“They split up.”
“They split up?”
My friend and I were sitting side by side on folding canvas chairs, both wrapped in fleece, both clutching steaming cups of coffee at a way-too-early Saturday soccer game last fall. As seems to be required in such circumstances, we were chirping about people we knew. When I brought up a couple whose daughter played soccer with our girls last season, my soccer pal casually stated, “They split up,” as if revealing that said mutual friend had purchased a new pair of clogs.
“What are you talking about?” I said, too loudly.
“You didn’t know?” Soccer Pal asked, so incredulous that I momentarily wondered if the news had been posted on the township Facebook page: “There was a burglary on Virginia Avenue. Kristen and Bill split up. Leaf pickup starts on Friday the 3rd.”
I’d just seen them together at Dunkin’ Donuts, all of them, including the four kids. I recalled jolly laughter and the aura of bona fide togetherness-ness. Kristen and Bill were always together. At games. At the pool. At the block party. It wasn’t like Kristen and I were BFFs, but her cell number was programmed into my phone. We texted.
When I thought about it, though, I remembered I’d heard a few months back that it wasn’t exactly paradise in their beige colonial. Bill had been in and out of work. Kristen was holding down two jobs to bring home extra cash. Someone had mentioned that there were always a lot of beer bottles in their recycling bin, which I assumed was a good sign—that once the kids went to bed, they sat on the couch like we did, drinking pale ales and catching up on Homeland.
A few days after soccer, I saw Kristen in the deli at Wegmans and beelined my cart over to hers.
“I just heard about you and Bill,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, it’s been about six months.”
“Really? I had no idea,” I said. Six months?
“I’m not surprised you didn’t notice,” she said. “We’re separated. Totally. But Bill’s always around. He sleeps over at least three nights a week.”
“He sleeps over?” I repeated.
“On the couch,” she clarified. “But he takes the kids to school, the whole thing. It kind of … I don’t know … it kind of works. It’s better. For the kids. I didn’t want to uproot them. It’s their house. I’m not sure when he’ll officially move out. Or if he’ll officially move out.”
I didn’t want to be meddlesome and ask the obvious question: If you split but you don’t actually split, isn’t that the equivalent of, um, marriage? Instead, I blurted out a far less invasive query: “Are you dating?”
“Maybe. I’m not quite sure.”
“Wow,” I said, nodding my head as if their arrangement was totally ordinary, as if I’d had the very same conversation with three other moms in the bakery aisle minutes before. I couldn’t help thinking that Kristen and Bill had to be the healthiest, most progressive, most selfless parents on the face of this earth.
Either that, or they were total nut-jobs.
Whenever I imagine my divorce—and I imagine my divorce roughly once a week, typically when I find a beer glass soaking in the sink again, as if beer glasses need to soak and can’t, for the love of God, just be placed directly into the dishwasher—it does not look like Kristen’s at all.
My divorce is normal. Thad moves into a nearby apartment. He takes the kids every Wednesday and every other weekend. We alternate holidays. No one periodically sleeps on the other person’s couch.
“How do you imagine our divorce?” I asked him one weekend as we drove to visit some college friends. I was pretty certain that Thad, too, imagined our divorce roughly once a week, typically after I found a beer glass soaking in the sink and proceeded to lecture him for 45 minutes on how I have to do everything. Turns out his fantasy divorce is pretty much the same as mine. I explained Kristen and Bill’s setup.
“But they’re always together,” he remarked.
“That’s exactly what I said.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. So long, in fact, that I started to worry. Was he weighing the possibilities? Couch a few nights a week and getting to have sex with other women vs. every night in the California king with Mrs. I’m Too Tired And WTF About The Beer Glasses?
“I’m not sure I get it,” he said finally. “You might not be technically married, but you still have to deal with all the stupid little sucky stuff about being married. You’re still getting irritated about the direction of the toilet paper or eating the last piece of pizza or whatever. But there’s no payoff.”
He was talking about sex, but I pretended he was talking about those special married-people moments, like the side-hugs we give each other when we witness one of our children doing something nice, like almost punching a sibling but deciding at the last minute not to. We side-hug a lot. So I felt rather confident that the only time Thad would ever sleep on the couch was when I was bedridden with the flu and throwing up in a bucket.
The next day, full of marital confidence, I stood on the school playground for pickup and, as seems to be required in such circumstances, chatted about what was going on around town. One mom mentioned her neighbor, who was apparently living with her ex-husband full-time because they couldn’t afford separate households.
“In the same bedroom?” someone asked.
“No way. But their son keeps asking them why they never hold hands. He’s so confused.”
“You know what’s weird?” I countered. “I know a couple doing that, too.” Then I revealed the nuts and bolts of The Curious Case of Kristen and Bill, minus the names “Kristen-and-Bill,” in case anyone knew them. I didn’t want to be that mom.
“My cousin’s story is better than that,” another mom cooed, as if we weren’t talking about people, but about who got the better scratch-off coupon in that week’s mailer from Kohl’s. Her story was better: The couple also divorced and stayed in the same Cherry Hill house, but when the dad started dating a friend of theirs, the mom got upset and set him up with one of her friends.
“What?!” everyone screeched like hyenas. This was getting good.
Another friend whispered about a couple who split and their kids kept living in the house while they alternated weeks; a similar story involved switching off months. A couple out in Wayne did the same thing, but bought a small studio apartment nearby where each parent stayed on his or her off-time. Then there was the dad who moved out but came over every morning before the kids woke up to cook them breakfast.
The breakfast thing stopped me. It actually sounded … rather … nice. To have someone swoop in and take care of a meal, then swoop away? To spread out in the entire bed and still have a pseudo-live-in homework helper? And laundry-doer? And snot-wiper? To have hours, even days, of space? Of alone-time? Just thinking the word “alone” freaked me out a bit, not because I couldn’t imagine it, but because I could.
