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Live-In Divorce

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She and Tom don't speak, except to call each other "jerk" and "ass- - - -." When Judy prepares food for the children, Tom comes into the kitchen and eats out of the pot. And once, after he'd failed to give her the food money the court had ordered him to provide, Judy found herself snatching a sandwich from his hand. "When you're fighting over a piece of ham and cheese," she says, "you know you're in trouble."

Though Tom was physically abusive for years, Judy says, it is he who is suing for divorce (for cruel and inhuman treatment). Each has accused the other of having a drinking problem. One night, he dragged her home from a bar and beat her so badly that a judge gave her an order of protection and an award of $400 a week in maintenance. Not enough to pay for a decent place to live with her three children, she says—and even if she could find an affordable place, she has no money for the security deposit and the first month's rent.

"If I had the money to leave," she says, "I'd be gone." Tom's settlement offer is four years' maintenance, but that's too little, Judy says, for someone who has almost no job experience. She's fighting for more.

Eight months of living with an estranged mate has toughened Judy considerably. Whenever she turns down a settlement offer, Tom complains that she's just running up the lawyers' bills (he's paying both lawyers). She tells him, "Not to worry; there's plenty more where that money came from." "That," she says triumphantly, "drives him crazy! And one day, when he called me a f- - - ing ass - - - - in front of the kids, I cracked him across the face. Now he's threatening to get an order of protection against me."

On several occasions, Tom took the ignition wires out of her car, so now she keeps a supply in her closet. Asked whether she knows how to install them, she gives a short, dry bark of a laugh: "I do now!"

Like other wives—and husbands—in her situation, Judy uses humor as a survival mechanism. The laughter is of every dark description: bitter, ironic, giddy, teetering at the abyss. The next moment (at least for Judy, as for most of the wives), there are tears. "This is the worst thing I ever lived through," Judy whispers. "This is death."

Raising the Level of Discomfort: "The house seems to get smaller every day," a wife complains. That's the idea: When the strain gets unbearable, the spouse will have to give in.

Staying together gives spouses the opportunity for exquisite harassment of the mates they have come to despise. Felder tells of the man who would snap his fingers in bed to keep his wife awake (yes, they were still sleeping in the same bed) and of another who kept a ball of twine and a pair of gloves on his bedside table—always with a "rational" explanation. Florescue knows of a man who lined his wife's bed with used Kitty Litter. In most cases, however, the torture couples inflict on each other is subtle, slow, and wearing.

During the three years Larry* and Annie Kornberg* shared their house while getting their divorce, Larry, a tall, gangling man of 40 with a bohemian beard, was tormented by jealousy. Once a jazz trumpeter, now a systems analyst with a modest income, Larry hunches forward to tell his side of things, twisting his thumbs hard against each other.

One day, after fourteen years of marriage, Annie—who had asked for a separation several times—handed him a letter from her lawyer requesting a divorce. She moved into the den, saying she had to "find herself." But, Larry says, "I knew there was someone else," a man in their neighborhood—a fact that Annie now confirms.

Larry refused to move, and his lawyer agreed that staying was his best chance of protecting his equity in their $200,000 Rockland County house. Since Annie was unwilling to sell it (their two daughters needed stability, she said), his lawyer warned that she'd feel no pressure to reach a settlement if Larry moved out. As it happened, Annie's lawyer was giving her the same advice: Staying in the house would be the fastest way to wring a settlement from Larry.

For three years—with one break—they tensely shared their turf, Larry "living" in the bedroom and going out to a restaurant for all his meals. When Annie cooked for herself and their children, the smells maddened him. In the morning, when she came into the bedroom to get her clothes, she'd turn on the light and slam the drawers, waking Larry, who went to work in the afternoon; he could get no sleep until she'd gone.

Whoever got home first at night would take off, leaving the "loser" with their girls, ages ten and eight, for the evening. Recalling this nightly contest, Larry is ashamed. "I did it to get even," he says. "It upset me because I was running away from the kids. One part of me said, 'Forget her—take care of the kids.' The other part said, 'Beat her out.' "


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