The Stay-at-Home Divorce

When his marriage collapsed alongside the real-estate market, Jon Pieja found himself trapped in a house with his ex

The dream house sits on a hill, with a steep slope of perfect green grass in the front and a golf course in the back. It's 5,600 square feet, six bedrooms, and four and a half baths, nestled on two and a half acres of verdant countryside amid miles of rolling Virginia scenery filled with thoroughbred horses and cute roads named Over the Dam and Shipmadilly. Jon Pieja sank a good chunk of his 401(k) into this house, and it is lovely to behold, throwing a strip of shade over him on a Sunday afternoon as he sits on his patio, sips iced tea, and watches the golf carts go by. Gray Carr Pieja slides open the screen door and says her yoga class is starting in the basement. She's 43 going on 29, capable of making skinny women half her age seem out of shape. Jon, who's 39, nods and waits for the next golfer to stop by for a beer. He'll go fishing with their sons later, after he takes a spin on his Harley. This is the life the couple imagined on the day in 2004 when they moved in. Except for one thing: Jon and Gray Carr Pieja filed for divorce over a year ago.

Virginia law calls for a 12-month separation prior to an official breakup, but the collapse of the nation's housing market has altered the rules. In St. Petersburg, Florida; Chicago; and Denver, couples find themselves unable to go their separate ways without taking a loss on the value of their homes. "Separation has an immediate economic impact," says Gray Carr's lawyer, Paul Morrison. "Few can afford it. So why not put it off, especially with the real-estate market the way it is now?" When the Piejas split up, Morrison handed each a one-page list of dos and don'ts, forbidding them to cook for each other, do each other's laundry, eat meals together (except on major holidays), or sit together in church. "My mother said it would be The War of the Roses," Gray Carr says. "She said she would find me hanging from the chandelier."

The couple met in 1997, in St. Louis, where both had been sent for new-hire training by the medical-supply company Steris. Gray Carr was going through a horrible breakup, and Jon lifted her spirits with an easy smile and a quick joke. "He was young and vivacious," she says. "We hit it off." Jon's version: They met at a bar and hooked up in an elevator that night.

They were a neat match. Gray Carr was raised on a North Carolina tobacco farm and attacked life like a pit bull. Jon came from Jersey and sauntered happily through life like a golden retriever. Mimes for their Georgetown wedding? Sure. A honeymoon in Botswana? Why not? They moved to his home state and then to Cleveland, he for a marketing job, she for one in sales. They had two boys, Jack and Benjamin, and Gray Carr quit to raise them. Then "for better" slid toward "for worse."

Jon took a job at a security-technology company in Washington, D.C. But he didn't much like it. And he couldn't find an affordable house near his office. Benjamin, the younger son, developed a severe respiratory disease that had him waking up at all hours gasping for air. Gray Carr hurtled into postpartum depression. One of their two dogs died. And the moving company hired to haul the family's belongings from Cleveland went belly-up. The Piejas' stuff was lost in a storage facility for months. They stayed in a Marriott in Fairfax, Virginia, with a toddler (age 2½) and a baby (two months) and no crib. "Our whole life," Gray Carr says, "was gone."

But the house in Virginia brought hope. Gray Carr found it online, while searching an area where she used to go fox hunting. It was in the town of Warrenton, in Fauquier County, where the median family income approached six figures and most adults left the county for work. Jon would be one of them, making the 90-minute drive to D.C. every morning so his kids could go sledding on the fairways. They bought the home for $685,000, and Gray Carr turned it into a showplace, dotting the bureaus with pictures and hanging lush draperies. Soon Jon found a new job that allowed him to work from home.

The best thing about the place was its openness. The granite-slabbed kitchen faced the living room. The stairs led up to a balcony overlooking the foyer. The space felt like one enormous room, which appealed to Gray Carr's "control freak" tendencies—"I like to keep my thumb on the children," she says—and Jon's welcoming, grab-a-drink-and-put-on-some-tunes vibe. "I'm a Buffett fan," he says. "I don't get stressed out." There was no need for tucked-away hallways or quiet rooms, no need for privacy.

But Gray Carr's depression wouldn't go away, and Jon's easy-breezy style morphed—in his wife's eyes—from a blessing to a flaw. "Jon is happy where he is," Gray Carr says. "I'm not." The master bed grew cold. Gray Carr turned to yoga for healing, but Jon saw her new passion as an escape from him. On her birthday in 2007, after several failed attempts at communication, Gray Carr told her husband that she was unhappy. "He just stared at me like I had eight heads," she says. That's where their stories part for good. Gray Carr viewed her confession as a final warning. Jon saw it as a prompt to start working on their relationship. In January 2008, they went to a counselor in D.C., and there Gray Carr told her husband that she wanted a divorce. Jon burst into tears.

The two rode home in silence. Jon fixed himself a Jack and Coke. Gray Carr packed her things and trudged upstairs to a guest room. She sat up wondering what would happen next. Jon sat up wondering what had just happened.

