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Long-Term Separation: Unusual But Not Unheard Of

Family lawyers in Pasadena are used to seeing couples file for divorce fairly quickly after they've separated. For normal folks, the average time between separation and divorce is about two-and-a-half years; high-powered types with the means to make it happen quickly can get the job done within a couple of months. Overall, we tend to think of separation as the layover before you arrive at Divorcetown. But recently, long-lasting and even never-ending separations have been making headlines.

The New York Times recently ran a piece about the surprising number of long-term separations and why couples choose them. One of the most amiable separations belonged to legendary Wall Street investor Warren Buffet, who separated from his wife, Susan, in 1977 but stayed married to her until her death in 2004. Buffet, Susan and his now-wife Astrid even sent out holiday cards happily signed by the threesome. Other famous long-term separators include artist Willem de Kooning, who separated from his wife for 34 years until she passed away in the late 1980s, and Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner, who separated from his wife, Jane, in 1995 but continues to be married to her today.

Celebrities aside, the reason for the long separation might be described in one simple word: money. Divorce attorneys say that the big motivation to remain separated typically is financial in nature. Some couples may stay married the required 15 years to receive a portion of their spouse's Social Security, rightfully theirs under federal law. Costly medical insurance switchovers, shared real estate and couple-owned businesses also are cited as reasons for lengthy separations. But the biggest money-driven reason to stay together is perhaps the collapse of the financial institutions which, therapists say, may cause couples to slow down and consider new less-costly "let's go our separate ways" options.

Most surprisingly, many long-term separations are born out of mutual respect and admiration. Usually older couples that part amicably opt for a long separation because they see no need to dissect their marriage or attack their former partner. Long separations allow for bygones to be bygones, especially for couples intent on not remarrying.

Whether financial or emotional, lawyers and therapists agree that long separations tend to be the byproduct of former spouses who are looking for different solutions to the age-old problems of divorce.