“How the hell do you do it?!”
I rolled my eyes. It was a question I got every time I mentioned that I was currently living with my ex-boyfriend in a small, one-bedroom apartment.
I was 24 years old and had recently relocated to Los Angeles for grad school. Before the big move, my three-year relationship with my then-boyfriend, Garrett*, was in an uncertain place. I wouldn’t say that we were unhappy, but we were pretty much just trudging along. The spark was long gone. We wondered whether we were too young to settle — or to settle down. And we naively decided that Garrett following me from our hometown of Cincinnati to LA would help us find answers.
Two months, two thousand miles, and a few time zones later, we realized our time was up. A fresh start wasn’t enough to reinvigorate our fizzling relationship. The catch was, we had signed a one-year lease, and neither of us could afford the place on our own.
LA was full of promise — it was a much bigger, more diverse, and more attractive pool of people than I was used to — but dating isn’t so easy when you’re literally trapped with your ex.
Setting The Ground Rules
When Garrett and I broke up, we had 10 months left on our lease. In an attempt to ride it out, we established clear rules, most of which were meant to ensure we acted respectfully toward each other. That meant absolutely no bringing dates back to our shared home. Since we only had one bed, we took turns sleeping on the couch, which was not only stiff but also inconveniently located by a window overlooking a noisy street. We agreed to keep the details of any new romantic relationships to ourselves, and we swore never to hook up or do anything platonic roommates wouldn’t do.
To help ourselves follow through on that promise, we learned to limit our hangout time. That was tough, because it required walking the thin and tricky line between being the other person’s only close friend in LA and being exes. We initially tried grabbing a bite together maybe once a week, but it felt as if we were still dating and left an uncomfortable taste in both of our mouths. We needed space from each other, despite sharing the same living space. Within a few months, we stopped hanging out in public. Garrett started spending less time at home, as did I. Eventually, we barely set foot in our apartment together except at night to sleep.
To help ourselves follow through on that promise, we learned to limit our hangout time.
When Things Went Awry
The first night I didn’t come home, I woke up to an angry voicemail. This was maybe a month after our breakup and, without thinking, I played the super-awkward message with last night’s date in the room. Of course, this meant that I had to explain that I was not cheating on my partner but rather still living with my ex. I don’t blame Garrett for getting upset — it still felt like we were together in some ways, or at least like we had to look out for each other — but the result was my date immediately telling me he wasn’t comfortable with my arrangement and couldn’t see me again. This upset me — I’d liked him enough to spend the night — but more so, it made me realize this would likely be a point of contention with anyone I might want to date.
I immediately told Garrett that while I understood this was new, we needed to remember that we were no longer together, and he had no right or responsibility to keep tabs on my whereabouts. I also decided not to immediately tell dates I was living with an ex, because I realized that if someone I liked was doing the same thing, it would make me jealous. I’m not sure if I’d be able to trust them. A little white lie, right? Down the line, some guys who I shared the details of my situation with were freaked out — something they didn’t hesitate to tell me. However, one guy who I ended up casually seeing for a few months was totally cool with it. Yes, the truth must come out sooner or later, but it’s important to feel out the appropriate time to reveal it.
Tensions also arose because whenever I had a bad date or got ghosted, my first instinct was to confide in Garrett. Early on, he was right there, watching TV while I made dinner and cursed at my phone. Understandably, he was none too interested in being my sounding board. While our breakup was mutual, no one likes to hear about their ex’s romantic and sexual exploits. I was no different. When Garrett mentioned a girl he was dating, I would be encouraging on the outside but uneasy on the inside.
Yet we kept on trying to make it work until the girl who Garrett had been dating for a few months gave him an ultimatum: either move out and away from me or they were over. So, after six months of us living together and him saving up money, Garrett packed his bags and walked out the door.
While I think it’s possible for exes to live together if they set clear boundaries and have a general respect for each other, I wouldn’t exactly recommend it.
While I think it’s possible for exes to live together if they set clear boundaries and have a general respect for each other, I wouldn’t exactly recommend it. I don’t know if I could do it again, at least not for so long. Luckily, Garrett and I were mostly mature about our situation and followed our rules, so while we had conflicts here and there, they never devolved into a blowout.
Although I never wanted to get back together with Garrett, the emotional connection was undeniably still there. Because we never had time to actually be physically apart for too long during those first few months, it didn’t feel like a real breakup. This made it easy for me to descend into why-did-we-ever-break-up mode whenever I was feeling lonely or sad. I suspect I could have avoided that pain had we had some distance. We still cared for each other, and once Garrett moved out, we were able to channel those feelings into a sort of a friendship.
In a time when rent is more expensive than ever, especially in big cities like LA and NYC, I know I’m hardly part of the only couple to live together post-breakup. It can work, but again, under very specific conditions. If there is any abuse, get out. If you can’t be respectful toward each other, get out. If boundaries are broken, get out. If you’re too hurt by the breakup, get out. You may be saving money and hassle, but at what cost? It’s something every couple has to weigh for themselves.
*Name has been changed.