Our therapist took off her glasses, looked us straight in the eyes and made a suggestion. Since my soon-to-be ex-husband and I were still dysfunctional friends, she suggested that we keep our kids in the marital home while we alternated every other week between a shared apartment.
I had never heard of such a thing, but she said that uprooting the children between two places was simply not fair since they were already the victims.
We had been married for 20 years. Our son was 15, our daughter 12. Our break-up was mutual, but my husband was the one who had had the guts to call it quits. I will forever respect him for that. As a stay-at-home mom, I was hoping that we could hang onto one last, unravelled thread so we could swing our youngest into her late teens. It seemed that I preferred us to be together and miserable rather than break up our "happy family." We agreed that our therapist's suggestion was the only way to go.
We started apartment hunting. After living in our house for two decades, the prospect of giving up control to a landlord seemed daunting. We trekked through laundry rooms that reeked of gasoline, kitchens with mouldy fridges and living rooms with cigarette-burned carpets. Nothing was as depressing as the thought of being on my own in such dismal places. That's when we discovered the first advantage of our plan: Since we didn't have to each live in a place big enough to accommodate our kids, we could afford a new one-bedroom luxury apartment with its own washer and dryer.
Signing the lease was a huge emotional step. I was a mess. Then my husband and kids rushed off on a vacation while I was left alone to job hunt. It had been 15 years since I'd been in the work force and it was a culture shock.
After months of applications, I landed my dream job. We slowly eased into the nomadic life of our weekly switchovers. The unravelled thread that I had so desperately held onto had rewoven itself into a sturdy rope. Our goal was to make this our five-year plan or hold out for "as long as possible."
Every Sunday, we clean up where we've been staying. Everything has to be in good order for the switch. We each have our own bedding at the apartment in case we're dating, which my husband was within one short month of our separation. After another month, I could tell it was serious. He had found his dream girl.
Soon things became almost unbearable for me. I couldn't get away from our situation - or them. Although I am not in love with my husband, I will always love him, and he will always be the father of my children. I was happy for him that he'd finally found the romantic love he deserved, but I was suddenly forced to give up my emotional dependency on him. I truly had to let go, and fast.
Whenever I needed him for advice or comfort, I would call someone else or find something productive to do to give myself space and time to percolate my own solutions. It was painful, but healthy.
Our setup gave the kids a chance to get used to their father's girlfriend on their own turf. One time, I had to pick something up at the house. I called beforehand but no one picked up, so I popped by only to walk in on his girlfriend doing the dishes at my kitchen sink. It was awkward, but we had a pleasant conversation - witnessed by the kids.
Since my husband and I need to manage our shared living spaces in addition to parenting our children, we've been forced to maintain a fair amount of contact, which has benefited everyone. It's given us a chance to heal some of our relationship's dysfunctions. We've hashed out a lot of the anger and resentment I had toward him for forcing me to be out on my own. I'm alone, he's not. Sometimes I'm jealous of that, but those times are slowly being replaced by delicious feelings of freedom and independence.
Sharing the house has also given us the opportunity to coach each other on how to be better single parents. I can gently point out the unsigned report card he's inadvertently buried under a pile of papers, and he can show me how to operate the timer on the water softener.
But there comes a point when the extra stress parents take on to protect their children no longer strengthens. It weakens. So instead of five years, our lifeline of a rope has lasted "as long as possible." My husband has resented the balancing act between his extra time with me and his relationship with his girlfriend, and I've wanted to separate our finances.
So, a year and a half later, I'm making preparations to buy the marital home. My soon-to-be ex-husband will likely be getting a place with his girlfriend. Even though they're already the victims, it'll now be the kids' turn to alternate between two places. But we've given them some of our strength, and I think they're ready.
When I was sitting in that therapist's office, I never envisioned I'd be strong enough to own our old repair-hungry house. I will keep it until the kids are out of school; then I can move wherever I please.
Divorcing is the hardest and scariest thing I've ever done, but our unique living arrangements have given me confidence, courage and the time to finally learn how to love myself, by myself.
Katharine Heubner lives in Kitchener, Ont.