Divorce can be difficult for kids. But, by all accounts, trying to stay together for the kids can be even more problematic. Children are extremely intuitive and can pick up on rifts in their parent’s relationship — without fully understanding what’s behind them. Plus, it’s easy for feelings of anger or unhappiness to spread, and there are plenty of horror stories of parents who stayed together for the kids. So couples who are unhappy to the point of divorce and can’t work things out are often advised to, well, get a divorce.
Divorce isn’t always the answer, though. Some couples have found ways to live together as a family for the kids’ sake, while not being together as a couple. They act as co-parents but otherwise go about their lives separately. Will it work for everybody? God, no. But some couples make it work. Melanie Crawford and her husband, Warren, separated six years ago but still live together and parent their three kids. How does this scenario work for them? Honestly, they say, pretty well.
Fatherly spoke to Melanie and Warren about how they arrived at this situation, if there’s any weirdness between them, and what they do to make it work for themselves and their children.
So, how did you get this arrangement that you have today?
Warren: Well, we separated. That took time. But we figured out, together, that we could co-parent under the same roof. So, now, what we do is that one of us will take on the parent role. One of us will sign off and the other basically signs on and takes over control. The other is free to do whatever they like.
Melanie: It took us an entire year to restructure our relationship. Some people say, “Well, we stayed together for the kids.” All that really means is “We opted for misery for the sake of our kids.” Which is not at all what we’ve done. We re-structured our lives to achieve the goals that we still shared in common.
Over time, some of the things that make a relationship: the romantic aspects and spending time together without the kids, those just died for us. That’s not uncommon and it’s not that big of a tragedy. But we re-structured everything over the course of a year, because we did have to experience every holiday and we had to figure out how to deal with all those things. We’ve been successfully living this life now for five years. And as the kids have grown, we’ve explained the situation and lived quite openly with them, about how our family differs from what they might see at a friend’s house or learn about in school.
So, how did that go? Talking to your kids about your new arrangement?
W: As we grew, so did the kids. So I could tell when I was going through struggles, that they were showing it too, crying and stuff like that. But once we figured out how this was working, then they [tried to take advantage of us like regular kids]. So they’re like, Who can I ask for candy? They want to figure out who is in charge today at whatever time of the day.
M: That allows us to be supportive of one another where, during marriage, we were constantly bringing each other down and sort of sabotaging our entire family unit by being unhappy and not coping with the things that are making us unhappy.
Was living in the same house originally the plan when you two got separated?
M: Two months before we announced our separation, we privately dealt with the end of our marriage. To be honest with you, I was ready to end the marriage long before Warren was.
M: Like, we probably spent a couple of years in disagreement, living unhappily, together, within the house. I would say that once Warren came to terms with how I felt, and began to feel the same way himself, that’s when we decided that we don’t have to break and run. We don’t hate each other. We just aren’t working well together. I think once both of us came to feel in agreement that what we had now wasn’t working, that’s when we decided to keep as many things as normal as possible and support each other. Neither one of us can do this alone; we are not equipped to be single parents or to have adversity with each other or animosity. That’s just not going to work. And we knew that right from the beginning.
W: We had gone through two months of working this through, and then it was just a big shock to everyone else when we said we were separating. We were like, “Hey, everybody! Whoops!”
What happens when you two switch over parenting duties? Does one of you get out of the house? Do you have a different apartment?
W: We have the option [to leave]. We can either just go to our room and have peace and do whatever we want to do, or we can leave. The responsibility of parenting has been taken away from us, basically.
M: But Warren does live with his dad in Hamilton intermittently through the week. So when we first initiated this process, he moved out and I stayed here in the home and for that first year, when we were rebuilding our lifestyle, I was never in the house when Warren was. I would literally go anywhere. I didn’t get another apartment, but I am more interested in dating outside of our relationship than Warren is, so I generally had somewhere to go. But Warren resides both here and, because he works out of the house and works closer to Toronto, he resides in Hamilton with his dad at his condo, too. The kids get to go there too. That frees up the house. But now that we’re five years in, it’s really not difficult for us to be in the same house and maintain who is in charge. But initially, it did require that whoever was not in charge was not on the scene.
So, you say you’re open with your kids about your separation. What does that openness look like?
W: One of the things that we’ve really developed is this relationship where we can do things together, like Christmas and birthday parties. That was very difficult at the beginning but then it became very easy.
