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Why divorce when you can stay separated

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Till death do us apart: Tycoon Warren Buffett separated from his wife Susan in 1977, but remained married to her till she died in 2004

Many couples find it emotionally and financially easier to not annul their marriages - decades after they break.

John Frost and his wife had been unhappily married for much of their 25 years together when his company relocated him in 2000. So when he moved from Virginia to Tennessee, he left her behind. At first, it wasn't clear what would happen next. Would she follow him or would they end up divorced? The answer: neither. "After a few months," Frost said, "we realised we liked it this way." Technically, the two are married. They file joint tax returns;she's covered by his insurance. But they see each other just a few times a year. "Since separating, we get along better than we ever have," he said. "It's kind of nice."

And at 58, John sees no reason to divorce. Their children have grown up and left home. He asked himself : Why bring in lawyers? Why create rancour when there's nowhere to go but down? "To tie a bow around it would only make it uglier," he said. "When people ask about my relationship status, I say: 'It's complicated. I like my wife, I just can't live with her'."

The term 'trial separation' conjures a swift purgatory, something ducked into regretfully and escaped from with due speed, even if into that most conclusive of relationships, divorce. We understand the expeditious voyage from separation to divorce and we hardly look askance at the miserably married or the exes who hurl epithets in court. But couples who stubbornly remain separated, sometimes for years? That leaves us dumbfounded.

"I see it all the time," said Lynne Gold-Bikin, a divorce lawyer. She can cite a docket of cases of endless separation. With one couple separated since 1989, the wife's perspective was, "We still get invited as Mr and Mrs, we go to functions together, he still sends me cards." As for the husband, "He cared for her, he just didn't want to live with her." But at his girlfriend's urging, he finally initiated divorce proceedings. Then he became ill and she began taking over his finances. "He said, enough of this, there's no reason to get divorced," Gold-Bikin recalled.

Among those who seem to have reached a similar conclusion is Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett separated from his wife, Susan, in 1977 but remained married to her until her death in 2004. All the while, he lived with Astrid Menks; they married in 2006. The threesome remained close, even sending out holiday cards signed, "Warren, Susan and Astrid". Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and Jane separated in 1995 after 28 years but are still married, despite Jann's romantic relationship with a man.

Society is full of whispered scenarios in which spouses live apart, in different homes or in the same mega-apartment in order to silence gossip, avoid ugly divorce battles and maintain the status quo, however uneasy. In certain cases, the world assumes a couple is divorced and never learns otherwise until an obituary puts the record straight.

Divorce lawyers and marriage therapists say that for most couples the motivation to remain married is financial. According to federal law, an ex qualifies for a share of a spouse's social security payment if the marriage lasts a decade. In the case of more amicable divorces, financial advisers and lawyers may urge a couple who have been married eight years to wait until the dependent spouse qualifies. For others, a separation agreement may be negotiated so that a spouse keeps the other's insurance until he or she is old enough for Medicare. If one person has an existing condition, obtaining affordable health care coverage is often difficulty or impossible. The recession adds incentives to separate indefinitely.

The added value of marriage is also hard to kick. "Many people I've worked with over time enjoy the benefits of being married: the financial perks, the tax breaks, the health care coverage," said Toni Coleman, a marriage therapist. "They maintain friendship, co-parent their kids, they may do things socially together. Sometimes they're part of a political couple in Washington or have prominent corporate positions. But they just feel they can't live together."

What Coleman finds surprising is that the consideration is practical and financial, not familial. The effect of endless separations on the children rarely seems a priority. "People split up and have these custody arrangements, so you would think that they stay separated for the kids, but I'm not seeing that. It usually comes down to money. "

Reader's opinion (2)

Latha IyerNov 27th, 2012 at 16:03 PM

They stay separated to avoid social stigma. And specially when they have a daughter of marriageable age.

Richa MishraApr 22nd, 2013 at 13:57 PM

marriage is beyond my understanding .....I m 32 n single n will remain so all my life.....

 
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