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Separated but Under the Same Roof – The New York Times

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Some couples who’ve ended their marriages are finding common ground right at home.
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Kate Warren and her husband, Yanni Kotsonis, separated in early 2016. But they didn’t exactly go their separate ways.
Until January, Ms. Warren, an actor, and Mr. Kotsonis, a professor of Russian history at New York University, continued living together with their three children in a 1,000-square-foot rental in Greenwich Village. Ms. Warren claimed the primary bedroom; Mr. Kotsonis slept on the couch in the living room.
The couple, who married in 1998, and whose children were then 9, 12 and 17, briefly considered selling their weekend house in the Catskills to cover the costs of renting a second apartment in the city, but backed off when it became clear that the proceeds from a sale would be insufficient. They also thought about tapping into Mr. Kotsonis’s retirement account or the children’s 529 college-savings plans.
Instead, they decided to be apart together — a situation that inspired “Messy,” a dark comedy web series created by and starring Ms. Warren. “It was,” she acknowledged, “an unusual situation.”
Unusual, perhaps, but not unique. Out of concern for the well-being of their children, the well-being of their finances or both, an increasing number of couples are continuing to share an address for a considerable period after they split up. Though not, presumably, until death do them part.
“We see the arrangement from time to time, and usually it corresponds to economic difficulties — either in the greater economy or the parties’ personal economy,” said Cary J. Mogerman, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and principal at Carmody MacDonald, P.C. in Clayton, Mo. “We saw it during two recessions — in the early ’90s and in 2008.”
It often boils down to simple necessity, said Henry Paul, a psychiatrist. “I’ve noticed that with the uptick in housing costs it’s often impossible for one person in the marriage to leave, so the couple have to lead separate lives under one roof,” said Dr. Paul, who is also the executive director of the Karen Horney Clinic, a counseling center in Manhattan. “If they’re fighting, it’s bad for their kids. But if they do get along, the situation can provide a sense of stability.”
“More gentle for our children” — that’s how Genevieve C. West, a stay-at-home mother of four, explained the decision she and her husband, Eric, made to share the family home in Portland, Ore., when they split up two years ago. Mr. West, an owner of Blind Ox Taphouse, a local beer hall, bunks in the basement. “Even though the relationship didn’t work out, they see we still have familial love and respect for each other, and they get to see us both daily,” Ms. West, 40, added. Divorce, she said, is imminent.
This living situation requires couples like the Wests to establish some rules that go beyond the division of chores, expenses and child care. What if we’re having a disagreement? (Not in front of the kids, please.) What about dating? (Not in front of the kids, please.)
Understandably, the situation requires clarification to outsiders.
“It’s counterintuitive because the number one reason people get divorced is that they don’t want to live with that person anymore,” said Paul Talbert, a partner at Donohoe Talbert, a New York-based firm specializing in family law. “After making the most difficult decision you’ve probably ever made in your life, to leave a marriage, and then you don’t actually leave — it takes a special couple or a special reason.”
Covid was one such special reason. Abbie E. Goldberg, a professor of clinical psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has tracked 300 separated and divorced individuals during the pandemic. For many families, she said, Covid packed a wicked, one-two punch: emotional upheaval coupled with the loss of a job or income.
For some people who lacked the means, breaking up was put on hold. “It’s the grin-and-bear-it scenario,” Dr. Goldberg said, “with some people saying they’d revisit the matter when their finances are stable.”
But break-up delays were also driven by what was best for the kids. “Children’s needs have become more pressing during the pandemic, and it’s easier to co-parent under one roof,” Dr. Goldberg said. “And if you have a kid who’s really depressed or having behavior issues, it may create more strain or be harder to manage as a single parent.”
Charissa Moses got married early in 2018, had her first child that December and had her second child a few months into the pandemic. “No child care. Both of us working from home. No wonder we didn’t make it,” said Ms. Moses, 32, the owner of a public relations firm in Pittsburgh. She shares a five-bedroom colonial with her former husband, who asked that his name not be used to protect his privacy.
Once the couple separated in the fall of 2021, Ms. Moses moved into the guest room, and her former husband, who works in cybersecurity, stayed in the primary bedroom.
“The intention is for me to stay for a while and then find a place of my own,” said Ms. Moses.
Because of the pandemic, a couple with considerable resources and no children — thus a broad spectrum of options — still chose togetherness even though their romance was history. Gregory Cole, an entrepreneur, broke off his engagement just as Covid hit New York City. Unfortunately, Mr. Cole was living in his fiancé’s apartment at the time. Fortunately, he had another place to go: the stone carriage house in Bernardsville, N.J., that he bought with his former companion Michael Perris just before 9/11.
When they separated in 2018, Mr. Cole moved out and Mr. Perris stayed on.
“Michael said, ‘Come out here immediately,’” recalled Mr. Cole, 58.
