Sunday 30 April 2017

Soulmates to cellmates

Cash-strapped separated couples are being forced to live together, finds Ailin Quinlan

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

Ailin Quinlan

FROM soul-mates to cellmates — that’s how family law expert and solicitor Josepha Madigan describes them. They're the couples who separate following the breakdown of their relationship but who, because of a combination of negative equity, falling incomes and high rents, remain trapped together in the family home.

It’s a depressing recession-era trend that has resulted in a whole generation of ex-spouses and partners who are forced to continue living under the same roof.

Rotas for the use of the kitchen, rosters to use the living-room telly, mediation over offensive ‘trigger behaviours’ — it sounds hellish.

But it’s happening: all over the country there are homes where Dad has ‘moved’ into the spare room, the attic, the converted garage, or, even, to mobile home-type accommodation at the bottom of the garden.

“It’s very much a recession trend,” says Madigan, who explains that lack of money means that increasingly people separate by agreement but not officially, and do not live apart.

Breaking up is expensive. While costs vary, a legal separation can set a couple back by up to €5,000, while a judicial separation through the courts can cost up to €15,000, she points out.

Relationship breakdown is a common problem in this country. The number of divorced people has reached 87,770, up 150pc since 2002.

Meanwhile, the number of people officially identified as separated is 116,194, up from 107,263 five years earlier.

“It’s very difficult for people who don’t have the disposable income to either legally divorce, separate or physically separate,” explains Madigan.

As a result, many cash-strapped couples are bypassing the official routes and simply deciding to separate, in some cases with little outward change in their lifestyle.

“You have married couples who could be technically separated but sharing the same bed though living separate and apart,” she reveals.

“I know of situations where dining rooms, attics and garages are being converted into separate living arrangements,” she says.

“These people are often very depressed. People do not expect when they walk up the aisle that their marriage will fail and they can feel a sense of guilt and shame and failure about it.”

She knows of one case where the husband has moved into what she described as a “self-contained unit” at the bottom of the garden because the house is in negative equity and cannot be sold.

“The couple are separated and awaiting a divorce, but neither want to leave the family home so they’ve built a unit at the back of the garden,” she says.

“His living arrangements are pretty basic, but it means the children can go down to see him.”

Traditionally, the family home would have been sold and the proceeds split to meet the accommodation needs of both spouses and children.

“Now we’re in a situation where properties are not selling and you cannot remortgage, so it is a ‘Catch 22’ situation. People are sitting it out, waiting for the economy to pick up.

“I know of another situation where the man is living in a spare bedroom and sharing the bathroom with his children while his wife lives in the bedroom with the en-suite.”

Although each spouse is working full-time, neither of them can afford to move out, she says.

Splitting up is far more complicated in the recession, according to mediator Majella Foley-Friel, who has been working in the sector since the mid-1990s.

She says she’s seen seismic changes in the way separations are being managed:

“Before the downturn, the biggest challenge for spouses and partners was working out how to manage their assets — the house, business, pension — as well as the issue of co-parenting their children.”

Back then, she recalls, it was simply a matter of selling the house and making the requisite arrangements.

However, the downturn brought with it a roller coaster of uncertainty. Although people in the throes of a separation are still making the necessary decisions about assets, their plans to move on are being stymied by a crippled economy:

“There’s no market there for houses because many people aren’t in a position to buy or to get a mortgage,” she says.

“Neither has the couple any idea about a time frame for when they might foreseeably sell the house.”

These days, she says, it’s all about contingency plans: what will happen if the house doesn’t sell for a year or more; what will happen if it doesn’t sell at all? What if it does sell, but doesn’t make the price they need?

“How long should they leave it on the market and what are they going to do while waiting to sell?

In some families, she says, an adult child will buy out the departing parent’s share of the house. This allows one of the parents to move out. It also gives both ex-partners the opportunity to move on while providing the adult child with a foothold on the properly ladder.

However, it’s not an option that everyone can avail of, and instead, “more and more people are deciding to live separately even in the same house and co-parent the children”.

But how can you separate, continue to live with somebody you no longer love — and yet move on with your life?

The situation gives rise to a veritable hornets’ nest of other issues, including what you tell the children. How do you explain to young children that their parents are separated, but still living together?

“I see a lot of couples who do not tell the children because it is so difficult to explain that mum and dad are separating when nobody is moving out,” says Foley-Friel.

She knows of one couple with a large family who are considering the purchase of a mobile home for one spouse.

The family property has not sold and they’re no longer able to afford the rent for the spouse who had initially moved out, and who has since been forced to return. But another, deeper, problem is looming.

“They have six children. The children in this particular situation had been made aware of the separation because one parent had left the home temporarily.”

However, the return of that parent for financial reasons made for a very mixed message to the children, she warns.

“It was traumatic enough to have to tell the children in the first place. And children always hope their parents will come back together.

“Then, the parent does come back and it gives the children false hope. It was a particularly poignant issue because the children were quite young,” says Foley-Friel, a mediator with The Mediators’ Institute of Ireland who has her own business, Select Mediation.

Mediation is crucial for couples who are separating, believes Josepha Madigan, who operates as a lawyer-mediator.

Judges will not micro-manage people’s lives, she says, but, through mediation, people can reach their own solutions.

“Mediation is not counselling or therapy,” she warns, “it’s simply a way of negotiating issues that need to be agreed in the event of a separation.

“If both parties agree in writing, the proposal can be made into a legally binding document.”

She is a strong supporter of the Mediation Bill, which is due to come into operation by the end of this year or early 2013 and will impose a statutory obligation on barristers to advise clients about the mediation process.

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