'I moved out of our bedroom, my ex wouldn't': separated couples living together

As if a relationships breakdown isn’t tough enough. What if you were forced to live under the same roof? Plenty of couples do it, some more successfully than others.

Jeremy Sheldon and Sue Levings (with their son Julian) split as a couple almost 20 years ago, but have lived together for almost a decade now.  Photo: Justin McManus

Jeremy Sheldon and Sue Levings (with their son Julian) split as a couple almost 20 years ago, but have lived together for almost a decade now. Photo: Justin McManus

Lesley Cape* is sitting in a suburban Sydney coffee shop, wearing a white top and dark pants. She has no make-up on her fine-boned face, and her hair is drawn back in a ponytail.

She's very calm and self-contained; her only sign of emotion is in her beautifully manicured hands, which tremble, like the quiver of a whippet, as she speaks – not from fear, one suspects, but rage.

Last year, Cape discovered that her husband and partner of 15 years had been unfaithful. After the shock, and the realisation that their marriage was over, she imagined – as perhaps we all do if we contemplate such a scenario – that they would pack up the family home and go their separate ways.

But, in fact, 11 months later they're still living under the same roof (a rented house in Sydney's eastern suburbs) that they shared as a married couple. They have two children, aged 8 and 17.

"I moved out of our bedroom, because my ex wouldn't," she explains, her voice quick and light. "So now I'm sharing my daughter's bed and bedroom." Her tone hardens.

"I remember hating him even more for that. It's like, 'You selfish f…ing f…head, after what you did – the betrayal, the hurt, the lack of remorse – you're really rubbing it in.' 

Sue Levings and Jeremy Sheldon with son Julian, who says his parents did "the best they could." Photo: Justin McManus

Sue Levings and Jeremy Sheldon with son Julian, who says his parents did "the best they could." Photo: Justin McManus

"Sorry," she adds quickly. "Sometimes I wonder if I have Tourette's. My language has just become volcanic, really vile. Mostly in my mind, but still."

Theirs is now a house divided. Lesley, for instance, has the TV room on Mondays and Wednesdays; her ex has it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

"That used to be our place to sit down in the evening with a glass of wine and chat about the day," she recalls. "Afterwards, obviously, we realised that was never going to work, and eventually I texted him about it."

Texted? "Yes. We don't speak. He doesn't deserve discussion – he's lost that." She looks down at the cafe table, moving a water glass with her maroon-tipped fingers.

"There are times when we'll walk past each other in the hall, and in my mind I'm thinking, 'You wanker.' I'd never say it, but it must be on my face: 'You disgusting, despicable … farthead!'"

According to the Department of Human Services, in March 2017 there were 38,692 Australians registered with Centrelink under an identifier code known as "Separated under one roof". This code means exactly what is says: that you are a single person, living in the same residence as your former husband, wife or de facto partner.

This seems an incredible figure. What's more, it's on the rise, up from 35,103 recipients in 2016, and experts say it will continue growing.

Not so incredible for the people who deal with it every day, however. "It's been part of family law since the Family Law Act of 1975 – and part of family life from long before that," says Les Stubbs, director of Sydney law firm Harris Friedman.

"Certainly I would say that it's increasing in my practice. I see new clients every week in this situation."

"It's not an uncommon thing at all," agrees Elisabeth Shaw, the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW.

Anne Hollonds, director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a federal government body, says "it's been a longstanding phenomenon. When I was doing working as a marriage and family counsellor back in the '80s it was happening, as it is now."

There are, agree the experts, several major reasons couples stay in the same house once their relationship is over, either for months or, sometimes, years. The first is financial, especially when real estate is involved, as it is in so many divorce settlements.

As house prices – particularly in cities – have increased in recent years and wages have remained stagnant, it's become harder and harder to finance two homes with the proceeds of one. 

I do worry for the kids... that it's harmful for them: seeing the rawness of the grief and the shame.

Second, the legal delays in taking divorce proceedings through the courts are growing longer: up to three years to reach a final hearing in NSW, and two in Victoria. Third, many couples remain under the same roof because they believe it's better for their children. And fourth, couples sometimes stay for emotional reasons: because one or both of them, despite knowing the relationship is over, can't let go.

All these reasons may be understandable, but experts are united in their opinion that, in almost all cases, staying together physically after separating is a terrible idea. It's financially problematic; it can create more rather than less conflict over children; and it tends to be extraordinarily difficult emotionally

"Of course, every situation is unique," cautions Hollonds. "But there are some commonalities of experience. And probably the biggest is simply how hard it is. For any separating couple, the grief is so horrendous, and the avenues for conflict are so endless. Living together with any measure of success under those circumstances is … well, it's a superhuman feat."

