With Love and Gratitude

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The Undivorced: Propelled by Economics, Freedom, and Love

Despite odd living arrangements, parties involved often express love.

When we read about the world of the undivorced—husbands and wives who stay married, but live apart or drift into extra-marital relationships—three questions come to mind: Who are the undivorced? How healthy is this emotionally? Is “happily ever after” just a fairy tale? Generations of the married rich and famous have had their dalliances, as did presidents and politicians. Despite what can be unusual living arrangements, oftentimes the parties involved continue to express both love and gratitude for their spouse and sometimes even enjoy sex with one another.

Who are the undivorced?

The undivorced include the über-rich and your next-door neighbor. Billionaire Warren Buffet was so entwined with his wife and mistress that the three reportedly sent out holiday cards together. He and his wife Susan remained married until her death in 2004, although his live-in mistress was his wife’s friend, Astrid Menks.

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Artist Willem de Kooning remained married for years although he and his wife did not live together for more than 30 years. She died in 1989.

And Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone magazine founder, was still married when it was rumored that he was living with his male lover. He finally divorced his wife of over 40 years to begin life with his lover in 2011.

Mystery writer Robert Parker and his wife had separate living arrangements under one roof at their home in Cambridge, MA. They liked the freedom of their own schedules.

One of the most famous among the undivorced was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman. However, his wife eventually sought a “get,” a divorce document granted within Jewish law.

Economic reasons for the middle class

Reasons for this new undivorced phenomenon vary but include economic pressures during this very long and deep recession, including fear of losing a spouse’s health insurance, Social Security coverage, religious beliefs, lack of patience for lawyers and red tape, and the avoidance of custody battles where children are involved.

Consider that in 2010, nearly 53 million Americans will receive $703 billion in Social Security benefits. The law lets a surviving ex share in the spouse’s Social Security only if the couple has been married for 10 years. With regard to health insurance, the undivorced are encouraged to figure out ways for both to continue receiving coverage. There is no guess on how the Affordable Care Act will impact this group.

My husband, my border, and the CDC statistics

In households where couples no longer share a bed and finances are tight, creativity reigns. As one woman refers to her slightly-ex in their in-law apartment, “my husband, my boarder.”

Despite the undivorced, the divorce rate still hovers at about half of all marriages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted 2,162,000 marriages (7.1 per thousand) in the provisional data for 2008, while the divorce rate was 3.5 per thousand. There were 44 states and the District of Columbia reporting.

How healthy is being undivorced?

Therapists tend to agree that having undivorced parents is confusing for children. But even adults find the arrangement can be an emotional challenge. Buffet has said in interviews that he should never have let his wife leave him. He did not marry his mistress until two years after his wife’s death.

When I talked with psychiatrist and marriage therapist Scott Haltzman, M.D., for earlier interviews he said: “At first glance, it appears that being undivorced is the best of all possible worlds. Nonetheless, in my clinical experience it is just the opposite. It provides very little gain and can be quite detrimental to the status of the individuals involved.

He also pointed out that: “It inhibits your capacity to proceed with healthy relationships with other people. Exactly what do you say to somebody with whom you are romantically attracted when you are not exactly married, but not divorced?”

Dr. Haltzman’s most recent book by Johns Hopkins University Press is The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity; he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association www.DrScott.com.

Hope for marriage?

Despite the trend, there is hope for marriage. A report from the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that among high-school students, 81 percent say they expect to get married and 90 percent of these expect to stay married to the same person for life.

These young people also believe they can live happily without getting married and that it is a good idea for couples to live together before marriage. The bad news about living together—such couples are less likely to stay married, says the National Centers for Health Statistics.

Copyright 2014 Rita Watson

Rita Watson, MPH, is an Associate Fellow at Yale's Ezra Stiles College and a columnist for The Providence Journal.

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