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The Art of Being "Undivorced"

Undivorced couples are neither together nor apart

It’s easy to think of marriage as a black and white state: you go from being unmarried to married in an instant when you say, “I do”. From there on out you’re either married, widowed or divorced.

Reality isn’t so smooth, though. A growing number of couples find themselves in a limbo-land between being married and splitting up. Some, like Juliet Bridges writing in the Telegraph, think of themselves as “undivorced“.

Juliet and her husband live apart, mostly. They have no plans to divorce, but aren’t exactly on the path to reconciliation. They continue to parent their kids together in the house they once shared, but her husband rarely stays the night. For two years, they’ve floated in this in-between state, neither one eager to pull the trigger on divorce and neither quite ready to be together.

They’re far from alone.

They’re staying “together” for the usual reasons: they have kids together, whose lives they don’t want to disrupt if they can help it. Also, divorce is expensive. And then there’s the finality of it, and the sense of failure that can come with that.

I know so many couples in this situation, leading parallel lives but staying married. Some have formally “broken up” but agreed that their marriage is worth preserving for the kids’ sakes, others are still trying to work things out. Some share a house but not a bed, others live as neighbors. Some have explicit agreements about when each will care for the kids, others remain as flexible in their undivorce as they were in their marriage.

In fact, some people’s happy marriages seem to have a lot in common with these “undivorced” couples. I’ve begun to think of marriage less as an either/or proposition and more as a spectrum: you have the bliss of a wedding day at one end and divorce at the other. In between there are a million shades of gray affecting how together a couple is or isn’t. You move through a lot of them in the course of a marriage.

My husband and I share the big things: our home, our bed, our money, our kids. But day to day we do an awful lot of parallel living: we both have separate friendships, we go on separate vacations. He takes the kids in the morning, I have them in the afternoon. He does laundry, I pay bills. We can go days without even crossing paths unless we make an effort to take time for each other.

When our marriage went through it’s rough patch last fall and I thought about leaving, I realized the lines of a break-up were already drawn: it’d be easy to see what time each of us should spend with the kids, for example, because we’ve already split up our parenting so one of us is always the “on” parent.

Things turned around for me; I’m living in wedded bliss again with the man I want to spend my life with. But the bonds were stretched pretty thin for awhile there, and we still do plenty of parallel living. Thinking about all the undivorced couples I know, I wonder how different they really are from your average married couple. Maybe they’re just a little further down the spectrum of being apart.

I also wonder how new this phenomenon is. The Telegraph talks about it being a trend, and an unhealthy one. Their experts seem to want to encourage people to be more decisive, and just get things over with already. I wonder if people are really living separate lives within their marriages more often now, or if the undivorced are just becoming more visible.

I don’t see anything wrong with being undivorced, actually. It’s not just a failure to make up your mind. It’s a decision to do something different, to craft the relationship that works best for you and your partner. Even if that means doing something unconventional and living separate lives.

It’s a framework that works for a lot of families. It may be that your relationship changes to the point where living together doesn’t make sense anymore, or you still want to share a house but the romantic partnership is over. Why not stay married if you get along well enough otherwise? Especially when you have kids, it might be the best thing to do.

Photo: bored now

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