For days and weeks afterward, they roamed the house in virtual silence, chirping happily with the boys but saying little to each other. Gray Carr, never one for self-pity, went at the situation head-on. "I wanted to come out of this in a positive light," she says. "I prayed four or five times a day, 'Let this divorce be happy.'" She "froze" everything in the house in place so the kids wouldn't sense trouble. The wedding pictures remained right where they were. A dry-erase calendar went up in Jon's office with her schedule in purple, Jon's in blue, and the kids' in green. They told the boys, "Everyone gets their own room now!" The Piejas explained the "in-home" separation to friends at the golf club and endured the popping eyes and insensitive remarks. They even threw a dinner party, though that turned out to be awkward, as guests whispered in groups in various parts of the house. "It was very weird," says their friend Amy Petty. "You didn't know which way to look." By the end of the evening, all four couples sat at the dining-room table trading small talk. It was vintage Gray Carr: a bold plan for everything.

Jon was still stunned. How was he supposed to play the happy ex when he didn't even want a divorce? One night Gray Carr took the boys for pizza and stayed out late. Jon waited up and tore into her when she returned. "They're my boys too!" he screamed. There was no place to cool off. "You couldn't even go out for a beer," he says, "without someone bringing it up." He could only go to his bed, right off the living room, while Gray Carr climbed the stairs to her bedroom, directly above Jon's. The next morning they agreed to put up a better front for the boys. And then they settled into a yearlong routine.

Gray Carr wakes every day at around five, hits the treadmill, rouses the boys, now 7 and 5, and makes them breakfast. She's not supposed to make Jon coffee, but she does anyway. ("I don't give a shit," she says.) Jon emerges from his room at seven and kisses the boys on his way to the office—four steps away. Gray Carr returns from school drop-off and signals to Jon at his desk, pointing down if she's going to the basement, waving her hands near her head if she's off to the shower. He spends the day on the phone managing a group of medical sales reps, and she works, also from home, for a Texas-based biotech company, often lying upside down on a curved yoga bench to read marketing materials. At 2:30 she goes to pick up the boys. Then the two worlds merge.

On a muggy April Monday, Jack runs into the house at around three looking for his dad. Ben follows. Jon scoops Ben up and walks into the kitchen. Gray Carr is there. They do not say hello. "What's with the cargo pants?" he jokes, noticing that the boys have lifted their pant legs in the heat. "Show Dad what you have there," Gray Carr says, and Jack presents a sheet with lyrics. "Sing it!" she tells her ex. He grins but says only, "I need to clean out my car." He vanishes into the garage, then leaves for a doctor's appointment. The boys spend the rest of the afternoon floating around the house like ghosts. Jon returns to take Ben to T-ball. The night, like every night, ends with story time, a book read by Gray Carr or Jon. She is usually in bed by nine; he watches TV or grabs a brew with some buddies in town.

How does one go more than a year without sex? Gray Carr says she's too wrapped up in other things—work, kids, writing a book—to think about dating. "My home is my boyfriend," she says. Jon's just biding his time. "I got nowhere to bring chicks," he says. "I would've started earlier if I lived outside the house. But there are guys getting their heads blown off in Iraq. A year of me chilling is not that bad." But he does admit that it's trickier than that. "This is a very small town. I'm gonna go younger," he says. "All you need is 20 girls calling up and saying, 'Did you see that floozy?'" Asked about her ex dating, Gray Carr says, "I'm great with it," then adds with a half-smile, "She'd better not be some bimbo!"

In early April, Jon and Gray Carr take a grand total of 71 minutes to reach a verbal settlement. When the negotiation, which costs less than $600, is complete, Jon says, "Might as well start dating now."

Except for one thing: He still shares a roof with his ex. The house was appraised two years ago at $810,000, but Jon doesn't think it can fetch much more than $725,000. The landscaping and basement renovations cost $100,000. And then there's the other debt: $15,000 on the three cars, $11,000 on his bike, $17,000 on credit cards. He can't just throw up his hands and sell the house for three quarters of a mil. So the Piejas' six-bedroom abode has become a bunch of little homes. The basement, for example, is cool and dark, a stark contrast to the fishbowl upstairs. Gray Carr works in a room in the corner. Jack and Ben play Wii in the main area. Jon exercises in another room. It's almost like a backstage, where everyone privately preps for the sometimes pleasant, sometimes painful interactions above. "All four of us escape down here," Gray Carr says. "It feels like a whole other house."

The patio is Jon's haven. Between conference calls, he's out there gazing toward the third hole. That's where he once put up a chalkboard inviting hackers to join him for a beer. That's Jon—the facilitator. Gray Carr runs the show—always has—but Jon makes this arrangement work, sucking it up and swallowing his pride. Last year, on June 17, he gave her a card that said, "Happy Ex Anniversary." It was a joke. Sort of. "I didn't feel we gave it an A effort," he says. "I don't think I've given up on anything. Ever."

In May, when Gray Carr found a farmhouse two miles down the road and signed a lease, it was hard not to concede. It was a quiet end to a quiet separation. Gray Carr agreed to pay Jon a monthly sum to pare down their credit-card debt while he searches for a buyer for the house.

"I was thinking of turning the basement into a Scotch-and-bourbon thing," he had said weeks earlier—with a faint smile. He wasn't exactly looking forward to moving out. Eventually, a young couple will walk into the foyer and marvel at the openness of the place. They will imagine their little ones growing up here, just a short walk from golf and sledding. They will make an offer. And they can only hope their dream house on a hill will see a second marriage as good as its first divorce.

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