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Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Living apart together

After 20 years of marriage they've reached the end of the road, should they convert a large property into two separate flats, or just got their separate ways?

Dear Virginia,

We’ve married for 20 years and have reached the end of the road. We’re fond of each other, I suppose, but I get irritated with his lifestyle, which involves staying up most of the night and not getting up until lunchtime. We could afford tiny flats each if we sold our house, but our children have suggested that instead we either convert our house into two or buy a large property in a cheaper area and divide it into two flats so we’d be in the same house but leading separate lives. My partner’s very keen, but I’m uncertain. What do you think?


Yours sincerely,



Virginia says...

Two tiny flats. Let’s look at that idea first. It sounds pretty grisly to me. Although all that stuff about having your own space can sound idyllic when you’re living with someone you hate, I doubt if it would feel so idyllic as you sat lonely and depressed in a space the size of a bank safe knowing this was the result of splitting up with someone you basically, clearly, love.

So what about the shared property? True, my first instinct is that this wouldn’t be a good idea – but this conclusion is based on your very brief description of your partner. Do you really want to launch into a whole building project with someone who never rises until after noon? Wouldn’t you be doing all the work and be driven insane by this nice loafer’s lack of  co-operation? While you were making the builders cups of tea and discussing plans with the architects, your partner would be snoring away driving you bonkers.

But then it could be that he’s one of these people who’s only a night bird if he doesn’t have a project on hand. A man who’s possibly slightly depressed at the thought of splitting up, and feels valueless after the kids have left home, and would like nothing more than to get is teeth into a new joint project. Only you can decide which kind of person he is.

And you’ve got years of shared history between you. You’re still fond of one another. These relationships are so precious and rare that my own feeling would be, despite the risks, to attempt to hold it together in some way, however loosely.

Before you attempt anything drastic like selling up, I’d suggest trying to live separate lives in your existing house. I know it’s difficult to start living in a different way in a home where you've lived together for years. The home, inanimate as it apparently is, itself can seem to dictate your lifestyle, with its history bearing down on you. But at least trying it out would give you an idea of how living separate lives in the same house would work in practice, a rehearsal that could well inform the design of a shared property, at least. There’s quite a lot about this, by the way, in Angela Neustatter’s book, A Home for the Heart (Gibson Square Books, £10.99) She pulled it off.

Some couples have often had odd domestic arrangements. There are married couples who live in separate houses, people who have “open” marriages, couples who happily work all day together and rarely go out who get on famously.

Why not give a go?

Readers say...

It’s a cop-out

The idea of splitting up but sharing a house is obviously one thought up by Nona’s partner to defer the inevitable – that the relationship between him and Nona is well and truly over. But since both he and Nona seem rather indecisive about where they want their relationship to go, it might be useful for them to go for counselling. Then either they may decide to stay together or separate – but if they separate they should do it properly, not fudge the issue.

A Thomas, by email

Give it a try

If irritation always led to divorce, I don’t think there’d be many married couples left. It sounds as though there’s still some affection between you, so this arrangement could be just the thing. You’d still get to function, when you wanted to, as a social unit, seeing your old friends together as you presumably do now. You’d be in the same place for family occasions and visits. And you’d see your husband when you chose to, not just because you were thrown together. You might get a whole new perspective on him. I say give it a try.

Suzanne Pickles, by email

Next week’s dilemma

Dear Virginia,

This may sound trivial but I have a very good friend who two years ago acquired a large dog. She dotes on this horrible beast and last year she came to stay for a weekend in my flat, bringing it with her. It howled all night, peed on my carpet, scratched the paint off my doors and slept on her bed, leaving masses of dog-hairs. She’s proposed coming again – but do you think I could ask her to leave the dog at home? I don’t like dogs anyway, but this one is particularly horrible. Or am  I just being mean?

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Emma to do?

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