Seeing the same person every day during shelter-in-place measures could test even the most infatuated couples. But what happens if, beyond petty annoyances and run-of-the-mill disagreements and frustrations, you can’t stand your partner and know you’d be happier alone? What if you’ve learned new information about your S.O. through this experience—like that they refuse to help clean or are insufferable in long stretches—and know there’s simply no going back? What if, even, you were about to break up before all this happened, and now feel indefinitely stuck with them?
It’s impossible to say how long we’ll all be social-distancing or when things may start to even remotely resemble normal life again. While it can be tempting to talk about what you feel is an inevitable split, you should ask yourself why you want to have this talk right now, or if it’s something you can table for now. There’s a difference in urgency between, say, just finding out you were cheated on versus slowly realizing that your long-term partner isn’t someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. Obviously, if you can avoid breaking things off in the middle of a public health crisis, that’d be best, but sometimes, for the sake of both your well-being… you just have to end things. So if you find yourself constantly thinking about parting ways and know it can’t wait, here's how to do it—whether you end up staying in the same home or moving out.
What to Do if You Have to Continue Living Together After Breaking Up
Make a very specific plan for the break-up talk
If you’re sure you want to end things, you should be decisive in how you handle the break-up talk, just like you (hopefully) normally would. Breakups are never particularly fun, and while it can be really hard to decide to split up, it’s a lot worse to keep changing your mind because you haven’t thought through the logistics of what happens after.
Mariana Bockarova, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, recommended “writing down and reviewing why you've come to this conclusion [before] having a calm but loving conversation.” Like with any other big breakup, you owe it to your partner to carve out a time when you’re both free, sober, and alert to talk this through. This is particularly important now, when the consequences of the split can be much harder to deal with. Prepare to give your partner the space to ask all the questions they need, especially the practical ones about how you'll manage sharing the place where you both live.
Maintain your boundaries as much as you can—and respect theirs
If you’re the one initiating, be prepared to adjust your routine to make this transition easier on your partner. Are you willing to sleep on an air mattress so they can have space? Can you start cooking your own dinners if they’re usually the ones to do it? Be ready to make some personal sacrifices in terms of your everyday comfort, and to listen to other requests they may have.
Aside from processing your respective emotions, one of the biggest challenges right now will be setting new boundaries when you’re in the same space. “There’s an artificial oddness that you have to accept,” said therapist and Detox Your Thoughts author Andrea Bonior. She compared the arrangement to being part of a couple who hasn’t told their kids they’re divorcing yet and is trying to behave normally in front of them. She recommended asking yourselves questions about managing every little part of day-to-day life: how to handle grocery shopping, how you’ll split up Zoom calls with mutual friends, and if you’ll even eat dinner together.
“Ask yourself if you'll still maintain the traditional roles you've taken on in the relationship, like one person cooking and the other cleaning in the interim,” said Bockarova. You might be fine still doing things for each other, or you might want to go at it solo as much as you can. Either’s fine, as long as you communicate it clearly with the other person and they accept the arrangement. Find ways to give your partner space to grieve the relationship—take a long walk, allow them to be upset without explaining why they’ll get over it one day, and not cuddling with them when you feel lonely, no matter how much you may want to.
“If you can treat each other with respect enough to actually have the hard conversations and spell out expectations, you can start to extract yourself in a compassionate way,” said Bonior.
Reach out to separate support systems
Along with divvying up utility payments, you should also plan to lean on your own respective friends for support—ideally people who aren’t mutual friends. Bonior recommended reaching out to a trusted friend or family member to let them know what’s going on. According to Bockarova, even “perceived high social support"—aka, feeling like you have lots of plans and social networks without them necessarily involving your closest friends—can make you feel less alone. So, even if it makes you a little nervous, a Zoom happy hour with loose acquaintances might still help you feel better.
If you need privacy for these conversations, you can still put on a mask and phone a friend as you walk, sit in your car, wait until your partner is in the shower, or just go in a different room. Text therapy or teletherapy may also be helpful right now, and a lot of therapists are currently accepting new patients.
Find creative ways to get alone time
In any breakup, it’s crucial to do things for yourself and distract from the inevitable emotional pain. Unfortunately, since you can’t go to a bar with your friends or dive into an improv class due to the pandemic, you’ll have to think outside (or, more accurately… inside) the box.
If you’re used to doing everything with your partner, it might take a little extra effort to decide what you want to do when you’re on your own. “Do small things to help build positive emotions, like watching a TV show that brings you comfort, taking a bath, or cooking a great meal,” suggested Bockarova.
