Ira and Joyce, a married couple, lived separate lives until the day Ira died.
Into his 80s, Ira had girlfriends. Joyce had bridge. They should have been the kind of couple who divorced once their children were grown. But they didn't. Ira's father created a multimillion-dollar trust fund that ordered him to stay married in order to receive payment. So they did. Ira seldom stayed in the house he and Joyce built in southern Arkansas, instead preferring hotel penthouses and his girlfriends' apartments. They were both happy in their 50-plus years of marriage even though they didn't stay together often.
These days, "un-divorced" couples like Ira and Joyce are becoming common in an ever-diverse and complicated society.
For many couples, divorcing is simply too painful. Neither partner wants to be the first to pull the plug. In other cases, couples cannot afford the costs associated with divorce. Many times, they have children and don't want to deal with custodial issues or a dirty legal battle, especially if one partner uses drugs or has had an affair. The marriage exists in name only.
And increasingly, couples are opting to remain friends and stay married, long after the thrill is gone, for fiscal reasons. It's cheaper to live together in the same condo or house. Many couples also save money by continuing to file joint tax returns. With health insurance costs escalating, many spouses don't have the heart to divorce and throw their husband or wife off their policy. Separation solves the problem.
According to Jeffrey Landers, founder of Bedrock Divorce Advisors, a divorce-financial-strategy firm in New York City, Social Security also can be an issue for older couples. He says that if a marriage lasts 10 years, often a divorced spouse who has not remarried is entitled, at age 62, to Social Security benefits, either her own, based on her work record, or 50 percent of what her ex-husband is entitled to, based upon his work record. A nice parting gift for an ex.
"Many people that are married for seven or eight years will just separate until they cross that 10-year threshold and then get divorced," Landers says.
Others never do.
Warren Buffett has elevated this threesome marriage into an art form. As Pamela Paul points out in "The New York Times,"
the billionaire Buffet separated from his wife in the 1970s, but never divorced, and instead lived with his girlfriend. His wife, Susan
, died in 1994. He married his girlfriend in 2006. The kicker? The trio sent out holiday cards with all three of their names embossed on them.
Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner separated from his wife after nearly 30 years of marriage, but they are still married even though he has been involved romantically with a man.
It's not all wine and roses for these couples or for those who chose to get involved in such a ménage trois. Take this case study. One woman who shared her story for this piece said an un-divorce arrangement often makes it very hard to show up on your sweetie's doorstep holding a pint of ice cream and wearing nothing but a rain coat if the wife may answer the door. What's the proper etiquette for that, Miss Manners?
Confused? It's not just the wealthy who do such things.
I know a couple who share a split-level house to take care of their young daughter, but they date other people.
The late mystery writer Robert Parker had a similar arrangement. He and his wife, Joan, separated for two years in the 1980s but reunited. They lived in a large Victorian house with Joan taking one floor, Robert taking the other. They shared a kitchen and monogamy. Affairs were not an option. They simply liked their own spaces.
"It's complicated" is a common term un-divorced couples use to describe their unconventional marriages. Naturally, Facebook has this 21st century option as a relationship choice.
Commonly in the Bible Belt, many couples stay married but indulge in secretive, separate lives because of religious pressure. Sure, they may keep up appearances by taking vacations and attending parties together, but they are anesthetized from desire for each other.
Is the un-divorce trend healthy? Some relationship experts say "no way," regardless of the seeming financial benefits, especially if one party is using the other as a security blanket.
"If you stay (married), you can avoid risk taking, avoid growing up, avoiding having to go to social events and meet new people," says Pamela Garber, a New York psychotherapist.
"You can blame everything on the marriage," she says. "It's a way to put a hold on growing up."
Others disagree, and think the staying-together approach may be better, in some cases, for all involved.
"I don't think it's black or white," says Irina Firstein, a New York City-based psychotherapist. "If it's a decent relationship, a friendship, but the flame is gone, it might be OK. Two people sometimes can be in the same household better off than struggling financially and living alone. Let's face it -- many married couples live very much like roommates. This is more honest and there is a possibility of finding someone new."