Lesley Cape is not trying to be superhuman.

Mostly, she's just trying to make it through the day, living with someone she used to love and now – not to put too fine a point on it – dislikes intensely. "It takes such an enormous amount of energy," she says, "just handling yourself in that situation day in day out. You have to step up, constantly, to being controlled and mindful when you really just want to rant and rave."

She's doing it, she says bluntly, because she can't afford to go anywhere else. "Oh my god, it's completely financial," she says.

"I lost my job the same week we broke up, and my family are all overseas. I always paid half the rent, so I've been living off my savings, which is becoming increasingly hard as time goes by."

Cape is not alone. In 2010, a British survey of 1100 people found that 28 per cent of separating couples remained in the same property for some period post-breakup because of financial pressures. These same financial pressures were also cited as a major cause of the original relationship failure.

In 2011, a study of 256 American families from Boston, Chicago and San Antonio found that the financial consequences of separation were one of three contributing factors to what the study authors called "forced cohabitation" after separation. The others were the importance of the parenting bond, and a desire for social legitimacy.

"People do tend to stay put until they've got the financial settlement sorted out," explains Les Stubbs. "And for many people, if they own a home, that's the biggest asset they have, which means both parties often want to remain there until they get their cut." 

Rising property prices - or, alternatively, a flattened housing market which makes the family home difficult to sell - often forces more couples to stay under the same roof longer. Photo: Louie Douvis

Rising property prices - or, alternatively, a flattened housing market which makes the family home difficult to sell - often forces more couples to stay under the same roof longer. Photo: Louie Douvis

Dramatic recent rises in property prices in many parts of Australia have made it increasingly difficult to purchase a second home, especially one big enough for children; but ironically, if the market flattens, a new set of problems arise. "I'm starting to have a lot of matters where people have their property on the market for 12 months and it just isn't selling," says Stubbs. "So people are caught in financial limbo."

Cape does not own her own home, and in recent months she's had to drop her rental contribution to 30 per cent. She's successfully applied to both Centrelink and Legal Aid in the meantime but, she explains, she's at her financial limit. That's not the case for her ex.

"The fact is, he can afford to leave," she says. "I don't know why he doesn't. Really, I have no idea.

"I do worry for the kids," she admits suddenly. "I worry that it's harmful for them: seeing the rawness of the grief and the shame and the uncertain terrible feelings of it all. I don't want my 11-year-old seeing my anger, my disgust, my hurt, my let down. I do feel that needs to be monitored; it needs to have a secure blanket around it." 

This, says Hollonds, is incredibly difficult.

"Parents think, 'Oh, if we don't fight in front of them, the kids won't know what's going on. But the kids absolutely will. I'm afraid that's a universal truth."

Another, she adds, is that it's "really, really hard to remember the needs of the children when you're overwhelmed yourself. Basically, no one's that smart; no one's that mature and self-controlled. [Separation] brings out the worst in people: everyone reverts to their eight-year-old selves." And the conflict doesn't have to be overt. "Not everyone is standing at the front door shouting at each other. If you're silent, that's still conflict."

"Kids will see the separate rooms, the cold shoulders," agrees Sian Khuman, psychologist and clinical supervisor for all counselling programs at Relationships Australia NSW. "People think, 'Well, we can continue to parent together.' But if you follow that through [it's more like], 'We all sit down to dinner together, but no one talks to each other, only to the kids.' And then there are things like cooking or cleaning: how do you explain that to children? 'Dad's over there, cooking his own dinner.' Or, 'It's Dad's night off, so although he's home and he's sitting on the couch, he's not helping with homework, he's not reading stories.' It's very difficult."

In Cape's case, there was no chance the children could remain in ignorance. "Everything is out on the table," she confirms.

"I wasn't going to pretend or lie to them. I've just explained the fact that this is only temporary, and by this time next year either Dad will be in a different place, or we will."

In the meantime – as with every couple in this scenario – the practical realities of life have to be managed. Cape no longer cooks or cleans for her ex-husband. "In the beginning, his washing would be in the basket and I would chuck everything into the machine, and then I'd get to the line and think, 'You must be f…ing joking. I am not hanging up your underpants.' "

These days she washes, cleans and cooks for herself and her girls, and her ex fends for himself. "He does his own shopping, he has his place in the freezer. He uses the second bathroom. I wouldn't go near it."