Same goes for when you’re working: Bonior emphasized carving out your own space, whether it’s working in a different area of the house or just putting on headphones if you live in a small studio (which is great advice even if you’re not breaking up yet, BTW).
Accept that confusing emotions might come up
If you’re both still able to be compassionate and friendly toward each other, the emotional lines can start to blur. Did you really want to break up? What if this quarantine was the thing you needed to save your relationship? According to Bockarova, the back-and-forth is normal—most breakups follow a cyclical process, which may be exacerbated by these unprecedented circumstances.
“It's rare when a breakup is completely unequivocal to the point where you're 100 percent certain that the choice was the right one,” Bonior said. Add being physically together all the time, and it can be easy to forget that your now-ex doesn’t really get along with your friends or has vastly different life plans than you.
“Short-term comfort and inertia are very powerful forces,” said Bonior. That’s why it’s best not to assume your relationship is magically healed if you find yourself reconsidering things while you two are still in close proximity. Wait and see how you feel when you can go back outside and, more important, safely and comfortably move out.
How to Move Out as Responsibly as Possible
Be extremely realistic about your finances
As in any breakup where one or both people move out, money plays a huge role in how you pick your new apartment, decide to handle the current lease, or hire movers. But if one or both of you was recently laid off—or are worried you might be soon—it’s going to make it harder to sort through the logistics of a move.
Thriftier options for moving out—such as enlisting your friends or family to help you—are probably not going to be available to you at this time, so put together a rough budget. Can you swing your first month’s rent *and* a deposit? What about professional movers? (If you crunch the numbers and realize it’s not feasible for at least another month, that’s OK. Just go back to the top section!)
Make a list of the steps you’d normally take to move out and think about what will have to be different now. You can’t predict every possible worst-case scenario right now, but you can do your best to avoid taking unnecessary financial risks as part of this breakup.
Plan your move around social-distancing best practices
As you look for a new place and eventually move into it, mentally prepare yourself for operating at an extremely high level of caution. Just because you're justified in leaving your house a bit more as you move doesn't mean forgoing health measures entirely. If you work with movers or rent a van or truck, you'll have to make sure arranging the service is low-contact, or contactless, and disinfected along each step of the way. The place you're moving to needs to be disinfected and low-contact or contactless upon move-in, too. And this isn’t going to be a move in which you can simply buy a used futon off Craigslist.
“Maintaining tactics of social distancing is key,” said Syra Madad, a New York City–based pathogens specialist. “This includes keeping six feet of distance from others, wearing a face mask when going out and/or anticipating contact with others, and practicing everyday respiratory etiquette.”
Know that staying with your parents or high-risk friends is probably not going to be an option
The cheapest and easiest option right now might be crashing with friends and family, but treat it as a last resort. “It’s always best to avoid coming in contact with friends or relatives that are in the high risk group,” said Madad, “Though, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, no age group is invincible.”
If you’re fortunate enough to have a sibling or friend nearby with no preexisting conditions who has a separate bedroom for you to crash in, that's a far safer option than driving across the country to shack up with your 60-year-old parents. Just be sure to keep in mind that there’s no set end date for the pandemic, so plan to be there indefinitely.
If you do move in with someone, plan to self-quarantine
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, and much we still don’t know about COVID-19,” said Madad. “If you do decide to live with someone else, out of abundance of caution, you should self-quarantine.” The CDC has guidelines for what to do if you have the virus (which you should assume you do for 14 days) and what to do when living with other people. Despite everything else going on right now, it’s your responsibility to take every precaution to keep yourself and the people around you safe.
Focus on in-the-present challenges, not the future ones
Having to find a new home is hard enough right now, so cut yourself some slack. Going through a serious breakup during a pandemic where you have to relocate is going to take an emotional toll on you, and you should absolutely let yourself sit with those feelings—to a point. If you find yourself suddenly second-guessing the breakup because you’re overwhelmed: “Be mindful of falling into cognitive distortions, like catastrophizing ( I'm going to die alone), over-generalizing ( No one else will ever want me); or fortune-telling ( I'm never going to feel better),” said Bockarova, who recommended using an emotion wheel (a chart listing out the spectrum of human feelings) to better understand your present thoughts.
In situations where your partner is making you feel unsafe about a breakup, the National Domestic Violence Hotline takes calls 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY. If you cannot speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.
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