Breaking up, as shitty as it is, comes with at least one theoretical silver lining: getting the fuck out of dodge so you can get over it and get on with your life. But what happens when you can’t move out just yet, either because you’re broke, have nowhere to go, have kids together, or worse: all three? Even worse, what if you aren’t the one who wanted to end it? Even worse than that, what if you are? As nightmarish as it all sounds, and is in reality, people somehow get through it until cooler heads (or practical living options, whichever comes first) prevail.
Here are some tips from the trenches.
First, though, why would anyone keep living together after calling it quits? Staying under the same roof after divorce or breakup is increasingly common these days for a couple of reasons, but the biggest one is financial. Not everyone can just keep the family home and crash in the guest house like Ben Affleck did when he split from Jennifer Garner. Some one out of every six divorcing couples is forced to keep living together because of rising housing costs — meaning it’s either too expensive to find another place or the market sucks too much to sell the current house anytime soon, or if they can, it’s as such a loss as to not be worth it. (Trust me, it’s worth it.)
And in general, more people than ever live together as it is — some 18 million unmarried couples are in cohabiting relationships now, up nearly 30 percent in the last decade alone. Add kids to the mix, and you’ve got a practical reason to keep everyone’s lives in order and their routines on lock before ripping it all apart.
How long does the nightmare last? By one estimate, most couples who are forced to stay together after breaking up tend to do so for a duration of between one and three months before finding an escape hatch. (In another, 62 percent stayed anywhere from a month to a year. Shudder.) Often it’s the arrangement because one person flat-out refuses to go. And even if you do agree to do it for positive reasons, it will still suck. If you don’t both agree to keep it real civil? Nightmare City.
Like any painful experience that promises dreaded Personal Growth on the other side of it — grief, cleaning out a basement, committing to a new exercise routine — even the best version of it is still going to fuck your shit up in some way or another. That said, there are mental frameworks and logistical approaches you can and should employ to make it as easy as possible on yourself, because they are the only buffer you’ve got from this brutal reality.
Did You Really Exhaust All Options for Leaving?
I get it: This is a post guiding you on how to stay, but don’t mistake it for a post endorsing staying. Don’t stay if you don’t have to. Make sure you aren’t just being proud, or lazy, or fearful of really splitting, or hoping that you’ll get back together. That seemed to be the case for a guy on Reddit, who recently asked how to keep living with his girlfriend who turned down his proposal and asked him to buy her out of his half of the house, but is still trying to figure out if she wants to be together. He can barely sleep or work because he’s so heartbroken, and understandably, he wants to stay, but mostly out of the hope they’ll patch things up.
Make sure there’s truly no friend willing to lend a couch or a spare room, no room to rent on a weekly basis, no Airbnb that you could swing for a minute just to get some head space and literal physical space. As Toronto therapist Kimberly Moffit told the relationship site Chatelaine about how to deal with living together after a split: “If there’s any chance you can get the hell out of there, do it.”
Know why? Because seeing someone every day that dumped you is hellacious on the heart, and seeing someone every day that you dumped is hellacious on the guilt. And whichever one you are, it just blows. “The worst is having to act normal, calm, cool, and collected when everything in reality is falling apart,” one woman explained to Today about still living with her ex in spite of having broken up two months ago.
Nearly every therapist cited in the Today piece, or any piece, advises against sticking it out by living it together, explaining that it’s a toxic, no-good mess that people can only endure for so long. And the horror stories are endless: bad feelings, constant fights, and your ex trying to sabotage you in every way, especially if you try to move on and see other people (don’t do it).
“Our fighting intensified and we were both miserable,” one woman told Today about living with her ex for three months. “In short, it was all the negatives of being in a relationship without the benefits.”
Still, some of the stories end okay: In one couple, the wife moves into an upstairs room after the split until they figure it out, and it’s fine. In another couple, post-breakup they talk through it, have dinner most nights and sleep in the same bed like normal before parting ways amicably. But it was only three weeks.
Expect It to Blow
But not everyone can leave immediately. No judgment. Still, you should expect it to really, really blow to stay. I know it sounds counterintuitive to expect negativity if you stay, which goes against all our most cherished notions of putting a happy face on everything. But hear me out: Knowing something will be hard and shitty can stop you from complaining the whole way through or having your hopes dashed at every turn. Instead, brace yourself for the suck. Look yourself in the mirror every morning and tell yourself: This, in no uncertain terms, is going to blow. Now how in the living hell do I pull this shitty thing off? You’d be surprised how motivational that can be.
And it’s not just the situation that will blow, it’s the person, too and that includes you. Whatever you already didn’t like about them, you’ll probably absolutely despise now, and vice versa. Expect it, because if nothing else, it will maybe, just maybe, make you go easier on each other.
Boundaries Are Critical
The only way out of this thing is through it, and you have to lay down some rules that will help you deal with this. Of course, your boundaries and rules will all depend on your situation, and most of all depend on how you both feel about each other. Are you divorcing? Get legal help, because that makes everything more complicated, especially in fault states, especially with children. And remember, living together with children can help them enormously on one condition: That you’re civil. If you’re not, you’re fucking them up anyway. If you are doing this with children in the mix, you must absolutely consult an attorney and an exit counselor to figure out how to do it right.
Regardless, observe these basic practices:
- Don’t sleep in the same bed.
- Even if one of you is on the couch or in a spare room, don’t keep fucking on any bed or surface in the home. That includes standing up, wise guy.
- Agree on what are common areas and private areas.
- Avoid being home together in the same room at the same time as often as possible. This is a great time to hang out more with your friends, get really into work, or take up literally any hobby on earth that will force you to leave the house, like competitive soap carving.
- Practice civility as often as possible whenever around each other, accepting fully that this will be ignored from time to time, maybe even constantly.
- Decide who will be responsible for what household responsibilities, including who will pay for what if that’s going to change. Accept fully that many chores will just not get done.
- Don’t date anyone else until one or both of you gets the actual hell out of there.
- Don’t keep fighting about the breakup — i.e., don’t keep breaking up over and over again. In a series on MSNBC about being stuck living with your ex, they lay out a series of rules for arguing post-split, including the advice to stop trying to get your ex to admit fault. It’s over. No point in rehashing it now.
- Don’t expect any of the niceties you used to share — her doing your laundry; you making dinner. Don’t give each other gifts; don’t even eat together, unless you like simmering hostility with a side of resentment.
- Set a date to move out. Hell, both of you can even chip in financially to make it happen.
Sounds miserable, right? It is. All the more reason to get out of there. Again, if we take the best survey results from above as our guide, most people can’t take this shit for more than 90 days, anyway, and you’re probably no different. The only thing that will save you is thinking of however long you’re forced to stay as emotional layaway payments you’re making toward your freedom. And next time, you’ll be smart enough to contribute to a breakup fund so this never happens to you again.