"Stressful?" She chortles at the question through new tears. "I cried for two years. I had eating disorders. I had stomach pain."
Even so, two years after Kevin moved out, both of them still believe they did the right thing for their children. "We negotiated down to a gnat's ass," Kevin says. Their 60-page agreement specifies the disposition of their $450,000 Westchester house, their assets, Kevin's child-support payments, and the details of visitation for the next eleven years.
Kevin, a $150,000-a-year advertising executive, stayed, he insists, because "I desperately wanted a relationship with my kids." One day midway through the process, he says, he felt the pain of leaving them so keenly that he pulled over to the side of the road and "cried like a baby."
Both spouses blame their lawyers for the length of their ordeal. But, Florescue counters, "If people don't trust each other and you have to write everything down, it can take an enormous amount of time."
Kevin Lowe and Roger Masters stayed primarily, both said, for their children. But other men confessed that it was their house they had difficulty separating from. Jeff Miller,* 39, was having an affair with a woman "out of a Playboy centerfold," but his $500,000 Long Island "dream house" is what he shows a misty-eyed affection for. Liz,* 37, his wife of fourteen years, who made $40,000 a year as a magazine editor (he earned $100,000), resisted settlement, he says, so he used his presence to make life "less cozy" for her. He wouldn't settle because, he says, "her demands exceeded my litigation risks."
Enemy in the House: "When you fight over a piece of ham and cheese," a wife says, "you're in trouble."
A high-energy New York lawyer in an L.A. Law suit and haircut, Jeff describes his tactical maneuvers: "unexpected" appearances to "keep her on edge," firing the gardener, planting a letter asking the bank to foreclose on the house. But his coolness drops away as he explains that coming home was not merely a strategic move: He also needed to be near his things. His "Architectural Digest house" was "a surrogate child; it was comfort, power, a symbol of achievement." But now, looking back, he feels "we created a 'look, don't touch' kind of house: It was a mausoleum, not a home."
Jeff's attachment to his house is a common feeling, say the experts. "A sad commentary on human nature," Felder says. "What's a house? Sticks, stones."
"A house," Silverstein says, "is a symbol of all the things that mean 'home.' " Since separation issues figure powerfully in a divorce, those who had difficulty leaving home when they became adults, she predicts, will find that conflict exacerbated when they have to "leave home" again.
"The house symbolizes nurturing," Rhodes confirms. "The idea that men can't wait to get a bachelor pad with a water bed is a fantasy."
Telling their stories, the women let their anguish show. But many of the men adopted a steely rationality that repelled rather than invited compassion. Still, it was clear that for some, this was their defense against rejection, loneliness, guilt, or fear; they seemed at pains to show that no matter how harrowing their ordeal, they had emerged unscathed. What was most touching was their fear of losing their children. They argued that no matter what explanation a father might give, the children would inevitably feel abandoned if he left—and one father spoke from experience.
Most of these men and women were not abnormally spiteful people, and they did not necessarily start divorce proceedings hating each other. Many believe that they became enemies only because of their enforced togetherness. Both the men and the women seemed trapped—by lack of money, by the law, by their own or their spouse's rage. Over and over I asked the lawyers, "Was there no way out for them? Maybe a law regularizing the award of temporary exclusive occupancy?" But the question ricocheted: What law could provide affordable housing to the excluded partner? Sometimes there are practical or legal solutions if the pair can agree with each other or with their lawyers. But if they could agree, would they be where they are?
Bart Levy* is just where he was three years ago— geographically, at least. His experience demonstrates the stages of the under-one-roof divorce.
Married young, deciding to divorce after 22 years—not because they'd come to despise each other but because they had never been deeply in love and it was time to change their lives—Bart and Simone* were divorced a year ago.
During the two years it took to reach a settlement, Bart, 47, whose computer business was losing money, and Simone, 44, a $55,000-a-year accountant, felt they couldn't afford separate residences. Besides, Bart loved his children and considered fighting for sole custody. "Where is it written that I had to move out just because I'm the man?" he demands. "Bull---- !" So they found a way of coexisting. Whoever got home first at night took the master bedroom, feigning sleep when the other walked through to get clothes.
Now that the divorce is final, they still can't afford to move apart; their house, for which they're asking $450,000, has been on the market for three years. Bart, a long, weedy fellow, is a tough-talking New Yorker with a poetic bent. Technically, he and Simone still live "together," though they now spend, he quips, "between 3 and 33 minutes a week" in the house at the same time. Now each sleeps at a friend's house several nights a week while the other remains home with their son and daughter, twelve and fifteen. "We are satellites to their earth," Bart says.
He still does the laundry for the family. In the beginning, when he folded his wife's panties, he'd feel loss because "I would never touch them again when she was wearing them." Now he can't tell which are hers and which are his daughter's. "I feel frozen in time," he says, "and the kids live a fairy-tale existence—they're controlling two parents' lives, and yet they have no control."
Bart cannot wait to sell the house he once felt he could never bear to leave. It symbolized his marriage, and divorce had seemed an impossibility: "I believed you got married and made babies and played pinochle through eternity," he says wistfully. Now when he walks through the house, he says, "it's like when you go to a historic house—the rooms are hung with invisible velvet ropes: THIS PART OF THE HOUSE NOT FOR USE."