M: The kids will openly discuss how much they enjoy [what we’re doing]. We’ll quite often talk about the benefits — and we experience a whole different string of behaviors from the kids — because for a lot of parents, kids will team up with each other against their parents. But I truly feel that Warren and I are more supportive of one another’s parenting styles now — and we’re way less tolerant of the kids manipulating either of us.
W: It’s true. We’re always on the same side. No matter what the kids say, we talk to each other and find out that they’re sometimes full of caca. And we’re always on the same side when it comes to morals and values. We may have different styles of raising our kids, but our values are the same.
M: That’s what we had to ultimately settle on. A lot of people ask us what the one thing that allows us to maintain this style of a co-parenting relationship, and it’s a lack of ego. You really have to know how to put your ego in check and understand the concept that different doesn’t mean wrong. We’re working towards a bigger picture, not an every-day compliance of how you want to see shit get done, right?
Did you guys go to therapy? Or did you just work on this by yourselves?
M: No, but we’re both survivors of traumatic brain injuries, so we’re are both people that have an amazingly huge number of obstacles that we have to get over, so this is just another one. It sounds funny to say — that our injury is fortunate for us — but in this situation, it does allow for us to have a superior emotional state that’s required in order to achieve this sort of thing. I have the word ‘relentless’ tattooed across my forearm — so you know.
Do you think you’ll move out of the house when the kids go to college?
M: There was once when Warren was thinking about getting another apartment, but we’d also share that apartment. So just like we share this home, we considered getting a separate place that is not somewhere that we live with anybody else. Like, when Warren isn’t at this house, he’s at that apartment and vice-versa, and it would also give us a chance to do things with the kids, like a boys weekend. It’s really just a matter of when it’s financially feasible.
And in terms of finances, we’ve never involved any time of mediation or lawyers or anything like that. There is a cognitive therapist that I see regularly. My deficiencies after my brain injury are more mood-related than Warren’s are. But in terms of finances, we don’t do alimony or child support. We just put all the money that either one of us makes in the pot and we pay all the bills and split the difference and go from there. It’s another one of those ego things.
If things stayed exactly the way they are now, until the kids go off to school, that would be fine. We are in a good place and in a good house and we have lots of space and it’s working. That would be absolutely fine. But if we did anything different it would be to share a second space that’s not Warren’s dads —
W: That’s right.
What about vacations and holidays?
W: We do the holidays. So if it’s Christmas, Christmas morning we’re all here. The kids love that.
M: Vacations — to be honest with you — they are a nightmare with kids.
M: We take the whole divide-and-conquer approach. So, at this stage, a vacation is more of a day trip. I’ll take my daughter to a concert or take my son to a baseball game. Warren takes the kids to a family cottage-like house on a private lake. I would say that our vacations are not the typical ‘week at Disney’ type of thing. If I want to do something with the kids — like go to Wonderland — I’m not going to attempt that with more kids than I have hands. So we divide and conquer, and that’s how we manage those types of things.
What’s your co-parenting schedule? Is it one week on, one week off?
M: It’s very fluid. Wouldn’t you say that, Warren?
W: Absolutely. That’s what creates the harmony in our house. We’re both very, very flexible. So if I needed days to prep for a training session, Melanie is all on board and she says “Okay, yep, no problem.” And if she needs to go somewhere or has an interview in Toronto, I can say no problem and that I’ll take that day off or I’ll pick them up from school. We’re very, very flexible.
M: The fluidity is on a week-by-week basis. It all depends on whose schedule has what. But in general, on Sundays we project next week ahead and who decides going to be where and when.
What about when you guys have conflict? Do you have family meetings?
M: Every time there’s a change in guard, there’s a debriefing session. So if Warren is off training and he’s in Hamilton Monday to Thursday, we’ll chat through text and keep each other up to date. And then when he comes home on Thursday, and now it’s my turn to be off duty, we’ll debrief. It’s a natural, non-scheduled thing. There’s no agenda, but me and the kids will update him on everything that’s gone on. What’s going on in the house and what’s gone on at school. When there’s a big issue, and there sometimes is — we have kids who are human — and we do need to deal with things together before we bring the kids, that’s just about us shooting a text and saying, “Do you have a time for an adult talk?” It’s really quite that simple.