I left my wife -- but we still live under the same roof . . .
Recession woes are forcing more and more separated couples to keep on living together, writes John Meagher
Relationship counsellors often hear warring couples talk of a wall between them. But, for the partners in at least one broken marriage, a wall literally divides them in the house they share.
John Lynch, a family law solicitor based in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, oversaw a mediation settlement last year in which his clients decided that while they no longer wished to live together, both were so attached to their home that they would have it split in two and live in separate "wings".
"Their children had grown up and there was a lot of room," says Lynch, "and neither wanted to move away. It was certainly an unusual step but it seems to work for them. Not only did the builders put a wall through the house but they also divided the garden in two. There are separate entrances and another kitchen was built where a bedroom had been."
Poignantly, the couple did not want to split their two dogs, so at the end of the garden a small hole was placed in the wall to provide unfettered access for their pets.
Yet, for many couples whose marriages or long-term relationships have run aground, splitting their home in such a dramatic manner is not possible. Instead, in a direct consequence of the property crash, they are having to remain living together as the funds to move out simply are not there.
"A sad legacy of the crash is the number of people whose relationships have come to an end, yet they are forced to live together because they are in negative equity," says Tony Moore of the Marriage and Relationship Counselling Service (MRCS).
"In the Celtic Tiger years, chances were that they had enough cash to move out or if they owned their property they could sell it quickly and be practically guaranteed a profit. Since the recession, that has just not been possible.
"Factor in redundancies and wage cuts and people simply don't have the financial clout to lead separate lives. They are effectively imprisoned."
For Gillian O'Mahony, a lecturer in family law at Waterford Institute of Technology and a solicitor at John Lynch's Tipperary practice, the recession has changed everything when it comes to marital breakdown.
"Divorce is down because it is often seen to be so prohibitively expensive," she says. "You could be talking about €20,000 (in legal fees) for a protracted, antagonised divorce case.
"What's happened in recent years is that people are turning more and more to structured mediation. It's far more cost effective -- you're talking a few thousand euros, perhaps -- and it's a much quicker solution.
"Granted, it doesn't work for all situations, but if both people are reasonable and take an amicable approach, it's to be recommended -- especially when they find themselves having to remain living together because they can't afford to move out."
Should they be able to prove in court that they have been living separate lives for four out of the preceding five years, they will be able to pursue divorce.
"Thanks to the McA v McA case [the landmark Irish legal ruling] the courts recognise that people can be legally separated and still live under the same roof. It's sad to say, but that applies to a lot of people in Ireland at the moment.
"Mediation covers everything, including third parties," Gillian says. "And that can be important, because obviously a situation where one partner's new lover is coming to the home just isn't going to work. Both people's sensitivities have to be taken into account."
Gillian is busy at present. The Tipperary practice owns the Google-friendly divorceinireland.com domain name, and customers come from all over the country.
Liam Lally of Accord Marriage Counselling says the recession has had a palpable impact on relationships. "The numbers of people coming to us has increased over the past few years and we're finding that those who say financial strain is the chief reason for their troubles has doubled in the past three years.
"There's no doubt about it: the economic crash has proved to be a huge burden on some people's marriages.
"We're seeing people who have been made redundant -- they thought they would never be unemployed -- and they're seeing their spouse all day, every day. There's none of the respite they might have got by being apart at work every day."
Lally, too, says the phenomenon of people whose relationships have gone past the point of no return and are having to live together is becoming ever more common.
The "escape" money is simply not there. "Of course it's tough -- especially when children are involved," he says.
"But people have to try their best to be civil to one another. They should give each other space. Maybe they can work out a timetable when each can have time at home alone."
Tony Moore has noticed another trend. "You're seeing people in their 30s and 40s having to move back in with their parents because they don't have the money to rent or buy anywhere else," he says. "They might feel humiliated, but many of them have no other option. I think this has become far more common since the recession began in 2008 than it would have been in the boom years before.
"Don't forget that this can be a real strain on their parents too. After all, many of them probably thought they would get to enjoy their retirement without having to 'look after' their children again.
"It's yet another unforeseen aspect of how the recession has made marital breakdown that bit more arduous. It really is a tough time for people out there."