Separated, but living under the same roof

Under the Women’s Charter, one way of proving the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage is for a couple to live apart for several years (3 years for an uncontested divorce and 4 years for a contested one). Separation does not necessarily mean that the couple has to live in different apartments altogether; it may be possible for them to remain in the same home but be considered separated. However, during these 3 or 4 years, couples may find themselves in a limbo, particularly for those continuing to live under the same roof.

There are many reasons why couples choose to live under the same roof even while separated. Some of the more common reasons include a lack of financial capability to live in two separate households, and the desire to remain available to the children full time. In this article, we will explore the ways to ensure that separation remains valid despite living together, the challenges faced by some of those who live with such an arrangement, and some proposed ways to address these difficulties. For a more general guide to getting a separation in Singapore, see our article on Separation in Singapore.

How to ensure separation is valid even while living together

To ensure that the separation is considered valid even when living in the same home, past cases have indicated that it is important to prove the mental element of the separation. In other words, it must be shown that the couple intended to live apart even while living under the same roof. It must have been due to a conscious choice, rather than out of necessity.

Practically speaking, for couples intending to live together while preparing for a divorce, there should be evidence provided of separation. For example, there should be changes in sleeping arrangements, preferably with the couple sleeping in separate rooms. As far as possible, the couple should also reduce typical spousal activities such as cooking and cleaning for each other. Social functions should be attended separately, while financial expenses should be kept separate as much as possible. There must be a clear disruption of marital and sexual relations. This helps to minimize any lingering doubts the Judge may have that the separation was legitimate. You may want to read up more on how to prove separation in a divorce.

Challenges of living together while preparing for divorce

There are many practicalities that need to be resolved with a divorcing couple choosing to live together. For example, who will pay the utilities bill? How will the household chores be split? Who is going to tell your family and friends? Many day-to-day issues need to be resolved between the couple, which may be difficult if the separation was decided on a bitter note, or if communication between the couple has broken down beyond hope.

Furthermore, there will definitely be many emotional struggles faced by the couple. Common spaces that may have once held fond memories for them are now reduced to awkward confines in which they have to maneuver around each other. You will have to confront the harsh reality that the relationship is over, and that you will soon lose your marital status.

The impact on your child may be greater than you think. In particular, young children will be able to pick up many small cues that point to the fact that you are separated, even if you have not spilled the beans on the impending divorce. Many activities once done together as a complete family will now be disrupted, such as having meals, going out for family outings, and coaching the children in their studies. If left unaddressed, the child may be confused as to why such changes are occurring and may even blame him/herself for these circumstances. This may in turn have an adverse effect on the child’s emotional wellbeing and school work. You should watch out for such telltale signs that your child is struggling to cope emotionally.

Suggestions to cope with living together

Ironically, once you and your spouse have decided to separate, you should sit down together to decide on several issues. Firstly, clear boundaries and responsibilities should be drawn. For example, a roster for household chores and time spent with the children should be created to ensure that each person is given as much private space as possible. The devil is in the details; hence anything relevant, down to the nitty-gritties, should be decided from the outset. You and your spouse should also decide on the next steps to be taken. Is this arrangement temporal until one party has sufficient financial ability to move out? Or will this arrangement stay even after the divorce is finalized? For many, living together while separated is part of a larger objective – either to better sort out the relationship, to be more emotionally prepared for the next step, or to ease the transition for the children etc.

Financially, you may want to start looking for a job and be financially independent of your spouse, especially if your spouse has been the sole breadwinner of the family. This will aid the transition to living self-sufficiently after the divorce is finalized.

If you are living with your children, it is highly encouraged that you and your spouse find the right time and way to disclose to your child the situation at hand. Prior to the disclosure, you and your spouse should have discussed amongst yourselves the best way to reveal the separation. Presenting a united front in front of your child would help to ease the shock or anxiety the child might face with these new arrangements. You should also reassure the child that he/she is not at fault in any way for how things turned out between you and your spouse, and that both of you still love the child. If you and your spouse have already worked out a practical living and working arrangement, it would be good to let your child know of the details so that he/she can anticipate the changes in living arrangements.

If you and your spouse are unable to sit down and work through the details of your new living arrangement amicably, you may want to seek the help of a divorce counsellor or mediator. The Ministry of Social and Family Development provides a list of such services. Alternatively, if you wish to find out more on the legal implications of living together while separated, you can contact our experienced divorce lawyers for help.