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Live-In Divorce


They make small talk; they have bagels together on Saturday mornings; they share a car. While they are watching TV, one of them might say, "By the way, have you gotten a moment to look at the divorce papers?" They make jokes like "Don't break that dish—it's not yours, it's mine." Still, "It's a tiny house and it seems to get smaller every day," Fern says. She longs to get away from Rick—whose emotional dependence on her makes her feel guilty—and get on with her life.

This is the best of all possible live-in divorces. More typical is the mean version. But there is one practical solution: If living together becomes too uncomfortable, the partner staying behind can pay his mate to move out. Deborah Sterne* is doing that. A 42-year-old costume designer making $60,000 a year, she's spent eighteen months living with the man she's divorcing, 44-year-old Mark*, an actor.

He came up with the standard hassling techniques: bursting into her room constantly to dress and shower, pursuing her around the apartment, even shoving his way into her room against her attempts to shut the door. Sharing responsibility for their five-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter, they communicated mostly by notations in the Metropolitan Museum datebook by the kitchen telephone.

Their lawyers advised them to stay, but Deborah eventually caved in. She has agreed to borrow heavily to pay Mark his share of the equity in their $600,000 Village co-op. Will the high interest payments be worth it? She tosses her mane of ringlets and beams a meltdown smile: "Yeah!"

Hell Is the Other Person: "She has this hatred of me—my presence, the air I breathe," says one husband. His wife agrees: "I couldn't stand the sound of him brushing his teeth!"

Though staying together to force a more favorable division of assets or a better custody arrangement seems to make tactical sense, it actually slows down the settlement, says 37-year-old Maryanne O'Doherty*, who has now lived for almost two years with her estranged husband and two children in their $600,000 Riverdale house. Husband and wife become more polarized when they live together, she believes, and negotiations actually take longer. "The scab is constantly being ripped open," she asserts fiercely. "You're living together and hating each other, and you can't get any distance that might allow you to negotiate."

Hating each other and sleeping in the same bed is a perversion some people are driven to when they're going through a live-in divorce. In such a case, pure human cussedness takes the stay-in-the-same-house ploy to an outrageous extreme.

Roger Masters*, a 47-year-old management consultant who makes $150,000 a year, refused to leave his $1.5-million, four-bedroom Park Avenue co-op, or even his bed, despite the furious protests of his wife of fourteen years, Laurie*, who had asked for the divorce. For more than a month after hiring lawyers, Roger and Laurie shared their bed every night. They rarely talked and never touched. Roger made jokes, Laurie recalls bitterly, like "What's wrong with this picture?"

"I couldn't stand the sound of him brushing his teeth!" Laurie says agitatedly in a telephone interview. She is speaking from Chicago, where she recently fled with their three children. "It's an intrusion of your everything, physical and emotional! I'm lying in bed trying to sleep," she says, her voice breaking. "How much more vulnerable can you be?"

But why didn't she leave the house as soon as she'd filed for divorce? Laurie, a former dancer, says she had no independent income. She didn't leave the bed right away because, she says, "I believed in my heart of hearts that if I just went along"—her voice rises in disbelief, irony, and shame—"everything would go smoothly." She was afraid to provoke Roger, she says, afraid he'd put up obstacles to the divorce. She finally moved to a room down the hall.

"She had this hatred of me," explains Roger, a donnish-looking man sporting a bow tie. "My presence, my life, the air that I breathed." He rests one high-gloss shoe on the chair opposite the conference table in his expensively furnished midtown office. "What's going to bring this thing to a head?" he says, gesturing with open palms. "Discomfort."

As for his own discomfort in bed, Roger says it was worse before Laurie asked for the divorce, when there was no sex or affection in that bed and he was anxiously wondering why. "Listen," he says, shrugging, "I've slept with people I've hated before—in school, in the Army, in camp."

Roger shakes his head over the way Laurie would lift his "filthy, sweaty clothes out of the washing machine and toss them back into the hamper." When he began staying elsewhere almost every night, returning in the morning just in time to change his clothes and see the children, Laurie moved his things out of the master bedroom—dumped them in a pile, he says—and put a lock on the bedroom door: "an industrial-strength Segal lock," he says with amusement.

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