The following week, as I tried to determine if our town had a Weird Divorce Cluster, I casually mentioned to a friend at yoga about Kristen and Bill. She volleyed right back—a separated couple she knew who sent a joint Christmas card, complete with a Sears Family Portrait of all of them. Another friend knew a recent Villanova divorcée who hosted her ex-husband—and his new girlfriend—for Rosh Hashanah because, she said, “The kids should be able to look across the table at a holiday meal and see their whole family.”
I didn’t understand. Everyone I knew—everyone—seemed to know someone who was involved in some kind of unbroken breakup. Is this what divorce looks like now? Like the couple in Abington who, two and a half years ago, announced to their friends and neighbors that hubby was moving out? Fast-forward to now: They’re still living in the same house.
“People think he’s too cheap to pay support and she’s too lazy to get a job,” sniped the friend who told me the Abington couple’s tale over coffee. Each parent takes responsibility for their two daughters a few nights a week and every other weekend. On the dad’s off-weekends, he stays at his girlfriend’s house and the mom’s boyfriend moves in. On the mom’s weekends off, the dad’s girlfriend sleeps over. During the holidays, the four of them would be at the same neighborhood parties together. And back at the neighborhood block party in the summer.
“My kids know their kids. They don’t really think anything of it,” my friend explained. But she figured it had to be confounding for the little girls when, last winter, their parents—just the mom and the dad—took them skiing at Camelback. “When I saw the mom later,” my friend said, “I had to ask: ‘Was your boyfriend okay with that?’”
I asked Randi Rubin, a divorce attorney in Center City and on the Main Line, about all of this. Turns out she now sees these setups all the time. Call it the Divorce Halfway House. “It’s much more common,” she says. “People don’t have the means in this economy to live separately, and it usually doesn’t hurt the kids as long as everyone stays civil.”
But dating was often why couples got into the mix in the first place. At a cookout last year, my friend Amy (wife of Joe, mother of three) shared the gooey details of her friend’s situation. Married couple, separated. Still living together. Husband dating another woman, who is also separated but living with her ex. Wife dating like a sorority girl.
“Can you imagine?” she asked me.
“No, I can’t, actually.”
“I mean,” she went on, “doesn’t it sound … great?”
“Think about it. You get to have sex all you want with whomever you want. You get to have the family fire burning at home. Of course, as soon as Joe started dating, I’d lose my shit. I’d probably kill him, but … ” She trailed off dreamily, then strolled away.
The killing part. If Thad and I ever pulled a Kristen and Bill, that was exactly the thing that would undo me. Because no matter how glorious the alone-time was, and no matter how roomy the bed felt, he would eventually start dating.
And I would have to kill him.
I explained this to Kristen the next time I saw her, when we ran into each other at a bar in town. I was there celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday; she was on a date.
Actually, she was almost on a date. He hadn’t shown up yet, so I sat down next to her.
“Does Bill know?” I asked.
“He does now,” she said, and pursed her lips. It had been months since I’d seen her at Wegmans. Things had changed. A lot.
It had gone down like this: For more than a year, Kristen hadn’t been intimate with Bill at all. (“I barely wanted to look at him.”) Shortly after they separated, she had started getting her battery charged again with a no-strings-attached guy she met up with on her nights “off.”
That didn’t mean it wasn’t awkward at home. For one thing, she and Bill were still living like a married couple. For another, Bill still wanted to be a married couple, hoping that they’d work this all out and he’d move back in full-time.
“I warned him, ‘Don’t touch my phone. You’re not going to like what you read,’” Kristen confided. “But he looked at my phone every chance he got.” It cut both ways: There was the time she grabbed his backpack from the floor and a condom fell out of a pocket. She claimed she didn’t care, but I wasn’t sure I believed her. But the point is, she wouldn’t have had to deal with it if he’d moved out entirely in the first place.
Then there was the night when she came home late—and drunk—and there he was, on the couch.
“We hooked up,” she admitted. “I opened the door to him, even though I told him the next day it didn’t mean anything and even though he agreed it didn’t mean anything. It was all my fault.” His three days on the couch stretched to four, then five. Everything went back to where it had started: They weren’t sleeping together, she was frustrated, he was promising to do better.
And I realized: Kristen’s marriage sounded a lot like mine. Not all of the time. Barely even part of the time. But Thad and I had dry spells. We had frustrations. We periodically felt uneven and unconnected and unhappy. I wondered, then, if these stories I’d been hearing weren’t necessarily the signs of new rules for divorce but, instead, new rules for marriage.
Until there was a game-changer. Like when Kristen met someone. After that, she could define the true and final end of her relationship with Bill with a single crossed line.
Bill was at the house for one of his scheduled nights. Kristen took a bath before she went out. The next day, Bill confronted her: “I saw hair in the tub.”
“What?” she asked.
“I saw that you shaved your legs before you went out last night,” he went on. “Were you meeting up with someone?”
“Oh God,” I said, feeling suddenly like I knew too much. “That’s creepy.”
“So creepy,” she said.
I couldn’t help but think: Was there really such a big difference between Kristen’s microscopic, behind-closed-doors,
bottom-of-the-tub truth and my microscopic, behind-closed-doors, beer-glass-soaking-in-the-sink truth? In a lot of ways, we were both in the middle of the mess of it all—
marriage, divorce, whatever-it-was. The difference was that I was pushing on in one direction, aided by the occasional side-hug. Kristen was pushing, hard, in the other.
“I told him right then and there he had to find his own place,” she said. In fact, Kristen was filing for divorce—real divorce. She told me she hoped it would all be final this spring. That’s right around the time Thad and I celebrate our 10th anniversary.