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Live-In Divorce


Most of the time he stayed in his room, seeing the children (both of whom were in therapy) only when he'd visit their rooms briefly to watch TV with them. "You can live in the same house with someone and miss them," he says. His elder daughter left notes on his pillow: "I just wanted to say good-night. I love you." The tic in his left cheek betrays his agitation. "It's upsetting," he says, "to look at them now."

"My mind was running all the time," he remembers. "Mostly angry stuff." And Annie was so frightened, he says, looking puzzled and hurt, that she kept knives under the sofa cushions, though he'd never been violent.

"I began to keep knives under my bed," Annie Kornberg said in a telephone interview, "after that one time he came home, drunk and angry, and raped me. He says he doesn't remember it." She adds her own details from those three years: the "scary" way he looked down at her from upstairs while she slept in the den; the meetings in the narrow upstairs hallway, when he'd snap, "Don't touch me."

For many months, Larry resisted his lawyer's proposals for a way out. (One suggestion was that Larry persuade Annie to let him take out a loan that approximated his equity in the house.) Finally, "on the verge of going crazy," he asked Annie to sign the paper that let him get the loan, and he moved.

Now their divorce is final. They have joint custody, and the children are attending their old school. Says Annie, who still looks drained and drawn eleven months after Larry moved out, "I'm living in the house, but it's still partially his house; it's still for sale. People celebrate divorces. I didn't celebrate. What we went through was a horrible thing that will haunt me for the next twenty years."

"If you have a chance to settle early, do it," Larry says. "The final settlement was virtually identical to what we would have had the day she handed me the lawyer's letter. Neither of us gained a thing—except thousands of dollars [paid out] in lawyers' fees and three years of misery.

"My lawyer told me, 'I wouldn't recommend that a dog live like this. I only recommend it to my clients.' "

Why did Larry's and Annie's lawyers advise them to endure the nearly unendurable? To put in motion the force-your-opponent-to-settle strategy, of course. But there are several other reasons for the increasing use of this maneuver. For one thing, while lawyers agree that a partner cannot lose his financial stake in a house by moving out, the recent decision in Fleming v. Fleming (New York Appellate Division, October 1989) indicates that a divorcing spouse who leaves home and sets up a separate residence forfeits his right to live in the marital residence. Says Florescue, "I used to advise my clients to move out for a cooling-off period to see if we could settle. Now it's harder for me to do that."

And, he points out, the IRS code may penalize the one who leaves. When the house is sold—sometimes years after the divorce—the partner who left may lose his right to claim the house as his primary residence. He will thus be liable for huge capital-gains taxes, having forfeited the right to roll over the proceeds into the purchase of a next house.

Some couples who must live together while splitting apart manage to stay civilized human beings. Even so, they find their circumstances a strain: "I made this choice," says 38-year-old advertising executive Fern Bronstein*, "and now, after fourteen months, I realize that I'm in the most bizarre situation."

She and her husband, 40-year-old Rick*, are not fighting over the settlement. They simply cannot afford to move apart, they say, until their $300,000 New Jersey house is sold, though Fern makes $65,000 a year and Rick commands the same salary as a sales representative for a computer company. Neither has savings.

Despite a few screaming matches that sent Fern to stay with friends for a night, their live-in divorce has been amicable—so much so that friends still invite them out as a couple. "He's a good person, and I'm sure someone else will make him happy," Fern says. "It's better to leave now and have a shot at having children. When I asked for the divorce, he said, ' Yes, I understand why.' "

They feel tenderness toward each other; they have no wish to cause pain. When a date parks outside the house and honks the horn for Fern, it upsets her to see how vulnerable Rick is, how he silently turns and walks into another room.

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