Getting "Un-Divorced": A New Way to End Marriage?


I have a guy friend who has been "un-divorced for three years." What that means is that he pays all his wife's expenses while she lives in another (much smaller) house in the same city. 

They are both dating other people and speak only about practical household matters. When I ask my friend why he doesn't get divorced, he shrugs his shoulders and says his wife hasn't asked for a divorce. (I have a few of my own theories on why this couple doesn't legally pull the plug on their marriage: Divorces are expensive and emotionally gruesome, and staying married is a kind of relationship that fulfills an attachment need for those who are more intimacy-avoidant.)

Apparently, my friend's situation is not unique. While it is difficult to estimate the numbers, a recent article in the New York Times says, "Society is full of whispered scenarios in which spouses live apart." The article even cites the case of famous gazillionaire Warren Buffet, who separated from his wife in 1977 and remained married to her until her death in 2004 -- even though he was living with another woman. 

I would venture to say that there are three categories of people who live in this marital limbo. First: Wealthy people who stand to suffer financially if a divorce breaks up assets such as companies and real-estate holdings. Second: Couples with children who are co-parenting (albeit from separate homes) while health and life-insurance policies remain intact. And third: That large group of wishy-washy, can't-get-off-the-fence Americans who fear intimacy and deep emotional commitment. (After all, staying married to an estranged spouse protects one from having to marry anyone else.) 

For some, staying "un-divorced" is a perfect purgatory whereby they can maintain the social illusion of a legal pairing while sowing their oats elsewhere -- and never have to bring the new "crop" to fruition. (According to the Times, pressure from a new paramour is what most commonly causes these limbo marriages to finally -- and legally -- end.) 

There are downsides to "un-divorce." For one thing, the separated spouses' financial lives remain intertwined, so if one goes boom or bust, the other is eligible to take part in the windfall -- or be held responsible for the other's debts. And if a separation goes on until death, it can mean a big mess for survivors, who may include new kids and new "unmarried" stepkids. 

As for me (the woman who preaches empathy, compassion and connection), I think there's far more going on psychologically than just financial convenience. I'd bet my house on the fact that in many cases of "un-divorce," one spouse is still secretly pining away for the other, and even a thread of attachment adds hope to the longing. In other cases, the marriages were probably emotionally disconnected in the first place, so moving to a de facto commitment seems closer to the true spirit of the original union. 

I suggest that learning to trust love and trust people would be far more growth-enhancing. In the words of my late Irish grandmother, "Poop or get off the pot, people!" Being in the middle of the road can turn you into road kill. 


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