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The Irish Times - Monday, October 4, 2010

Upstairs, downstairs: how we made co-habiting work when the marriage didn't


At the time of the break-up, the family had just built an extension, so the builders returned to divide the three-bedroom terraced house in two, with separate entrances inside the front door - one for upstairs and one for downstairs. Upstairs, there is a bedroom for each of the kids with lofts built for their beds to maximise space; a bedroom/studio for Brown, a kitchen and bathroom. Downstairs, the front room became her ex's bedroom and the open-plan living/dining/kitchen area at the back became a place where the kids could spend time with Dad and have friends around. The family shares the garden.

"It's hard enough to let your kids be hurt like that [when your marriage ends]. This has made it so much easier for them," Brown now says. "The kids live in the whole house, going back and forth, and I don't need that much space. That's the least of my worries. Having my kids happy is the most important thing," says Brown, who is an RHA-exhibited artist working from home. "There's not a lot of space, but there's not a lot of housework either," she adds.

She's not denying there was a lot of pain in the beginning, but she and her ex worked through it and agreed over the reasons for their split. "We don't have flaming rows," she says. If either or both had been bilious and bickering, sharing the house wouldn't have worked, she says. Being open with the kids was also essential so they knew why the marriage had ended and understood the reason for the new living arrangements.

The kids have dinner cooked by their father downstairs a couple of times a week and they sometimes watch TV with him in the evenings. "And he's very good at helping with the homework," Brown says. The parents have their own schedules and social circles and are free to have new relationships. "We're very good friends . . . he's the father of my kids," she explains.

When there are issues to discuss concerning the children, there's no need to make an appointment to discuss it and they invariably agree on the correct approach - usually Brown's, she says with a smile.

He comes upstairs and drops in the papers and sometimes she calls down to him with some soup. "It's like if you had a close friend in a flat downstairs," she says. The children are so used to the situation, that "they can't remember us as a couple".

It was during the property crash in London that Brown first became aware of couples in negative equity who couldn't afford to sell up and move in to two separate homes. Finding a way to share the family home also saved a fortune in solicitors' fees - money that could be put to better use maintaining an adequate lifestyle and meeting the needs of the children, rather than being plunged into post-divorce poverty.

Brown and her ex are so relaxed with their situation, that they continue to share a joint account and Brown, who has always been fulltime in the home as a mother and artist, feels financially secure. When she developed breast cancer, it was her ex that she asked to come along to the appointment with her oncologist.

Brown has heard of situations where married couples are sleeping in separate rooms and basically splitting living accommodation and routines without actually acknowledging that their relationship is over. "If I were in that situation, I'd be in Mountjoy for murder," she jokes.

But when women take their anger out on their exes by throwing them out, they're really taking it out on their children, Brown believes.

"People can't see what they are putting their kids through and they don't realise they're breaking their children's hearts. I've just tried to make things as normal as possible and now, it's all my kids know."

Brown stresses that she's not anti-divorce and was actually divorced previously in the States at the age of 23 before she met the estranged husband with whom she now shares a roof.

"I'm not Mother Theresa and I don't want to criticise people who have had to divorce and live apart. We're very lucky that we could make it work. And I think a lot of married people, if they were honest, would do the same."

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