How to Break Up When You Still Have to Live Together
Everything I know about live-in breakups I learned from how my ex-wife ended it.
Posted Apr 06, 2017
Our occasional marital spats sprawled out into all-consuming arguments. Finally, my wife simply declared that she wanted out.
Out wasn’t as simple as packing a bag and leaving. We had three kids, a mortgage, property to divide, but mostly the kids, our youngest, five.
A bomb like the one she dropped made me feel like there was plenty more to argue about. She told me at night at a hotel. Outraged, I ranted before storming off to the hotel desk to get a separate room. The next morning, we met in time to drive to the airport together. I resumed my rant where I had left off. My wife, who had until then tolerated my rants, interrupted me and told me gently but firmly that the arguments were over for good.
For close to two decades, my wife had been my most intimate companion. Overnight at the hotel, she became like a casual acquaintance, consistently cordial at a safe friendly distance. She would not discuss our past. We lived together for months after her announcement as we sorted out how to create entirely separate lives.
It took me a while to adjust to the sudden end to our bickering. I made many attempts to stir things up. At the time, I was outraged by her sudden transition to cool cordiality but, looking back, I think it was brilliant, the kindest thing she could have done for me.
No confusion, no ambiguity, no getting my hopes up only to let me down, no stringing it out or stringing me along. In retrospect it was on that one hotel night that we transitioned to the friendly relatives we have become, and all thanks to her lead and her unwavering commitment to showing me the new way we would be together.
These days it’s getting both easier and harder to end partnerships—easier because people often partner more casually and tentatively without kids or cohabitation. But with a tight economy, people do still combine resources, and end up having to live with exes, transitioning emotionally long before they have a chance to move out.
Here are a few ways to make the extended stay as peaceful as possible for all parties involved.
Cordiality is the greater kindness: Your ex may try to provoke the old arguments and flirtations, the way I did, and to guilt-trip you for becoming so cold and uncaring. Once you’ve decided to break up, ignore it. Drop the past. Act like housemates thrown together awkwardly, making the best of it by staying friendly at a safe distance. It’s the best way to show you care about making a smooth transition once it becomes inevitable. They may not see it that way. They may accuse you of pathological indifference. They’ll throw the morality book at you the way I did my ex-wife. They’re wrong. When it’s over it’s over even if living together isn’t. Clear signaling is the best you can do.
Selective silence: Living together, you’ll still have to talk. Stay cordial. Do not provoke. And when your ex provokes you, do not take the bait. Often the best way to do that is with silence. Don’t even say that you’re not going to respond. Just pretend they didn’t say anything. They may badger, but that too is provocation. If you’re consistent, they’ll learn what formerly open topics are now closed forever.
Find an inside retreat: If possible, establish private, separate space within your dwelling, a room of your own that you can go to—out of sight, out of mind.
Give up on explaining to each other what happened: To make relationships work we try to sync an account in common, a common identity. That’s what all of those arguments are about: Processing our relationship means trying to reconcile the discrepancies between our accounts about what it means to be partnered. At breakup, our accounts of who we were together tend to diverge by a lot, both exes emphasizing what the other did wrong. Even if one of you admits to having done wrong, there will be divergences, the wronged one having to resolve to not expect any improvement, and the wronging party having to hope they can improve. For example, if one admits to being an alcoholic but too late to save the marriage, the alcoholic has to hope he can change and the wronged party has to doubt he can change.
You will probably find that you have to vent to someone. Just resist the temptation to vent to your ex. That’s over. Chalk up the ending to something innocuous and even-handed like incompatibility or irreconcilable differences. Do not sustain the momentum accumulated over years of trying to reconcile your common story. Your stories are likely to become oil and water to each other.
Spare the kids: Do everything you can to shield them from the strife, of course. They too need to learn a new way to be family. Your clear signaling to your live-in ex is signaling to them too, both for how to be family from now on, and how to set clean, clear boundaries when necessary, always a useful lesson for children to learn.