the debt. Another involves one party taking on the responsibility – and risk – of the house as well as any future profits, although this assumes that the other can afford another property.

Back in the UK, where negative equity is not on the same scale – at least for now – divorcing couples living in close quarters are mostly just hoping they will sell up soon, though some are resigned to sitting out the storm, having worked out that the only way to make the sale of the family home fund two more homes (even modest ones) is to wait until the economy picks up again. “In a time of declining property values, you do get cases where neither party wants to resolve matters until values of property have ceased falling,” says Hatwood, who remembers a couple from the last recession who did not actually leave their home. “They simply subdivided their house into properties so the wife and children effectively occupied two-thirds and the husband one third.”

Another couple hung on in there for so long that they wound up ditching their separation plans altogether. As part of their efforts to introduce compromise into their strained lifestyles, says Hatwood, they renewed a respect for one another that they thought had long disappeared.

She says that, with purse strings tightened, many couples are struggling to pay for the divorce itself, with many turning to mediation (where a third party provides a structured conversation in which to negotiate finances) or collaborative law (the same thing but with lawyers). Bargain hunters are also going online. Such is the growth of couples seeking a divorce through Divorce Online – 48% in the past six months – that they’ve had to take on new staff and larger premises. The cost of using a solicitor, which averages

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