Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

How to do an in-house separation

Staying together yet staying apart

When I started working decades ago in a poor region of South Carolina we knew about couples who did the “poor man’s separation” – dividing up the small house with a blanket on a clothesline down the middle of the room. There are still “poor man’s separations” going on all the time today -- one partner living down the basement, each having separate bedrooms with little to no contact with one another. They act as roommates at best, boarding house residents more often. Some do this for economic reasons – they can’t afford two residences and / or there is no one to take them in; sometimes because they still want to be both available to parent children. 

Whatever the reason to be physically together yet emotionally apart, here are some guidelines – essentially rules of engagement – for both making the decision and creating a workable structure: 

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Define the relationship. This is generally on a continuum – from we are roommates who share the house, may do some things together, to, like boarders, we are free to go our separate ways, each have our own space and do what we want, to something in-between. The devil is always in the details so nail them down: Are we essentially doing what we did before without the physical contact and intimacy? Will we have planned time together like a Saturday night date? Can both go off and see others as friends or for dating?

This is usually the thorniest part of the negotiations. Have in your mind a clear idea before you start talking.

Define your interactions with children. If there are children in the mix define how child-care and family time will be handled. Will you swap off in terms of childcare, similar to what parents do in separate households, or do you want keep some family time – pizza and DVD with kids on Friday night. Again, focus on details.

Define responsibilities. How / who is responsible for cleaning the house, doing the laundry? Are there changes in finances – a splitting of bills, separate checking accounts? Decide.

Define the space. There is a scary scene in the movie the War of the Roses where Michael Douglas does the in-house separation with Katherine Turner and gloats that he won because he has more square footage (Reader note: I suggest you do not watch this movie if you are getting separated or even struggling -- it will weird you out!). You don’t want to be petty or power-manuevering like him, but do decide about use of space – the basement is considered a separate apartment, bathrooms / closets are designated, common spaces like kitchen / living room are okay but separate use? Again think roommates, boarders?

Define the timeframe / next steps. Is this separation part of a larger plan? Will this continue till there is enough money for one of the partners to move out? Are you in couple counseling and waiting to see what results from that? Are you trying to wait till kids get out of school and then make changes in the summer?

What is behind these questions in the notion that the separate is part and parcel of a larger goal – to better sort out the status of the relationship, to potentially deal more actively with repairing the relationship, to make an easier transition for the children, to financially be able to take the next emotional step.

Decide what to say to the children. If your children are young – under 4, for example – they may not notice much change if basic caretaking is remaining much the same. Older children likely will and have questions – why is mom not home for dinner? How come dad is sleeping in the basement? You need to be able to answer their questions in terms they can understand – that we are taking a break from each other because we are having a hard time, kind of like the way you felt when you didn’t want to talk to your friend last year when she hurt your feelings. The meta-message is that we are working on it, that this is an adult problem, that we both love you and going to take care of you even if things seem a bit different for a while. Also let them know that this has nothing to do with them and that they can ask questions and let you know when they get worried.

What happens sometimes in these situations is that the children may relax some. There was tension or arguments before and now things seem more settled. The general rule is to check in with them periodically to see how they are feeling, notice any behavioral changes – younger children have a more difficulty sleeping or more clingy, older children having behavioral problems at school or seeming more depressed or caretaking. These are signs that they may be struggling and need to be addressed. Also put school folks on alert that there are some tensions and changes in the home so they can be alert and supportive.

Check-in to fine-tune. Even if you lay down a solid framework it's a good idea to take stock and fine-tune after about a week or two. Ideally have a sit-down business meeting -- 15-20 minutes tops -- just to make adjustments (I'm need to work overtime the next 2 weeks so wondering if you could manage the kids those nights; my trying to manage all the bills isn't working, we need to come up with a different plan). If the face-to-face is too emotionally difficult, consider exchanging emails.

The challenge. There's a real challenge in all this negotiating and fine-tuning – that in spite the emotional struggles you are having you somehow need to be able to be the rational adults – be assertive, be relatively non-emotional, be clear about priorities and goals -- essentially do now what you were likely having a difficult time doing before you made this decision. If this is too difficult, if conversations too quickly go off the rails, consider getting some help from a counselor, minister, mediator.

Even in times of struggle you both want to be on the same page.



Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.


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