Written by Molly Raycraft
Lock-in rental contracts and the cost of living crisis are forcing couples to live together after they split. Molly Raycraft explains what it’s like and how to cope with a ‘soft breakup’.
I always thought that I’d be with my boyfriend forever. But five years into our relationship, he broke up with me. He didn’t love me anymore was the bottom line. It was a crushing and unexpected rejection. To make matters worse, we’d just renewed the contract on our rented London flat. There was no moving out for at least four months unless we paid unaffordable cancellation fees and a big percentage of the upcoming rent. Essentially, the apartment that we’d skipped around while celebrating our next step together became our prison cell.
What ensued was a soft breakup that meant ongoing contact and a sense that you’re still in a relationship despite it ending. We were no longer together, but our living situation meant that we were still physically in each other’s presence and fully in contact with one another. There’s no dramatic shift in your life, which makes it incredibly difficult to detach from your ex-partner. With that attachment still in place, we continued to cling to one another, remaining in contact for a while after we finally did move out. It feels like you’re very slowly and painfully being prised apart.
We’re far from the only separated couple to be faced with such a mentally testing scenario. A third of homeowners continue to cohabit with their ex-partner after they separate, according to a recent study by Zoopla. In addition, more than a third (35%) of women in a couple are financially dependent on their partner, while the same can be said for just 11% of men, according to YouGov. It means in periods of separation, women are more likely to be unable to move out, due to financial difficulties, compared to men. Unfortunately, this situation is only expected to worsen as the housing crisis and rising cost of living applies pressure to relationships and budgets.
In the months that followed my breakup, I had to watch the feelings of someone I loved fade away. I scrutinised the changes in small everyday behaviours, which continued to evoke huge waves of pain. The food shop became singular. The meals we ate together became separate. I lay awake at night in the empty double bed that we’d chosen together from Ikea, like the other seven-in-eight ex-couples that choose to sleep apart, while he slept on the sofa bed.
Friends always ask me how I did it and what it was like. They imagine me spending my days in the depths of depression, crying in my room. But it was much more confusing than that. A lot of the time I felt numb. Maybe, I thought, that indicated I’d subconsciously wanted the relationship to end, and this is why I wasn’t sad. But I now know this is a trauma response, which ended up delaying the stages of loss.
“The effect on the brain might feel like a fog or you may feel in limbo because you’re in a stopgap,” confirms Lynn Anderton, a therapist and life coach. Here a stopgap means a temporary living situation being used until an improved one can be found. But interestingly, the Urban Dictionary definition of stopgap is one that describes a woman being used by a man temporarily until they find someone ‘better’, which is definitely a feeling that can arise following a soft breakup. Anderton recommends trying to find some form of distraction to ward off any impending feelings of depression.
I inadvertently did this by dedicating hours of my life to obsessively learning Korean on Duolingo. It’s something I had no former interest in and couldn’t be linked to my existing life in any way. At the time it was a hobby for mere escapism, but it eventually created friendships that would begin to carve out my new life. Now, I have Korean friends in Seoul and London who I met through a language exchange app, some of which I’ve hung out with IRL. I also have a Korean tutor who has brought so much structure to my life through weekly lessons and has been a major source of encouragement at a time when I’ve felt rubbish about myself. Meanwhile, my existing friends have fully supported my studies, turning out to Korean film nights and visiting delicious Korean restaurants with me.
Sometimes the sadness did cut through feelings of numbness. I felt uncontrollably sad when I was quietly uninvited from a Halloween party because we were no longer together. It made sense because the hosts were his friends first and foremost, but it made the rejection I was facing feel more real. However, vulnerability can make it difficult to express feelings in front of others, especially those who’ve hurt you. This in itself felt odd because my ex was always the person I’d turned to for comfort.
Now, I was locking myself in the bathroom to quietly cry. Or waiting until the early hours of the morning when he’d be asleep and unable to hear me. Not having a proper space to grieve in private exacerbated my devastation once I finally did move out. “What’s going on in your physical environment and what’s going on in your head aren’t in alignment, so it can be confusing. In turn, [the breakup] definitely takes longer because you’ve not got that space,” explains Natasha Mahtani, a relationship and divorce coach.
What’s particularly stressful about living with an ex-partner is learning where to draw the line around intimacy. You likely know every tiny detail about your partner, from where their secret birthmark is to how they really feel about that one friend in their group. You probably also know how they’re going to react to something before they’ve even reacted. But in the time you cohabit while separated, you’ll no doubt have to negotiate what the new ‘rules’ are and adjust your expectations. For example, it was once normal for my boyfriend to come into the bathroom to retrieve something from the cupboard while I was in the shower. Now it felt strange.
Mahtani says the transition from partner to housemate must be treated as a new relationship. “Don’t assume you’re going to have the same responsibilities. So, if your partner always took the bin out, don’t assume they’ll continue doing that. Go into a new contract where you agree on new terms that aren’t just a continuation of the old ones.”
Of course, having those important conversations aren’t always easy when failed relationships often suffer communication breakdowns. Perhaps that’s why 91% of cohabiting exes say they’ve not been able to remain diplomatic, with 22% describing the situation as ‘excruciating’ according to Zoopla. For example, my boyfriend would message me if he was staying out late on a weekend. Was he obliged to do this now I wasn’t his girlfriend? It was never a conversation we had, probably because the thought of potential romantic encounters alone was too difficult to consider.
However, 15% of cohabiting couples have actively dated others while living together, and 6% have even had their new partner stay over. I imagine this to be the real-life example of being forcibly made to stalk your ex on social media, but instead of seeing the new partner on Instagram, they’re in your house.
I would say, while we had some arguments, my cohabiting experience was generally amicable. But it still required new measures to ensure I could function day-to-day, including catching up with friends I hadn’t seen in ages, working from the office instead of home and making exciting plans for the future. I also relied on walking more, listening to sleep music and practising gratitude in my journal. Yet, what really got me through was having a definitive date of when cohabiting would end.
At times, my ex and I chatted and laughed like we always had done. We still felt close because we were continuing to drip-feed one another comforting familiarity. Our conversations and inside jokes were the same as always, and I really struggled to give up hugs, especially when I felt awful. It’s precisely this that makes a soft breakup take so much longer to get over. It’s harder to let go until one person (usually whoever initiated the breakup) inevitably moves out and finds someone else, while the other begins the raw grieving process that was suspended during cohabitation.
That grieving process will likely parallel the lengthy time spent cohabiting. And while you may feel the long time you spent in limbo means you need to push yourself to move on quickly, it’s more opportune to invest time in healing.
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