Even with all these logistics in place, however, the conflicts continue, which comes as no surprise to anyone. "I wish I could say living together after separation was a potentially productive scenario," says Sian Khuman.

"And for some couples, a small group, where there is goodwill and the parents can really hold the kids in focus at all times, it can be. It can be helpful for the children to adjust to the transition gradually, rather than having a parent just suddenly leaving the home without any explanation. But those families are less likely to come for family therapy.

For the ones we see, there's often a recommendation that they consider changing their arrangements, because living together is adding pressure to things."

Cape almost smiles at this understatement. "I think if I'd had space, that consistent hatred …" She pauses. "Is 'hatred' too strong a word? But that's what I feel. And it comes from having to see him all the time!" Her voice rises.

"Of him thinking it's okay to ask me to help him find his keys for the fourth time in a week! I'm just like, 'F… off with your f…ing keys! I'm not interested! You shouldn't even be here!' " She takes a deep breath. "I think, if he wasn't there, it might have been a little easier to let it go." 

Magda Johnson* is speaking from her car phone on the side of the road in Melbourne. She has a warm, relaxed-sounding voice: she could be telling a joke or ordering a cocktail, not discussing custody arrangements and frozen assets after splitting with her husband 12 months ago.

"I haven't worked for almost 10 years," she explains. "I've been raising the children; he's been earning the money. But now, the only way my girls can have the same lifestyle as when we were together is if he provides it. I don't want to disadvantage my own children – so I'm forced to stay

"I'm so cranky that I'm so stuck," she says, beginning to cry. 

"But I've explained what I'm worried about most is not being able to survive financially. I need a house close to our house, so the girls can carry on at school – and he said he couldn't provide me with that. And now he's cut off all the money. I didn't even know he could freeze our account!"

Johnson has three daughters: the oldest a primary school student, the youngest not yet at kindy. Her husband used to work six days a week; they still live in a three-storey house in an expensive Melbourne suburb.

"I was unhappy for a long time," she recalls. "When we eventually got to counselling, at the last session the counsellor asked me if I still loved him, and I said 'I don't think so.' And I think he thought, 'Well, what's the point of trying?' Actually, because I had three kids, because I was financially dependent, I didn't want to give up. But that was that."

"It's Psych 101," says Les Stubbs. "When people separate, they go through that standard trauma sequence – those stages of grief. I'm no psychologist, but it's very clear that not everybody goes through those stages together, or for the same period. That's actually one of the biggest problems in family law.

“One person has thought about it, worried about it for months or years beforehand, so they've generally gone through some or all of those stages before even mentioning it. But the other person may have no real idea, so they're right at the beginning of the process. And that's a problem that flows through into separating under the same roof. Because one person's saying, 'That's it, I want you out.' And the other's not prepared for that."

"That other person may still be hoping the relationship can be reconciled," clarifies Anne Hollonds. "So actually, not enacting a physical separation of your living circumstances can send a confusing message about there still being hope."

It can also be messy from a physical perspective, because it's more likely that couples will still be having sex if they're sharing the same house (and even, sometimes, the same bed).

"That's just the reality," says one Melbourne-based counsellor who asked not to be named. "Even if the relationship's over. These things happen." And even if there's no physical intimacy, seeing the evidence of your ex-partner's new romantic life can be a hugely difficult thing to face – even more so if you're hoping that the relationship can be salvaged.

Sue Buckley is a Victorian psychologist, family dispute resolution practitioner and family court report writer. "I had a family years ago," she recalls, "in which they had a double-storey house, and the woman separated from the man, and had a new relationship. And her ex said, 'I'll stay. I'll live downstairs and you two can live upstairs.' 

"He thought the new relationship wouldn't last. 'We've been together a long time, I'm still a good dad.' But she couldn't stand him any more. In her eyes he just got weaker and weaker as a man. It was excruciating. And then his feelings turned to anger: 'You're the one who's cheating, I shouldn't have to be the one who moves out.' Sometimes people hope things will change and their love will reignite. But love doesn't reignite, as a rule." 

Magda Johnson, for her part, certainly believes it's too late for a new beginning. "Way too late. If he had given me space in the beginning, maybe. But I've got three little kids, and him, and we're all stuck in the house together. I feel like I'm suffocating."

