It seemed like such a good idea at first. Nick and I had been married for over 20 years, our twin boys were about to leave university and make their own way, and our converted Victorian terrace in South London already had a basement flat. We hadn’t been getting on well since the boys left home- I was bored with our routine lives and suffering empty-nest syndrome, Nick was afflicted with middle-aged grumpiness - and while neither of us wanted to split, living in separate areas under the same roof seemed like a solution.
Much as it must have seemed to Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux when they converted their LA mansion into luxurious ‘his and hers’ wings back in 2015, presumably to give themselves space and avert a split.
Nick and I agreed that the constant bickering was going to lead to divorce if we didn’t do something to stop the pattern. We were already sleeping separately most nights, due to Nick’s thunderous snoring and my menopausal insomnia. Every time we tried to share the marital bed, it would end with a hissed row at 3 am, followed by him snatching up his Tempur pillow and stamping off to the spare room where he could drive his geese to market in peace.
He was having a difficult time with his work as a freelance designer, too. He blamed the economy but I once foolishly suggested that his work was slightly old-fashioned, which led to a row so brutal we didn’t speak for almost a week.
Yet we didn’t split up- we’d been together so long, we knew each other inside out, the boys were still young adults and divorce seemed a brutal solution to what might be a temporary problem. Hence, when I read a magazine article about ‘separate but together’ living, I suggested it and to my surprise, Nick jumped at the chance.
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Unlike Jennifer and Justin’s separate quarters, there was no £60, 000 walk-in closet conversion, and our version of the ‘man cave’ designed by the Aniston-Therouxs was more of a slightly dank cellar kitchen.
We decided I’d have upstairs and he’d have downstairs, and spent a weekend moving furniture, and painting the basement to brighten it up. We didn’t discuss whether this would be forever – it seemed too surreal. I focussed only on how nice it would be not to have the Today show booming from the alarm at 7am, and that I’d be able to pour another glass of wine at night without Nick making a judgmental face.
For the first few weeks, we were both on best behaviour. He joined me for dinner a couple of times, I went and sat in his kitchen to chat about the boys, we were unfailingly polite to one another. But somehow, the idea of staying over, up or downstairs, never came up. At the end of the night, we’d trot back to our separate quarters, secretly relieved, and sleep peacefully.
It was only when I confided in my oldest friend about the new arrangement that serious doubt crept in. (It’s easy to imagine Jennifer and Courtney Cox having the same conversation some time last year.)
“So you’re… not sleeping together?” Said Polly. I nodded. “And you see each other what.. a couple of times a week?” “Yes!” I said, “It’s going well, we’re hardly arguing at all.”
“And this will go on for how long?”
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She shook her head. “You’ve not got a husband,” she said, “You’ve got a lodger.” We laughed, but after she left, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table with tears streaming down my face. It was clear our marriage was no longer working- but we’d both been too scared to admit it and risk being alone.
A few weeks later, we agreed, amicably, to split up. Nick stayed in the flat for another six months, till he found somewhere he could afford, and we lived almost entirely separate lives during that time. Neither of us met anyone new, and even if we had, it would have felt intensely disrespectful to bring them home. We’re now both divorced and seeing other people, and we talk occasionally to discuss the twins.
Looking back, we should have realised far sooner that our marriage was over – because when you’re living in separate spaces under the same roof, it’s not a gentle indication that you just need a bit of space. It’s a flashing neon sign that says your relationship isn’t working – and it’s time to pay attention.