You've been raising your children together, you've lived together as a couple, and you may even own property together. Though you've never formally married, your lives are interconnected in the same ways as married couples. And now you will be separating, and are faced with many questions. Every separation brings with it an unsavory stew of feelings, and this is as true for unmarried couples as it is for married couples. Depending on the circumstances of your break-up, you may be feeling angry, relieved, sad, or frustrated. What are the unique issues facing unmarried couples with children?
The good news, of course, is that you do not need to file for a legal divorce, and this may save you legal costs and aggravation. Offsetting that is that it is less clear how to proceed, and you need to determine what your legal rights and responsibilities are. If you are the biological parents of children together, and are both recognized as the legal parents of these children, custody and child support issues may be the same as if you were married. Learn about how your state handles this as well as property issues by researching it on the web and/or contacting a lawyer for a consultation. You’ll need a clear agreement about where the children will live, how they will be supported, and who will make decisions. Mediation can be used to formulate that agreement, as well as to resolve property issues. In some states, you cannot be held responsible for the other person’s debts if you are not married, but you also may not be eligible for alimony. Property laws vary: EDUCATE YOURSELF.
When unmarried couples separate, families can be tremendously supportive, or they can actually create new problems. During separation, some individuals report that family members, in their efforts to be protective and loyal, stir up the separated person’s anger unnecessarily, and even advise them to take antagonistic moves towards the other partner that would make the situation worse. If this relative has ever quietly harbored any ill feelings towards your partner, they may now feel free to express those thoughts. This is usually more destructive than helpful. You may need to gently tell that person that you understand their good intentions, but don’t need to focus on that right now.
A special and emotionally complex issue comes up when there have been children living with you who are from a previous relationship or marriage, and have a different biological mother or father. Your "stepchildren” may know you or your partner as a key parental figure in their life, or even the only mother or father they’ve known. Children are not always aware of the problems between their parents, and may be surprised by the separation. They may have greater difficulty if this is not the first adult who has exited their life. When a child has been attached to an adult, they will suffer feelings of profound loss if that parent disappears, regardless of whether that the parent had any legal rights as a parent.
If you have functioned as a stepparent, you’ll want to listen carefully to how these kids feel during the separation. More importantly, see if you can arrange visits so if you can maintain a positive parent-child connection in the future. Not only will this help the child immensely, it will lessen your own feelings of loss. If working with a mediator, make sure these issues are on your agenda.
Sometimes friends and family minimize the impact of the separation because the couple never married. And even couples themselves are sometimes surprised by the intensity of their reactions when the partnership ends. Actually, people experience the same kinds of feelings (not necessarily in this order) as those ending a legal marriage: denial, anger, questioning, grieving, sadness, anxiety, acceptance, relief, and impatience to move forward.
Without the specific time period needed for a married couple to get an uncontested divorce, it is not unusual for a long period of time to pass after the physical separation before people sit down to formally resolve property and/or parenting issues. Sometimes one person initiates the resolution process because they are in a new relationship or planning to get married. If your ex-partner has initiated settlement discussions for one of those reasons, you’ll have additional feelings and situations with which to cope.
The Need for Closure
For married couples, the formal divorce decree can provide a needed closure to a partnership. Unmarried couples must find their own ways of achieving closure. Some couples address this lack of formal closure by creating an "uncoupling" ceremony with close friends or family in attendance. Some individuals use individual psychotherapy as a needed tool, and others take a symbolic step such as a vacation alone for the first time, or a major purchase.
If you use mediation to resolve parenting and property issues, that process can help you achieve closure. Be aware, though, that if you are continuing to raise children together, it may be impossible to achieve complete emotional closure any time soon. In that way, the separation experience for unmarried couples is exactly the same as for those who were formally married.