Some months ago she moved out of the marital bed to sleep in her daughter's room, before moving into the study. She still does all the cooking and cleaning in the house.

"So he gets to come home and have dinner cooked for him, his clothes washed, his bed made, the house cleaned, the children cared for. I'm not going to let my children live in crap." 

Her husband, meanwhile, still pays the mortgage and all the domestic bills, except for basic groceries, which she buys out of wages she earns working a casual job while the kids are at school. All in all, she admits, "we're still living like we're a couple, except that he's not getting any emotional support from me. No love, no intimacy."

Of course, the reality is that nothing is really working as it does in a functional relationship. Childcare arrangements – previously almost exclusively Johnson's province – have become increasingly fraught, because her husband has reduced his hours at work and wants more time with the girls. "It seems to me he's trying to get control of them," she says.

"I know that sounds horrible but I think it's true. He never cared before – now, all of a sudden, he cares."

Of course, this can be a good thing. "To be honest, children love it," says the Melbourne-based counsellor. "They love both parents being involved."

But it's also fraught, because both parents are trying to ensure future access to their children. Although the Family Court starts from a position of considering equal shared care between parents, they may also be reluctant to disrupt a stable arrangement; so both parents can feel under pressure to stake their claim to their kids by staying put. 

"If one parent leaves," explains Ana Tolkas, senior family lawyer at Victoria Legal Aid, "automatically a status quo about living arrangements begins. And the longer it remains, the stronger the argument of the parent who can say, 'Well, they're with me, they've been with me for x amount of time, and they're fine.' "

Unlike Lesley Cape's children, only Magda Johnson's oldest daughter knows about her parents' separation. But her youngest is unable to sleep on her own, and her middle one is having some separation and anxiety issues. "I can't stay," she concludes, her voice breaking. "But where do I go?"

Her only viable alternative accommodation is with a relative more than an hour's drive away. "Do you know how often I've put off going to court? But what else can I do?"

"Court sounds simple," says Stubbs, barely repressing a sigh. "You think, 'Well, we're going to separate, so I'll go to court next month and the judge will tell me to sell the house and divide the proceeds 50/50. How hard can that be?'

But there are thousands of people with that same simple solution. So in Sydney, which is the busiest and most litigious Family Law registry in Australia, if you separate and you want a property settlement, unless you sort out the division yourself, you'll have to wait, literally, years."

The only exceptions are for cases involving family violence. "There are intervention orders, and orders for sole occupation, which can be granted quickly," explains Tolkas.

"But what if you have a situation with separated people stuck in the same house, where there's no evidence of family violence, and the court doesn't consider it 'proper' to exclude one person from the house? While it may very uncomfortable, I'm afraid those people may have to wait a very long time." 

Both Johnson and Cape seem like reasonable people: loving mothers, strong individuals, good communicators. But it's clear that living under the same roof as their former partners has been a disaster. It's eroded their confidence, sapped their patience, reduced their capacity to plan constructively for the future. Indeed, Johnson can see absolutely nothing positive about the past year. "Nothing," she says. "Sorry, but I just can't see forward from here. It's horrible, horrible."

Cape, for her part, actually smiles – albeit grimly – when I ask her. "Well it has been good in one way," she concedes. "The sheer intensity of it has sort of speeded up the recovery process, I think. It requires such discipline, such a commitment not to be complacent." She leans back, pulling her ponytail tight with both hands.

"But then, who really invites that in? Who wakes up in the morning and says, 'Okay, world. Give me one great big emotional challenge to deal with'?"

She smiles again. "Not me."

"It would be good if we could think of some unequivocal positives!" says Relationships Australia's Elisabeth Shaw. "Some couples do really want to try it; and if there's not too much conflict there's no harm done. But almost invariably, It's most useful for people to get a bit of physical distance. And even if they can live together – ultimately, that's not going to be a permanent situation, is it? So sooner or later, people have to come to grips with a physical separation."

Unless, that is, you are Sue Levings and Jeremy Sheldon. Levings is a Pilates instructor, Sheldon an architect turned small-business owner, and together they are a Melbourne-based, ex-spousal, once-cohabiting-after separation, now-living-together-again-after a-decade-apart, best-friend, co-parenting, non-couple couple.

"We officially separated in 1999," recalls Levings, speaking on the phone from the family home in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Thornbury. "We'd been married for about 10 years, and then Sheldon realised he was gay. So of course there was a lot of anguish, and I remember thinking, 'Oh god, my whole life is going to fall apart with this man I love dearly.' " But we lived under the same roof for almost two years while we negotiated the separation and worked it all out."

