Sandra Dick: Agony of couples forced together as they fall apart

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The stagnant housing market makes separation impossible for increasing numbers of city couples, says Sandra Dick

A TWO-bedroom flat in the city’s West End. Lauren, a young, smart accountant, arrives home after work to find her husband already there. Little is said before she heads to the kitchen to make her own dinner. She eats, in silence and in solitude, then clears up and retreats to her own bedroom to spend the rest of the night alone.

The man she fell in love with at university and married seven years ago sleeps in the room next door. Sometimes there’ll be some civil chat before they head to their separate rooms. Usually it’ll be about how quickly they can both get out of each other’s lives for good.

“We are trying to keep it civil,” says Lauren, “and I really hope we can be friends in the future. But right now all we both want is to get a divorce, sell our home and get on with separate lives. And that’s the problem.”

Lauren and her husband are one couple among a growing number who are finding that breaking up during tough financial times isn’t just hard to do – it’s virtually impossible.

For having agreed that the only way forward in their relationship is to end it, money worries and a stagnant property market means neither is going anywhere soon.

“We’re saving every penny we’ve got towards getting a divorce,” says Lauren, 27, who met her husband while both were studying at Edinburgh University. “The joint account we set up years ago as our wedding fund is now our divorce fund.

“We just fell out of love,” she adds. “The marriage fizzled out – these things happen. We both want the divorce, but we reckon it’ll cost us around £10,000.”

According to research from one dating website, Lauren and her husband are among up to 2000 Edinburgh couples thought to be in the same stalemate position. Illicit Encounters, which specialises in “extra-marital dating”, says it has more than 5000 Lothian members – a figure that’s soared by 20 per cent since the start of the financial crisis.

It claims 38 per cent of them say the stress of trying to move out in the current economic climate has impacted on their decision to stay unhappily married. Some 42 per cent said they were put off ending their miserable marriage by the cost of the divorce – average legal fees for divorce are estimated at around £13,000 but can rise to as much as £50,000 in more complex cases.

The dating agency’s UK-wide Marriage Survey found that finance is now the biggest cause of arguments, with 30 per cent of those quizzed agreeing that money worries led to more stress and disagreements than any other problem.

Rosie Freeman-Jones, spokeswoman for illicitencounters.com, says: “We’ve seen a dramatic rise in membership in Edinburgh over the last year as the recession has forced people to stay in marriages they would rather get out of.”

Lauren, who didn’t want to be fully identified in case it added to the strain on her relationship, is among them. She says: “We decided to split six months ago, but neither of us can move on with our lives. It feels like we’re not completely separated. At first there was a lot of shouting. Now there’s more an indifference to each other. We say ‘hello’ and ‘did you have a good day?’ but no deep conversation at all.

“We shop for food separately, cook our own meals and eat alone. It’s very awkward.”

As well as crippling legal fees, a major stumbling block to breaking up is the stagnant property market. Even if they can sell the marital home, both face trying to buy in the same desirable West End area close to their city centre jobs while dropping to a single wage mortgage.

That issue alone raises the unpleasant prospect of husband and wife eventually bidding against each other for the same properties . . .

Neil Harrison of the ESPC warns: “A young couple with a first flat who decide to move separate ways . . . unfortunately it’s their typical ‘first time buyer flat’ that’s moving slowly. ”

He cites some first flat owners who have had to drop the price of their property to as much as £20,000 below what they paid for it, leaving many with little deposit for their next home.

“It can be hard if a couple embroiled in a messy split are determined to push for the highest profit – particularly if they have divorce fees to find and are desperate to make enough money to put down on a new property.

“They might be tempted to go for an aggressive price at the start, but they suffer in the long term. The ones who go with a sensible price at the start are having more luck.”

Tim McConville, practice manager at Couple Counselling Lothian, says 80 per cent of people who come seeking help with their relationship cite financial problems as an issue. And he agrees that in cases where the relationship can’t be salvaged, couples can end up stuck in limbo, unable to afford to move on.

“Financial issues might already be part of the reason why the relationship is in trouble. Then they can’t afford the £16,000 to £30,000 they might need to find for a lawyer,” he explains. “The prospect of the family being split into two houses, each partner having to pay a mortgage – it’s very difficult.”

On the other hand, he says the financial nightmare of trying to split could lead to couples working harder to make their relationship work.

“There’s always the possibility that they might find their relationship is worth investing in and saving.”

n Couples Counselling Lothian: www.cclothian.org.uk (0131 556 1527)