Breaking up is hard to do, especially if you’re a millennial.
Think about it – back in the '70s you could pack your bags and storm out to a soundtrack of Gloria Gaynor, never having to speak with your good-for-nothing jerk ex again. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.
Nowadays, the ghost of that relationship haunts you through the archives of your WhatsApp messages. And blocking them won’t deter you from sneaking a peak at their Instagram stories through a friend's account.
Yet the majority of us just can’t afford to buy a house, so paying extortionate rent becomes the main – if not only – option for moving in with a partner. But if you choose to end things with that partner, long-term leases and not having enough money to move out can make things hellish. Unless family live nearby, you can be left living with your ex – a situation in which more and more young women are finding themselves.
29-year-old Sara moved in with her boyfriend within six months of meeting him. In their fourth year together, she discovered he’d been exchanging messages with other women online. They tried to work through it but, a year later, Sara finally ended things. Their financial situation meant she had to stay living with him.
“I was working for the NHS and couldn't afford much else. We had over half a year left on the rental lease for our house, and it was expensive to get out of. Looking back, I think I was also trying to stagger the life changes out; I was already losing my best friend, and I wasn't able to cope with losing my home too”, she tells me.
Sara went out every evening after work, visiting friends and family or just driving around. This meant her and her ex’s routines overlapped less and less, but they’d still come home to one another at the end of the night – there was no escaping that.
The biggest issue was redefining the relationship. For Sara, this was especially awkward because they still shared a bed. “I always slept naked, but obviously that wasn't really appropriate anymore. It's weird to put those boundaries back in place after so many years, when you're used to using the toilet in front of one another and living intimately together. After a few months I started dating somebody new, and got really strict about these things, but didn't feel like I could tell him why.”
Despite all this she was never tempted to get back with him, secure in her reasons for ending things. “It was easy to fall back into the domesticity of it all, but never into the romance. If anything, seeing him every day and feeling nothing only confirmed it was the right thing, and stopped me romanticising it in my head.”
I always slept naked but that wasn't appropriate anymore. It's weird to put those boundaries back in place after so many years, when you're used to living intimately together.
Sara stayed living with her ex for eight months, eventually leaving before the lease ran out. “I couldn't continue anymore. I found a flat and hired a van, and had to get my dad to help me move my furniture. Afterwards, I missed that sense of home more than him, and had six months of horrible anxiety.”
Blogger Olivia, who is 22, also ended up living with her ex-boyfriend for eight long months due to being tied into a rental contract they couldn’t get out of. She and her partner had been dating for a little over two years when she decided to break things off.
“Luckily for me, my ex got a new girlfriend really quickly after so that eased some of the guilt of leaving him, as well as meant he didn't spend a lot of time at home. I also had friends over a lot to make it feel more normal,” she says.
The most awkward part was avoiding one another. “When we were around each other stupid fights would happen, just for the sake of it. He didn't like some of the new people I started to hang around with and kicked up a fuss about that, too.”
Her ex only moved out last month, to live at his new girlfriend’s parents' house. Olivia is now looking to move somewhere cheaper and smaller.
For 33-year-old Mo* it was even harder — she was married and had kids. Then she fell in love with somebody else. After finding out, her husband still refused to move. “Effectively I was locked into a limbo situation that wasn't good for either myself or the kids,” she tells me.
Mo would try to see her new partner when she could, but this wasn’t easy. “It was so hard to manage everything. I tried to keep my new life hidden, but still keep my new relationship going. I was spinning so many plates I crashed and burned a few months ago, ending up in A&E with chest pains that I was sure were something awful – they were just a physical manifestation of the stress.”
This wasn’t helped by her ex’s paranoia, which led him to find excuses to snoop on Mo’s life. “He would often come up the stairs late at night on some spurious context, I'd be on the phone to my new partner and it was very awkward. That stopped eventually. His controlling ways were very difficult. When he came back to the house he would check the fridge and bins to see what I'd been up to. Comment on the washing, what clothes I'd worn, underwear, etc.”
He’s finally moved out now and Mo is feeling hopeful for the future.
As bizarre as these situations sound, it’s not all bad. For Sara, the guy she met while still living with her ex is now her husband. “Writing this has got me thinking,” she says, “about if I'd do it again, if the situation arose. I think I probably would. It was uncomfortable and odd, and hard to explain to some, but it made the transition more manageable.”