ST. PETERSBURG — During the Great Depression, newspaper editorials hailed the era's silver lining: at least divorce rates were going down.
What historians now know is that many divorced couples stayed together because they couldn't afford to separate. One couple even hung a clothes wire down the middle of the house, threw some blankets over it and went about their lives.
It is unclear if today's tanking economy is having that kind of impact. The U.S. divorce rate has been declining for 30 years — from a high of 23 divorces for every 1,000 married couples in 1979 to 16 divorces per 1,000 married couples now.
But lawyers, judges and private investigators say collapsing finances are driving couples who choose to part ways into unorthodox arrangements.
Foreclosure. Short sale. Bankruptcy. These have become the latest buzz words in divorce court. Some couples are struggling so badly, they're splitting up but maintaining a single household.
"We're together but we're not in a relationship," said Emily Thompson, 24, who is divorcing her husband, Keith. "It's pretty much like roommates and we have kids together. It's a business relationship."
In divorce court last week, her lawyer, Carin Constantine, tried to explain Emily's economic reality to Circuit Judge John Lenderman.
"Judge, they both earn less than minimum wage and they're currently living together," she said. "They moved back in together because of economic conditions. It's a little unusual."
"It's not unusual actually," Lenderman replied.
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Once a month, Judge Lenderman checks on the divorcing couples on his docket to troubleshoot any problems that could keep cases from moving smoothly.
These days though, many are held up by issues beyond his control. More than a third of his cases are stalled because homes can't be sold or are in foreclosure.
Wives ask him to force husbands to buy them out of the house, or vice versa. Lenderman can't. He can only split up the debt.
"One of the things I do is divide up property," Lenderman said. "How do I divide up a house that's in foreclosure?"
Inside his courtroom last week, a lawyer for a 49-year-old Honeywell manager informed Lenderman that his client and her husband could not agree on how to settle their property and were contemplating a joint bankruptcy. A truck parts business was dissolving and they owed thousands of dollars on two properties.
"The parents are still under the same roof," said Robert J. Finck, the wife's attorney.
Lenderman sent the couple to mediation and told them to come back after they had been to bankruptcy court.
Lawyers for another couple reported they had sold their Treasure Island home for $100,000 less than the $575,000 mortgage in a short sale approved by the bank.
Their lives had changed drastically since the inception of the divorce. His marketing companies were now bringing in $3,000 a month, compared with $12,000 before. She had gone from being a stay-at-home mother of two young children to working as a waitress at Hooters earning $3.77 an hour plus tips.
Still, the short sale meant the divorce could move forward.
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Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, has researched the state of marriage during the Great Depression. In 1980, she spoke with an elderly woman who had continued to live with her husband in a house divided by a clothesline even though their marriage was over.
Neither had a job, but they owned their house outright.
"We just tried to live in our own part of the house and not bother each other none," the wife would tell Coontz. "We ate together because I had always been the cook, and he had this part-time job that sometimes paid him off in produce or eggs, so it was just like a business deal. ... But we couldn't raise enough money for either of us to move and we lived like that for almost a year. It was awful."
Emily Thompson could be her present-day counterpart.
She and her husband, Keith, have no house, no Rolexes, no Porsches to divide up like some of the couples before Lenderman.
The couple had gotten up that morning and taken their two boys, ages 3 and 4, to day care before heading to the Pinellas County Courthouse in their 1994 Lincoln Town Car.
Originally, they lived apart for a few months after she decided she wanted a divorce.
But they soon realized they would never be able to keep separate households with her job in a uniform receiving department and his as a construction laborer. As their finances closed in on them, they opted for a single $650 a month apartment in Largo. In the courtroom, they parted ways, Emily sitting by her lawyer's side, and Keith, 31, sitting two rows behind. He had no lawyer by his side. His choice.
Their single household situation makes it hard for Emily's lawyer, Constantine. Who is the primary parent when they're living together?
"Basically, they're living as an intact family and trying to get divorced and it's really hard," the lawyer said.
In court, Keith Thompson couldn't understand why his wife was asking for child support if he's splitting the bills with her.
"I've been here since day one for my kids," he told the judge, his voice breaking. "I haven't turned my back. I'm not here to fight over who gets what, and if she wants the divorce, that's cool. But why do I have to pay for having my kids?"
Lenderman set the case for a hearing to discuss it.
Then the couple walked out of the courthouse together and got lunch at a taco restaurant.
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Divorce lawyers and judges report dozens of couples like the Thompsons, filing for divorce while continuing to live together.
"We're having to do things in divorces that are traditionally not done because the parties are still living together," said Constantine, the lawyer. "I just had a case where the judge ordered Mom to one bedroom and Dad to another bedroom and they each have their own bathroom and they split the kitchen."
Natalie Brotman, 46, lived with her husband for eight months in their St. Petersburg condo after he filed for divorce.
"I was on one end of the house and he was on the other," Brotman said. "No words were said. He slept in the master bedroom and I slept on the other side of the house. I mean, we were two people who couldn't even be friends. It wasn't even like roommates. It was like he was a stranger."
A downside of this new reality: the kids.
"The danger here is that people will have deteriorating relationships and not be able to afford to separate, and that's worse for the kids than a clean break," said Coontz, who is also professor of history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
In one case now in Pinellas divorce court, the mother of a 5-year-old accused her husband in court documents of smoking marijuana and domestic violence in front of the child — all while living under the same roof. In court a few weeks later, she dropped the domestic violence accusation and they continued to list the same home address.
Times researchers Will Gorham and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8640.