A bag of chips was the final straw. In the summer of 2019, Luke, 39, and his then-wife Rachel, 32, were shopping for food. “I put something in the cart, and she gave me a look and said, ‘You’re adding a lot to the cart today, huh?’” It felt like a record scratch or the jolting sound of an ambulance — the sort of question that leaves the air tinged with hostility. Luke, paying little mind to the “look on Rachel’s face,” took the bag of chips out of the cart and, with some force, shoved it back onto the shelf.
The rest of the day, as Luke remembers it, was a silent one, until Rachel unraveled the string of words that signals the end of a relationship. “She told me she wasn’t happy,” he says. “She gave me a list of things she wanted me to change in order for us to work.”
A week later, after 11 years together and four years of marriage, Rachel told Luke she wanted a divorce. “We were worried that we were going to file, and it was going to take forever to go through,” he says. “If I remember correctly, it took less than 90 days. We actually were finalized in March of 2020, right before the pandemic really hit.” But soon thereafter, the lockdowns were announced, and they faced the reality of having to live together for the foreseeable future. “We got the divorce, but lived as roommates while she saved up to leave,” says Luke.
For four months, Luke and Rachel shared an apartment during a pandemic that required they remain in the confines of their home as much as possible. “I couldn’t just leave the house and go do other things,” he says. “I mean, I went fishing [on the weekends], but that was really the only thing I had to escape the house.”
The jury is still out on whether divorce numbers are actually spiking during the pandemic: As I reported in September, “According to LegalTemplates.net, an online contract builder, interest in ‘separation during quarantine peaked on April 13th — a 57 percent increase compared to February 13, 2020.’” To that end, the Daily Mail reported in August that divorce rates in the U.S. are up by 34 percent. But more recently, in October, the Institute for Family Studies found that according to data from individual states, divorce filings are down, in part “because lockdowns prevented some distressed couples from filing.”
Still, several couples (e.g., Luke and Rachel), managed to finalize their divorce amidst an impending pandemic. For them and couples like them, who for financial reasons had no choice but to temporarily quarantine together during the lockdowns, the nature of the pandemic ushered in an improvised approach to living together while being apart.
No longer married, Luke and Rachel’s patterns began to change. “We bought our own food,” says Luke. “Cooked our own food.” Toward the end, Luke tells me, “I just ate in my bedroom.” Sometimes they would sit down to watch TV together. “We used to play 7 Days to Die and Age of Empires II,” he says, referring to video games that had once been a source of companionship in their marriage. One night, they both had a few drinks and “sorta hooked up.” About two minutes in, Luke realized she wasn’t really into it and stopped. “Things were even more awkward after that and her attitude toward me got worse and worse,” he says. That was when he decided that sequestering himself in his bedroom as much as he could was his only option. “That was pretty much the final nail in the coffin,” he adds.
Luke and Rachel are far from the only divorced couple to have found themselves stuck living together. Back in 2007, San Francisco-based therapist Susan Pease Gadoua coined the term “parenting marriage” to describe a trend wherein parents continued to cohabitate for the sake of their kids. In the early days of the pandemic, in fact, other parents actually opted to move back in with their ex to avoid any added risk of exposing their kids to the virus.
But even when done for the most well-intentioned reasons, living with an ex comes with a host of issues, not least of which is the potential harm it can incur on the kids. “The rationale of ‘for the kids’ can ultimately lead to confusion, anxiety and more negatives than positives,” Allen Wagner, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells me. Indeed, in her 2018 article for the Washington Post, Mekita Rivas details some of the potential confusion that arises when divorced parents continue to cohabitate. “If my parents had split up, that would have been easier to explain to my friends,” she writes. “As a kid, I struggled to classify their unconventional arrangement. I didn’t have the language for it — though ‘it’s complicated’ became part of my vocabulary at a rather young age.”
In the same article, Rivas notes that, according to Nathaniel Ivers, an associate professor of counseling at Wake Forest University, post-divorce cohabitation can lead children to be exposed to “‘dysfunctional communication patterns’ that can include name-calling and angry outbursts.” “Staying together for the kids,” then, is more likely than not to lead to developmental issues. Wagner explains that kids are facing far higher levels of anxiety and depression since schools have shut down and social contact and extracurriculars have ended, so “adding extra pressure on them to serve as the intermediary for conflicts or overall communication isn’t positive,” he says. “In some cases, kids are being exposed to emotional, verbal and physical abuse between parents.”
Per licensed marriage and family therapist Alysha Jeney, if a couple agrees that they need to stay under the same roof with children, it would probably be best to involve them and discuss what’s happening (if they’re old enough to understand). “It’s important to be transparent about roles, schedules and let them ask any questions,” she says.
Jeney adds that under normal circumstances, it’s fairly uncommon for couples, particularly ones without kids, to live together in the aftermath of a divorce, and for good reason. “I’ve worked with couples that have attempted a short time period where they stay physically together, but it generally becomes obvious how unsustainable it is,” she says. “Again, every couple is different, and if a couple finds themselves unable to physically separate, it’s important to have transparency about expectations, roles and boundaries, and discuss the timeline, so both are on the same page.” In other words, attempting to “wing it will often cause a lot of disappointment and hurt feelings.”
So for couples facing this predicament against their will — due to either pandemic restrictions or their financial circumstances — how best to cope?
Jeney advises that although every couple is different — and therefore will have their own boundaries to address — it’s important to communicate potential violations early on so everyone is on the same page. “Typically this can be done with a therapist or mediator,” says Jeney. “Making intentional agreements is crucial if you’ll be living together during the process of separation.” Some examples of topics that might come up, she says, include fairly mundane activities like whether or not you will continue to cook and eat meals together. “Do you remain friends? Are you both in need of individual space? If so, what does space look like?”
Jeney also suggests couples sleep in separate bedrooms, for no other reason than to avoid the situation that Luke and Rachel found themselves in. “Sharing intimate space can feel incredibly confusing and can activate a lot of emotional triggers,” Jeney explains. “Maybe for them, rekindling is coming from a place of codependency or comfort, rather than the desire to make changes within themselves to work on their marriage.”
For Luke and Rachel, the conditions of their cohabitation took a turn for the worse when, according to Luke, Rachel “broke quarantine” to go see another guy. Jeney tells me that dating while cohabitating after a divorce isn’t totally out of the question, but doing so without discussing the situation is sure to compound the pain. “If they can agree that dating is comfortable for them during this separation, they need to agree on ground rules,” says Jeney. “Because we’re also in a pandemic, it’s important to discuss boundaries and comfort levels regarding health and protection from COVID.”
Living together after divorce isn’t necessarily a complete mess, of course. Writing for Thrive Global, Stephanie Drenka admits that although at first her and her ex-husband’s loft “felt like a sort of prison,” the situation presented opportunities to engage the good parts of their relationship, albeit on a platonic level. Cooking dinners, she writes, became “an opportunity to teach him skills he’ll need when he’s on his own, such as how to boil water for macaroni and cheese.” In turn, her ex-husband helped her pack her belongings.
But it’s not always possible to maintain a cordial disposition amidst the fragments of a relationship. It’s far more likely that both parties, exhausted by their situation, will find themselves unable to persevere for much longer once the divorce has been finalized. “I was emotionally worn out,” Luke tells me. In June, Rachel finally moved out. And that, he says, was that.