Two years on, he’s still living there. The house is half his, after all. Still, “I wanted to be respectful to Michael and his space when I moved back in,” Mr. Cole said.
They each have their own bedroom, bathroom and workspace. The former romantic partners recently became business partners, creating a perfume company, The Bubble Collection.
“There was an emotional adjustment because I had started to acclimate to being alone,” said Mr. Perris, 60. “I was getting into a rhythm, and when Gregory moved back I had to get back to the sharing mind-set. But I was happy to have company during Covid.”
Initially, Brent and Michelle Dorshkind's divorce, finalized at the end of 2013, ran along conventional lines — Ms. Dorshkind, now 54, stayed in the family home in Concord, Calif., while Mr. Dorshkind, now 57, a content manager for a software company, moved to a nearby apartment.
That arrangement lasted for three years or so, right up until their son, Ryan, then 10, began acting out in school.
“I went over to the house one night, and I was sitting with him while he was doing his homework and Michelle was making dinner,” Mr. Dorshkind recalled. “I talked to him and asked him about his day, and I could just feel him settling down. The atmosphere was calm and tranquil.”
The best course of action, the couple decided, was to raise Ryan together under the same roof. And when Ms. Dorshkind expressed interest in moving back to her native Wisconsin to be closer to family and to escape the high cost of living in California, Mr. Dorshkind moved there too in the summer of 2020.
“At first I thought, ‘Hell, no.’ But I came around,” he said. “I didn’t want Ryan to have to choose between living with his mom in Wisconsin and his dad in California.”
Home for the three of them is now a three-bedroom ranch style house that Mr. Dorshkind bought last spring near Milwaukee. But Ms. Dorshkind, who works in relocation services, will be moving to an apartment nearby in mid-April.
“It’s getting to the point that I need my own space,” said Mr. Dorshkind, who covers the mortgage and child support. Ms. Dorshkind contributes to some utilities, and, once she’s in the apartment, will pay her own living expenses.
Courtesy and cooperation lead. Otherwise, the situation would be untenable with these post-separation, cohabitating couples.
The Dorshkinds, for example, split the responsibilities of shepherding Ryan to and from school and for tending to his needs. Mr. Cole and Mr. Perris share expenses and take turns cooking. Ms. Warren said that while she typically got the food on the table and took the lead on laundry during her marriage to Mr. Kotsonis, “when we separated, Yanni magically started cooking all our meals. He started doing the laundry.”
Though most couples, who choose this route, do so for the sake of their children, the children may find it all pretty mystifying. “For some, there might be an illusion that their parents are still together,” Dr. Paul said.
But it’s not just the kids who are confused.
When dates come to pick up Ms. Dorshkind, her former husband sometimes greets them at the door. “They tell Michelle, ‘I can’t wrap my head around this. It’s freaky. What’s going on?’” Mr. Dorshkind said. When Ms. West mentions to would-be suitors that her former husband lives in the basement, the first question tends to go something like “How does that work?”
Refreshingly, Mr. Cole didn’t have to do any explaining to his new boyfriend. “He himself is best friends with his ex, and he and Michael have actually established a friendship separate from me,” Mr. Cole said.
And rekindling the flame generally does not seem to be on the table for any of the couples The New York Times interviewed. (Or so they say.) “We’re very realistic about our relationship,” Mr. Cole said. “We’re not a couple anymore.”
Mr. Dorshkind describes his connection to his former wife as a brother-sister thing. “We keep it strictly platonic,” he said. “There’s no wild card sex. There’s no ‘let’s get back together.’ That was never an option.”
But for some, hope springs. Charissa Moses and her husband were set to finalize their divorce in early March, but at the last minute, they couldn’t bring themselves to sign the papers. They’ll continue to live separately in their house for another year. “We’ll likely still divorce, but we want to make sure it’s what we really want,” Ms. Moses said.
The setup Ms. Warren had with her former husband, Mr. Kotsonis, held for six years, she said, only because he was often out of town for lectures and teaching engagement. “But in the end, the situation was quite toxic for me. When Yanni was around, I always felt I was being judged,” Ms. Warren said. A few months ago, she moved into a single-family house in Jersey City that the couple bought in early 2021. Mr. Kotsonis pays the expenses related to the couple’s children and the apartment in New York. Ms. Warren is responsible for the New Jersey property.
They’re still not legally separated and continue to file joint tax returns. Divorce is not on the table. “That would be the case even if money were no object,” Ms. Warren said. “We have a European sensibility where couples have their private lives and come together and move apart.”
Brent and Michelle Dorshkind share a pot of coffee every morning. On occasion, they’ll go out for pizza with their son as a family. But Ms. Dorshkind is increasingly eager to get on with her life. “Could I do this for another year if I had to? Yes,” she said. “Brent is a good man, and we’re really good friends for the most part, and committed to our child and to parenting.”
“But,” she added, “it’s hard to move forward when you’re living with your ex.”
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