When is a separation not a separation? It depends on who you ask.
In family law two people are considered to be separated when at least one of them accepts that the relationship is over and there is no prospect of reconciliation.
In income tax law, Canada Revenue Agency only considers those two people “separated” when they are living in separate residences (and can prove it).
This article is about the former –those living in the awkward aftermath of their separation while still in the same house. It’s very common, although not ideal. Separated spouses often have to stay in the home while they work through all of their rights and responsibilities arising from their new “separated” status.
Many lawyers will advise their clients not to leave a matrimonial home where the children are residing because it can impact their rights as parents. While this applies to some parents in some situations I tend to tell my clients that a decision to continue living in a home in a high-conflict situation involves weighing the pros and cons and assessing one’s priorities.
For those who do remain in the home together in the weeks or months following a separation it will be important to try to ease the tension and minimize conflict in the home. This is especially true if there are children at home.
Michele James is a Registered Psychotherapist and an Accredited Family Mediator in Oakville, Ontario. She often helps clients through this difficult process. She has the following advice for people who must share a home after they separate:
1. Focus on your kids.
“Each child reacts differently to their parents separating. Find out what they need and work to meet those needs. Hint: all kids need support, stability, love,” says James.
“Children may experience confusion when told that their parents are separated yet they see them continuing to live together. It’s important, therefore, for parents to communicate openly and to explain to them that although their relationship is over, they are still parents and they will continue to love and care for their kids.
“Kids often need reassurance that the divorce is not their fault. Avoid blame, and any adult information about the separation.” She suggests parents consider connecting children to a child therapist who specializes in divorce to support them through the transition.
2. Practice being co-parents.
“Look at the family schedule and figure out how you are going to divide up the responsibilities of caring for your family. Perhaps take the opportunity to try out the schedule you will use once you physically separate,” James suggests.
“When it’s your block of time with your kids, give them your attention. When it’s the other parent’s block of time with the kids, try to discretely leave the home so the children get used to each parent functioning as the primary parent. That said, maintain flexibility and be open to overlap, as a precise division of responsibilities is difficult when living under the same roof.”
3. Take time for you.
“If you have spent time on an airplane, you will be familiar with the instruction, ‘Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.’ This isn’t selfish, it’s survival,” says James.
“If you aren’t intentionally taking time to care for yourself, you will have less energy and patience, especially for your kids. Get some exercise, spend time with friends, find a new hobby/passion.”
4. Be mindful of how you communicate with each other.
“Living under the same roof when separated is emotionally taxing. It is a good idea to establish clear boundaries regarding how and when the two of you are going to communicate with each other.”
James further suggests that if there has been conflict in the relationship, it is wise to consider hiring an Accredited Family Mediator, “to help the two of you communicate with each other in a respectful and productive manner.”
5. Remember that this too shall pass.
“This is a temporary living arrangement. You will have your own place. You will heal from the pain and stress of your relationship ending. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and possibly depressed when living in transition. Although easier said than done, focusing on the positive will help minimize the negative aspects of living together.”
How can the Professionals Help?
James suggests that if your mood becomes consistently low, or if you just need a safe space to work through your thoughts and feelings, it’s time to consider hiring a professional such as a Registered Psychotherapist, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist or a Registered Social Worker to help you.
You may also want to work with such a professional to create boundaries and guidelines for the family while you continue to live together.
Lawyers and family mediators play a different role. These professionals can help you move forward to the point where you no longer need to live together in the home. Even if you haven’t come to a final resolution on all matters (this can take time), your lawyers and/or your family mediator can help you negotiate an interim agreement that will provide for you to live in separate residence while you finalize your matter.
Separation can be expensive and you can minimize the financial cost if you’re mindful of the ways in which you work with the professionals. Think twice before calling your lawyer when you can’t agree who should move into the guest room or who gets to use the stove to make dinner next Sunday. Save those legal fees and treat yourself to a dinner out instead.