Couples stay married but live apart


December 18, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Like most couples, Susan and Harry Raymond fight and make up. They watch their son's baseball games and concerts together. When her car breaks down, he comes to the rescue. And around holidays like Hanukkah, they celebrate with his and her parents.

Sounds like the ideal marriage, right?

Try the ideal separation.

For the past 11 years, the Columbia couple has been living apart, although never by more than a few miles. They still talk almost daily, still file a joint tax return, still say they like each other.

"We did not separate because we hated each other. We separated because we could no longer live together," says Ms. Raymond, 44, a teacher.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana, take heart. You are not alone. While royal succession doesn't factor into why Americans split up without divorcing, there are plenty of not-so-happily marrieds here leading separate lives.

The 1990 Census found that nearly 500,000 more people are separated than a decade ago. In Maryland, the number has increased by 6,000 since the 1980 Census.

While these figures don't measure how long a couple has been apart (in Maryland it usually takes at least a year to get a divorce) or whether they're actually headed for divorce, lawyers and psychologists say they are seeing more couples who split up without making definite plans to divorce.

The shaky economy has made the financial advantages of staying married more attractive, but religious, emotional and child-rearing issues also come into play, they say. Other couples say they have learned through friends that divorce doesn't necessarily make life better.

"There are a remarkable number of people out there who never got a divorce. I've had individuals come in who have been separated for 20 years. Some people are just lazy. . . . They say, 'I never got around to doing this,' " says Bruce A. Kaufman, a

Baltimore attorney with a family law practice.

One couple he knew would wind up in court sporadically haggling over alimony, child support, custody of the silver. This went on for 12 years. But, he says, they never asked for a divorce.

The most important -- and perhaps least romantic -- reason couples give for choosing this option is economic. Ms. Raymond says she and her husband are still together because divorce "is not financially beneficial to me."

She still wants him to get her retirement benefits should she die. And, she and their three children are covered on his medical insurance policy. Without a lawyer, they worked out an arrangement for child support; she did not ask for alimony.

"I do have some cases where people are delaying obtaining a divorce to continue favorable health coverage, especially among older people or people with pre-existing health conditions," says Mr. Kaufman.

In some unfortunate cases, wives who make less than their husbands find themselves trapped in this arrangement. Jeanne, a fiftysomething secretary who asked that her real name not be used, is a perfect example. For more than 30 years, she stayed in an abusive relationship with her husband, raising their two children. Her husband, an executive with a six-figure salary, left her four years ago but has continued to pay everything from her utilities to the mortgage on her Baltimore county home. That would end, he says, if she files for divorce.

"I don't know what tomorrow will bring. There may be a moving van at my door," she says.

Her faith also has complicated the relationship. "I'm Catholic. I've never even had a friend who divorced. It was always, 'Don't leave your husband; it's up to the woman to make it better; go to the church and get help when things are bad,' " she says.

While short-term separations can be beneficial, allowing couples time and space to analyze their problems, several psychologists believe once spouses are apart for more than a year, reconciliation is unlikely.

Paul Ciborowski, a psychologist and fellow at the Center for the Study of the Changing Family in New York, recommends couples seek religious counseling or marital therapy during their separation. Without understanding the issues driving them away from each other, he says, they usually only grow more apart.

And couples who don't divorce after a long separation can wind up in emotional limbo.

"My feeling is if a person is going to leave a relationship behind, it's better to cut the ties. If you don't, you always have a foot in the past," says Harry A. Olson, a psychologist in Owings Mills.

"To close the door and divorce makes things more final. Sometimes people aren't ready to face that finality. They say they want out, but . . . down deep there may be some kind of wish that it could work out again."

He also believes couples sometimes use an endless separation as protection from future romance.

"I hear more and more people saying they don't want to remarry. They've had it. They want to keep their independence. They say, 'I want to keep the opposite sex at a distance.' And this is their protection," he says.

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