At the time, their son, Julian, was five years old (he's now 25). And it appears that, to a quite extraordinary degree, they were able to keep him out of the conflict. 

Sue Levings and Jeremy Sheldon with son Julia. 'It was never definite that we would end up morphing into the friends we are now," says Sheldon. Photo: Justin McManus

Sue Levings and Jeremy Sheldon with son Julia. 'It was never definite that we would end up morphing into the friends we are now," says Sheldon. Photo: Justin McManus

"There were moments," recalls Sheldon, coming in from another room to talk on the speaker phone. "But we always said we would never argue about our relationship in front of Julian and we would never, ever make derogatory comments about each other to him. And we really, honestly kept to that."

"What we know, from a lot of research over the years, is that it's not the separation per se that damages children, it's the conflict," explains Anne Hollonds. "People think divorce is bad for kids. But if the parents are able to stay attuned to the needs of the children, if they're able to model good conflict resolution, then kids are able to deal with the transition. 

"Yes there's grief, and kids are upset, but they can deal with it if the adults are managing it well."

In Levings and Sheldon's case, being in the same space actually helped achieve this resolution. "I always knew he wasn't trying to hurt us," recalls Levings. "I distinctly remember one morning waking up, and we were just joking around making a cup of tea and I thought to myself, 'It's still Jeremy. He's the same person he's always been. He's still laughing at these same stupid jokes.' "

"The friendship was always there," agrees Sheldon. "I should say, though, that it was never definite that we would end up morphing into the friends we are now. We hoped we would, but I think it was the living together that allowed us to realise it was worth trying really hard to salvage the friendship.

“It allowed us to get sad and angry and not bottle it up. And on a personal level, it allowed me to seriously think about all the positive things I was, literally, walking away from. And that was actually a good thing."

Both Levings and Sheldon acknowledge that they were lucky in some areas – if luck can ever be applied to the end of a marriage. Levings's mother lived in a granny flat attached to the family home, and she adored Sheldon. "She always said, 'He's still the good man he was, and he's still the one we love,' " recalls Levings, laughing. "So there wasn't much you could say to that!"

There was no other person involved in the breakup, "so there was no betrayal – no loss of trust". They could afford to use the equity in the family home to buy Sheldon another house nearby. And before Sheldon moved out, when Julian was seven, they managed to truly co-parent in the family home – washing, cleaning, caring for their son – while slowly building their own, independent lives. "We both got counselling," recalls Levings, "and I started working full-time, and we started forming our own friendship groups."

Once all the practicalities were in place, they sat Julian down and explained things to him. "That was actually extremely hard for him to understand," recalls Levings, "Because there wasn't any anger or horrible stuff going on."

But the arrangements for Julian's care – mostly with Levings early on, later changing to week on, week off with each parent, at his request – were also worked out peacefully. 

"Look, I'm not going to say we were really, really close," says Levings. "It was very hard – especially the first five years. We were both so upset and sad. But now Julian will say to us, 'You two did the best you could possibly do, and I feel like I got through it all really well and happily because of you and Gran. I am okay.' And he really is. Which is a huge relief!"

As if this isn't all incredible enough, three years ago the pair moved back in together. After more than a decade apart, Sheldon, who had sold his home and moved to Adelaide, was deeply unhappy. "And may I say, it was Sue who called me and said, 'Oh, for God's sake, why don't you just move back?' "

"Well, I was Mum's full-time carer," explains Levings. "I was getting really, really tired. And I was able to say to Jeremy, 'I need some support.' So him coming back to help was fantastic for me."

"It was great," echoes Sheldon. "And for Julian it was wonderful."

"For the first time in 15 years he suddenly had Mum and Dad under the same roof," agrees Levings. "For the first week he just kept saying, 'This is doing my head in!' "

Levings's mum died, at home, last December, aged 94. With Julian and Levings's consent, she left her granny flat to Sheldon. And today, neither of them can imagine living anywhere else – or, perhaps, with anyone else. Neither is in a relationship. "We talked about it this morning, actually," says Levings. "We're both very independent, very self-contained. It might be different when you're younger, but the companionship that we have is, I think, what most people actually end up wanting.

"We always joked that the perfect marriage would be to each have a separate wing," she concludes. "And now we have it! We've got each other, a blind kelpie and four chickens – who could ask for more?"

"Exactly," says Jeremy. "Very well said."

* Names have been changed.