Cohabitation: Surviving a Messy Life
Released in 2020, the hit TV series “Messy” is a comedy-drama about love, marriage, separation, kids, and dating, all under one blissful roof. It follows the story of Katie, a 30-something woman who is trying to find her way in the world after her divorce. Dealing with a troubled teen, a career change, and the struggle to form new relationships, she is forced to adapt to the “messiness of life” and its more enlightening moments.
Reviewers have praised the show for “its humor, its realistic portrayal of modern relationships, and its strong female characters.” It is the recipient of Best Web Series Award at the New York International Film Awards, as well as Best Comedy Web Series Award at the British Web Awards, cited as a “must-watch” for anyone who has ever felt lost or alone.
While “Messy” was created as a fictional comedy series, elsewhere we find iconic, real-life couples who have shared their story of shared living space. Actors Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, who made the decision to part ways on their 10-year anniversary, agreed to continue living in their 8,800-square-foot Los Angeles estate, mostly to minimize disruption for their children.
As history has shown, art often imitates life. For many couples, cohabitation after separation or divorce can come with its own set of challenges and benefits. While it may be a practical solution for some couples, it’s important to be aware of the potential difficulties that can arise and prepare accordingly to ensure everyone’s wellbeing.
Preparing for the Challenges of Shared Spaces
Cohabitation between separated couples can present difficulties, but with careful planning and respectful communication, living together can benefit everyone involved and improve family cohesiveness and overall wellbeing. Cohabitation can also help cut costs and lessen the financial burden that often results from divorce. Issues to consider include:
Emotional Wellbeing: Living together after a divorce or separation can be emotionally difficult. Lingering resentment, hurt feelings, and unresolved issues from the past can create a tense living environment. It’s critical for cohabitating families to discuss how emotionally charged topics will be handled, such as mutual or separate counseling, professional mediation and guidance on conflict resolution, or even online courses.
Personal Space: Sharing a home with a former spouse or partner can limit each person’s ability to establish their own individuality and personal space. It may be difficult to move on and create new routines and habits. Cohabitating people need to consciously designate living areas in the home as personal or shared, with clear expectations on who can use the space and when.
Managing Expectations: Each person may have different expectations about the nature and boundaries of their cohabitation. This can lead to conflicts over issues such as finances, household responsibilities, or dating other people. For example, during their marriage, a couple may have had an arrangement where one spouse handled the outdoor work and gardening, and the other spouse took care of housework and laundry. After separation or divorce, these expectations must be reviewed and re-set. Consider an online schedule that both parties agree to, with clear-cut consequences. How will bills be split and paid? Who will handle lawn mowing and dishes? What happens if either party drops the ball?
New Relationships: Cohabitation with an ex-spouse or partner can hinder the process of moving on and forming new romantic relationships. It may be challenging for either person to develop new connections while still living in close proximity to their former partner. It’s critical to address the issue in advance and set mutually respectful boundaries. The focus should be on healing and fully embracing new lives and opportunities.
Impact on Children: If children are involved, cohabitation between separated parents will have an impact on them that can be both positive and negative. Witnessing ongoing conflicts and tension between parents can be highly stressful for children and affect their emotional well-being. It can also be confusing for them to understand the difference between marriage and cohabitation. On the positive side, cohabitation can serve as a powerful learning experience, as children see first-hand the benefits of parents working together to resolve conflict. It can also reassure them that they are a priority and have a secure family support base to rely on. It’s critical for parents to address the impact cohabitation will have on their children, and proactively take steps to ensure their wellbeing by consulting with professionals in youth mental health, such as doctors and qualified therapists.
The growth of non-traditional families and living arrangements presents emerging legal issues, which may not be adequately covered by existing laws or precedent.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) can often solve problems outside of the litigation process. As active participants in the process, it becomes critical for couples or families considering cohabitation to carefully evaluate their motivations, expectations, and emotional readiness before deciding to live together. Open communication, setting clear boundaries, and seeking professional help, such as therapy, can also be beneficial in navigating the challenges of cohabitation after divorce or separation.
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Kaufman, J. Separated but Under the Same Roof. The New York Times, April 1, 2022.
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Marriott, K. Co-Parenting After Divorce: Models for Healthy Boundaries. Psychology Today. Posted April 18, 2023, at: