How, Though? is a column devoted to helping you manage all the daunting complications of being alive.
The only thing worse than having to re-enter the dating world is having to re-enter the world of apartment hunting at the same time. Breaking up with a partner you live with (or having them break up with you) usually means finding yourself in that exact predicament. Add on having to decide who keeps what stuff and what the hell you’re going to do about a lease that doesn’t end for five months, and it’s clear that this situation can get messy very quickly.
As of late, more and more people in relationships are finding themselves cohabitating. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of unmarried couples living together increased by 29 percent. Today, according to the Pew Research Center, around 18 million people live with their unmarried partners in America.
Be it because we’re broke, or because love is so rare nowadays that we want to live with our lovers if we’re lucky enough to find them, it doesn’t look like cohabitating is a trend that’s slowing down any time soon. Consequently, neither is breaking up with our live-in lovers. Because this situation can feel so immensely complicated, we called in an expert for guidance: couples’ therapist Shira Etzion.
Before the Breakup
As you’re deciding whether you should break up with the person you live with, you may find yourself taking your living arrangement into consideration: But I like it here so much… finding a new place will be such a hassle… can I even afford a place alone? According to Etzion, you should not be basing the fate of your relationship on a living arrangement. “If you know that [this] is someone you no longer want to be with, then you no longer want to be with them,” she says. “The living circumstances are then the next obstacle that needs to be faced.”
Once you’ve made the difficult decision to end your relationship, you have to actually break it off. Before you do that, it’s best to prepare for what you’re going to do after; spending the night with the person you’ve just ended a relationship with is generally not ideal. Based on her clients’ accounts, Etzion says that “the best emotional experience that people have had [when going through a breakup with a live-in partner] comes from getting the fuck out of there, and creating a setup where they can do that as soon as possible.” This doesn’t mean that you need to have a permanent new place lined up for immediately after the breakup, but it may mean calling some friends or family members to see if you can crash for a few days while you sort things out. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.
The Actual Breakup
Maintaining civility during a breakup is always good, but when you’re ending things with someone you live with, it’s downright necessary. The two of you are going to have a whole lot of logistics to sort through post-breakup, and it’s not going to be fun if the sight of them makes you want to hack your way through a rage room. Etzion emphasizes that maintaining civility is usually possible, even if things towards the end of the relationship were really awful. “You know that you've ended something that is no longer working for you—staying away from that toxicity itself can be empowering,” she says.
It’s helpful to recognize that the breakup conversation isn’t the last conversation you’ll ever have—but things will obviously be different afterward. “It doesn't mean the relationship is over, but the form of the relationship is definitely over, and it's important to not resist that,” Etzion says. “[You’re] reversing any dependency on the partner, coming back to autonomy and independence.”
Now, the real work begins. Breakups are rarely seamless. While it might be nice to have a place that’s ready for you to move into right after your relationship ends, that’s not always feasible—especially not right away. If you do find yourself having to live with your new ex in the aftermath of your breakup, Etzion advises that you make some agreements that honor the fact that the form of your relationship has changed, even if your living situation hasn’t yet. This might mean that one person sleeps on the couch now, or that you move around your schedules to minimize time at home together, or that you both agree not to start dating until somebody moves out. Whatever you decide on, be honest about your needs, and hold yourself to them (i.e., remember that hooking up with your ex may be tempting, but it’s not going to help your cause).
“It doesn't mean the relationship is over, but the form of the relationship is definitely over, and it's important to not resist that."
Now, if one or both of you are moving out—unless the stars aligned for you and your breakup coincides with the end of your lease, meaning you’re both free to find new places—you’re probably wondering what to do about rent. “In theory—and this comes down to a question of personal integrity—I would say you follow through with your commitments,” says Etzion. “Even if you are no longer living together or speaking to each other, if you are committed to pay a lease then unless you can find someone to take that place or someone to sublet, you pay that lease.”
Regardless of whether you’re moving out or staying, Etzion says that surrounding yourself with a new space is really important at this point in time. If you’re moving out, this will happen naturally, but if you’re staying in the home that you and your partner shared, it’s really important that you have a physical change of space that helps you look at this time as a new beginning. “You want to move out of the relationship in all the ways that it existed, and sometimes that includes the furniture you bought together or the color of the walls, or whatever it is,” says Etzion.
When it comes to separating your stuff, try to be fair despite any anger or other hard feelings you’re likely harboring. Consider who bought an item, who uses it more, and if keeping something sentimental is going to bring you more hurt or joy. Etzion says it’s important to recognize that “a breakup is a break on all levels, and it's a change on all levels… sometimes the relationship with your coffee maker might need to end too.”
These changes may seem tedious and difficult, but that’s okay. “The point of this time period is not comfort, it's discomfort,” says Etzion. Moving is always hard. Breakups are always hard. Doing both is going to be hard, but it’ll be worth letting go of a relationship that was holding you back. Plus, next time you’ll know some things before deciding to move in with a partner. If you’re ever thinking about it again, Etzion says it’s vital to “question the meaning that one places on moving in together” and to make sure that both partners are aware of each others’ intentions (lest you end up moving in with someone who thinks the move basically means you’re engaged, when you just wanted to save a little rent money).
Lastly, if you’re living with a partner who is abusive, leaving them is of the utmost importance. You can find a list of resources here for help and advice on how to get out of your relationship safely.