The Ex Games: Broken Up But Living Together

In a recession, it’s not so easy to just move out when your relationship fizzles. But it’s not so easy to stay either.

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The breakup was very amicable. We’d been together for three years and lived together for one, during which the romance had fizzled. I could still see his lovable dog. He granted me generous visitation rights. But I would have to move out. It was his house. He knew I wanted to buy rather than rent, so he kindly said I could stay until I found somewhere. True, there was just the one king-sized bed, so no one would be bringing a date home, but it was only temporary. And since no one was furious, vengeful or sobbing inconsolably, surely we could get through it like mature adults?

It took four months. Four increasingly tense and sad months.

Hollywood thinks this is funny. Movies like The War of the Roses and The Break-Up play being stuck with your ex for (sometimes painful) laughs. But in both films, the combatants had a choice about whether or not to move out. Victims of the recession would often love to move on but can’t. Estranged couples who own a house together may find that neither can afford to buy out the other. An underwater mortgage makes it impossible to sell, and without that – or without a decent job – neither can afford to live alone.

I was lucky that my ex and I didn’t want to strangle each other. Many ex-lovers incarcerated together aren’t so civil. I’m also fortunate to be both employed and solvent, but even so the mortgage process can be glacially slow, with banks overcompensating for the bad loans they made before. And meanwhile the breakup continues to take its toll. Someone is drinking too much. Someone has to sleep on the couch. Someone has issued an ultimatum to someone who has nowhere to go.

Last year, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers noted that 48 percent of divorce attorneys saw a rise in court battles involving cohabiting couples since 2006. According to the Northern Nevada Business Weekly, one in five mortgages is underwater, as are half of seven million homeowners under 40. That’s 3.5 million homes. If half of them want to break up (based on the divorce rate), that’s well over a million people living with someone they don’t want to be with. And that just hints at all the misery and weirdness that doesn’t rise to the level of legal action or mortgage statistics. After all, we haven’t even started on renters.

As I explained my predicament to people, I was shocked by how many responded, “Oh, yeah, I did that.” I was telling a bank teller one day and the next one over remarked, “I did that – with my fiancé.” And then a young guy filling out a deposit slip added, “Ladies, I’m in exactly that same situation.”

It’s not for the faint of heart. The home can quickly become a battleground, heightening the bitterness that destroyed the relationship. Heather, 39, an insurance analyst in Wexford, Pa., lived in her ex’s house about two weeks after their yearlong cohabitation ended suddenly. She tried to stay out of his way, aided by his work travel and separate bedrooms on separate floors.

“The breakup was his fault, but he was surprisingly hostile toward me and really stingy about household items. It was total hell,” she said. “He fought me over taking my candleholders and other random house items that I had purchased. He felt that anything I had purchased that was a decorative item now belonged to ‘the house.’ He doesn’t know how lucky he is that there isn’t a wrought-iron candleholder permanently implanted up his ass.”

Even when the split is cordial, things can degenerate quickly. Genevieve, 27, had an amicable parting after two years. With four months left on a lease the waitress/bartender and her ex couldn’t afford to break, they agreed on some rules:

  • Alternate nights on the couch and bed
  • Open communication about alone time for packing, cleaning and showing the apartment
  • No entertaining

It didn’t work. “The reality is that seeing each other every day began to wear upon us both – quickly,” Genevieve said. “A conversation about dishes and utensils became a shouting match about trust and responsibility. Four months of trying to be ‘cool and fair’ only created a poisonous and passive-aggressive environment.”

When she finally moved, and the last load was in, she closed the door with a long sigh. Time to get started unpacking all the boxes. “I picked the first one up … and immediately burst into tears. It wasn’t until then that I realized how exhausted I felt and how relieved I was to be alone for the first time in almost three years.”

The saddest postmortem comes from Joseph, 37, an avid cyclist and swimmer who lived with his ex for six weeks while he hunted for an affordable apartment in Pittsburgh that would allow his dog.

“The most difficult issue was separating and distancing myself from someone I still loved and cared about. No more kisses when we’d come home from work. No more random hugs. No hand-holding. I had to resist sharing the stories of my life with her and keep my distance from hearing hers and emotionally supporting her. At first you must manually turn that person back into a stranger. The logistics of living together were easy. Those are just motions.” A caring and respectful split is still agonizing in its own way. As Joseph put it, “It was … quieter around the house.”

So what to do? I asked for some tips from Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor in the field of couples and families at the University of Denver:

1: No “buddy sex.” Living together makes it hard enough to move on, but continuing the sex makes it almost impossible. If one ex-partner is the dumper, he or she must be scrupulously polite and pleasant but never encourage false hope of reconciliation.

2: Develop responsibilities and boundaries. Old arrangements about bills and shared expenses that may have been a little loose will need to be clear now. Agree on policies regarding visitors and dates.

3: Create private spaces. It’s hard if the home is small, but then work out schedules to stay out of each other’s way.

4: Agree on a timeline. My own mortgage process tested my ex’s patience (and mine), but he was able to stomach my lingering when I could finally give him my closing date. It was the light at the end of the tunnel that he needed.

In the end, people who’ve been through this ordeal may pledge never to move in again, and Dr. Stanley would encourage that caution. His research warns of “inertia,” the lazy convenience of staying in a bad relationship because you can’t afford to move out, you can’t leave the dog, you can’t face the prospect of dividing up the candleholders. It’s a terrible reason to stay with the wrong person and a worse reason to get married.

I’m in my own place now, and I feel free and energized. I notice my ex is cleaning and working on his house. He’s energized too. I notice that because I’ve been back to dogsit. He’s been to my place to fix a dodgy electrical outlet. Holding it together while we were stuck, as hard as that was, has allowed us to hold onto each other as friends. How? We bit our tongues when we could have scolded or argued. We talked a few times about what went wrong in the relationship – but didn’t fight about or dwell on it. We didn’t blame each other, at least not out loud. We chose to be generous, not petty or possessive. We communicated. Sometimes, we hugged.

You can survive living with your ex.

But if it’s a choice between that and a root canal, call your dentist.

Samantha Bennett is an award-winning humorist who’s done public speaking, theater and improv. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette and Baltimore Sun. 

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