— Beverly Wesner made the heart-wrenching decision to end her marriage in the fall of 2008. Nearly three years later, she and her husband are still living under the same roof.
This isn’t a tale of romantic reconciliation: It’s one of economic necessity.
Beverly and Dave Wesner are one of many couples who have been forced to put off their divorce because of the weak economy. In the Wesners’ case, their divorce has been delayed by a combination of employment woes and the hard-hit housing market.
“I picked a really, really rotten time to decide I wanted to divorce,” said Beverly Wesner.
As the economy gains steam, family law experts expect that more of these couples will finally get into a financial position to end their marriages. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said more than half of its members reported a decline in divorce filings in late 2009, compared with a year earlier. There are anecdotal reports that filings are picking up again.
“The backlog is starting to break free now,” said Linda Lea Viken, a family law lawyer in South Dakota and president of the academy.
By the time they officially end their marriages, many of these couples will have endured months or even years of living in a strange kind of limbo, no longer married but not moving on, either.
“No one wants to date a guy in my circumstances,” said Dave Wesner. “It’s understandable. I’ve had a lot of first dates. I’ve met people, and it goes nowhere because I’m stuck.”
Some couples who put off divorce plans because of the recession will end up reconciling, experts say. But for most couples, the delay is more likely to make things worse.
“By the time they’ve gotten to the point where they’re trying to file for divorce, there’s a real rupture,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage: A History” and a professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “To then make those people stay together is, more often than not, not going to be productive for their relationship.”
A survey by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia found that nearly 4 in 10 married Americans ages 18 to 45 who had been considering separation or divorce prior to the recession put aside those plans because of the economy. Only one in four of those who put aside their divorce plans said the recession deepened their commitment to marriage, according to the survey, which was completed in January.
Government data also appear to show a decline in both marriage and divorce rates between 2007 and 2009, although the data is preliminary and excludes some states.
The National Marriage Project survey also found that couples who reported the most financial stressors as a result of the recession were the least likely to report a very happy marriage.
That’s one cruel Catch-22 of the weak economy: Financial troubles are often a major cause of marital fights to begin with, and then can also make it difficult for spouses to get out of the marriage.
“Financial anxiety creates so much stress and shame and feelings of inadequacy, and those things can easily turn into blame and anger and aggression,” said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.
Waiting, and waiting, to divorce
Beverly Wesner, 41, surprised even herself when she told her husband in the fall of 2008 that she wanted a divorce.
“We were standing there having an argument and I’d finally just had enough. It was the most bizarre thing,” she recalls. “And we’ve been trying to get out of it ever since.”
At the time she was a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s two young children. She knew she’d need to find work before it would make financial sense to separate.
With the economy flailing, it took her about a year to find a job as a home health aide. She enjoyed it enough to decide it would be worth it to get her nursing license again. In the summer of 2010 she went back to school, and last fall she landed a job as a nurse.
At the same time the couple, who live in Albuquerque, N.M., decided that it wouldn’t make financial sense to sell their house because of the weak housing market. They decided instead to try what is sometimes called “bird nesting,” in which the kids stay in the family home full-time and the ex-spouses trade off living at the house and at a rented apartment.
Finally late last year the couple began looking at apartments, got a lawyer and made plans to file for divorce. Then, just before Christmas, Dave learned that he would have to find a new job because of changes at the law firm where he works. That forced them to delay their divorce plans once again.
“It was a real blow to both of us,” Beverly said. “We had really gotten to the point where we were sort of back to getting along and moving forward.”
The couple, who started dating in 1989 and have been married since 1995, have tried to make the best of their unusual situation. At first, they didn’t tell anyone they were planning to divorce, even going so far as to keep up the ruse that everything was fine during a family vacation to Disneyland.
“We needed to remain friendly. We needed to find ways to connect,” Dave said. “We couldn’t have this war in front of the kids, and that really kept the emotional part in check for a while.”
Even once their plans were out in the open, Beverly and Dave both say they’ve tried to keep focused on being civil, and on being good parents, for the sake of their kids.
Although they often go their separate ways later in the evenings, they still try to eat dinner together as a family. Recently Dave said Beverly started having everyone at the table think of something they are grateful for. The goal was to help the kids acknowledge that there are good things in their lives despite the pending divorce.
“(The thing that) I keep finding myself grateful for is that my ex is not a lunatic. She’s not out to ruin me,” Dave said. “I don’t think a lot of couples could do this, and I’m grateful that we’re somewhat exceptional in this regard, that we can co-exist and be civil and occasionally nice to each other.”
But the time in limbo has taken its toll. Dave said he never would have instigated the divorce, and until recently would even have still tried to work things out. But at this point, he thinks it’s truly over.
Beverly said the situation has reinforced for her that, no matter how difficult it has been, she is making the right decision. Part of that is because, even now, they still have the same familiar arguments.
Both think about the day when they can move on.
Dave Wesner has tried to date, but the fact that he is still living with his wife has been a deal breaker for most women.
Still, he said he is looking for a lasting relationship so he feels it’s important to be honest about his situation on the dating websites he uses.
“I’ll just put that in my profile,” he said. “I figure that narrows the field to, well, nobody.”
Beverly said she often thinks about what it will be like when she finally gets divorced.
“I keep thinking about the day we sign the papers and what my reaction will be and I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” she said. “But I think we’re both eager for that so we can move on, and grieve the relationship, and just actually move forward.”
‘The last couple years I’ve been kind of in limbo-land’
When Leslie and Jim Halls separated in March 2007, the two still held out hope that they might find a way to reconcile. The couple, who live in San Luis Obispo, Calif., had been married for nearly a decade and had a young daughter in addition to Leslie’s older children from a previous marriage.
At first, they went to counseling and tried other ways to make the marriage work. But after about two years, Leslie said it was apparent the marriage was over.
By then Jim, who is a car salesman, was struggling because of the disastrous impact of the recession and credit crunch on auto sales.
“Since 2009, well, it’s been a pretty tough road,” Jim said.
Both Leslie, 58, and Jim, 61, agree that the financial stress added to the couple’s existing problems.
“We were having some trouble, and not having the money certainly exacerbated the whole situation,” he said.
Leslie didn’t think it would make financial sense to get divorced while her husband was struggling financially, in part because she worried she’d have to pay alimony, so she decided to hold off on the filing.
He had moved out, and she stayed in the house she had bought after her first husband died. They separated their finances but Leslie said they continued to quibble over things like sharing expenses for their daughter, who is now 12.
Still, they didn’t actually divorce.
“The last couple of years I’ve been kind of in limbo-land,” she said.
A few months ago, Jim landed a new car sales job.
Leslie said that’s what prompted her to ask her lawyer to move forward with the divorce.
Although they are largely living separate lives, Leslie said she thinks it will still be wrenching to divorce. But in other ways, it will be a relief.
“I just can’t go on with this hanging like this. It’s brutal. I just need some closure,” she said.