No sugar coating here. If you’re about to navigate a breakup while cohabiting, it will be one of the toughest things you live through. Spoiler alert though — you will live through it! You’ve demonstrated a high level of commitment by living together, and yet there isn’t the legality of a divorce decree to chart your way forward.
A handful of states, however, do recognize common law marriage, so be sure you’re clear on the legal implications and splitting of assets if those arrangements pertain to your situation. And if children are in the picture, you will want to definitely look to a family mediator to assist with custody planning and financial agreements.
A Pew Research study found that roughly half of the population living with an unmarried partner is under 35, so unfortunately, chances are good that you or a friend could go through this type of breakup. While you ideally would have had a cohabitation agreement, most of us aren’t naturally inclined to plan for the ending at the beginning. Here are a few steps to take when you’ve decided to move on.
1. Hold logistic conversations separate from the relationship conversation
It can be tempting to lead a breakup conversation with a dramatic announcement that you’re moving out. While the question of who is going where will naturally surface during a breakup conversation, be sure to do yourself and your partner the service of having your first few discussions be about the relationship. Yes, emotions will be running high. You might find that you have to take a break and come back to the discussion a few different times.
When you can get to a place past the initial shock of the breakup, ask your partner to join you in setting aside time to specifically discuss logistics. If you’re driving the break up decision, then take the high road by initiating logistics planning where possible. This can be as simple as saying you’re prepared to stay with friends or family for a few days while you start to sort through details.
2. Set a firm move-out date
Make this decision as soon as possible, because it will assist you in keeping momentum for all of your other decisions. Know that if you’re both on the lease, you’re responsible for the rent no matter where you live. This means that you may need to decide which of you is in a better position to assume the entirety of the lease or mortgage payment as one of you moves out. It may also mean that one of you decides to assist the other with the cost of setting up a small residence elsewhere and you both split the entirety of living expenses for your original residence.
Involve your landlord here. This isn’t the first time they’ve heard of a cohabiting breakup, and they may have options ranging from a lease break fee to being willing to allow a tenant sublet. Be aware that a landlord will have to approve a new tenant moving in and taking over the lease with you or your ex (i.e., if you or your partner want to find new roommates). Spend some time mapping out the costs financially and emotionally of each option. For example, while a lease break fee might be expensive, you both may decide it’s worth the peace of mind. And compared to setting up two residences that you’re jointly funding, it could even be cheaper.
3. Respect your new ideas of space
Regardless of how you square who is ultimately moving where, there will be some stretch of time you’ll be living together broken up. Yikes. Set up as much structured time for sharing the space as possible. Address things like who will be sleeping where and how chores will be handled. It can be easy in this stage to assume the same routine, like your partner taking on nightly dishwasher duty, but remaining in those relationship habits isn’t healthy for either of you.
Your space is now going to become a little more “roommate style,” so treat it as such. Talk through specific days of the week that you or your partner could have friends over, so that the other person can plan to be out. It takes a village to get over a tough breakup, but do your best to honor each other’s own private time in the house to grieve and process.
4. Hold detailed money conversations
If this feels complicated, you may consider family mediation. It’s not just for married couples or those with children! Having an objective third party help you navigate the right questions to ask each other and be a voice of reason during an emotional time can be helpful. Most cohabiting couples would only need a couple of sessions to square away finances and logistics.
Money discussions involve everything from potentially splitting bank accounts to possibly buying out part of a major home item that you’d like to hang on to (Hello flat screen!). Are you on your partner’s health insurance? Are they your emergency point of contact and can they make medical decisions for you? Are they the beneficiary of any insurance policies? All of these questions are things to talk through and quickly update.
5. Divide possessions equitably
Start with the basics, and, when in doubt, just let it go. That said, if you had it before your relationship, it belongs to you. Gifts belong to whom it was given. Debt in your name is your responsibility, regardless of who made the purchase.
While it can be uncomfortable, being as specific as possible in this stage curtails fights down the line. For example, when you say he can keep the “kitchen stuff,” he might take that to mean your prized stand mixer, when you were just willing to let go of the dishes. Draw up a list of the items that are important to both of you and write down who is taking what. Be sure everyone keeps their own copy.
Consider taking your most prized personal valuables (heirloom jewelry, journals, photo albums, etc.) to a friend’s house for safekeeping during this time even if you’re the one staying put. You’re likely going to be home much less over the next little while, and a slew of friends, colleagues, and even movers may be making their way in and out of your space more than normal. It’s a bit of peace of mind to know that some important things are out of the house.
6. Set new boundaries
These conversations are awful under the best of circumstances. You’re both tired, worn down, and really emotional because navigating a breakup is hard work. Some days it will seem like the perfect solution to crawl back in bed together (literally or figuratively). As hard as it will be to avoid intimacy, stay strong. Falling back into a “couple’s routine” will just complicate unwinding your lives and prevent you both from healing and moving on. Instead, be deliberate with self-care and find a space in the house that you can carve out as your own. Know that this also means that things like checking in during the day with texts, asking when someone might be home, etc. are trending toward too personal if you’re in breakup mode.
While it might be tempting, hold off on dating just yet. As with any breakup, it can be a comforting coping mechanism to jump right into new relationships, but starting to date someone new while you’re living with your ex is extremely complicated emotionally and logistically. You’ve got enough on your heart. Get out of the house first.
7. Fill up your social calendar
Keeping busy serves a few purposes. Obviously it’s wonderful to have your friends’ support during this time, and bonus — it gets you out of the shared space. You’ll also be able to use this time to check in with friends on their take on any logistics you might not be thinking of. Breakups can be a huge emotional fog and it can be helpful to have friends remind you of major life decisions, purchases, or things that might not be happening right in this moment.
For example, did you put down a payment on a shared vacation that’s now not happening? Someone needs half of that back. Is there a security deposit for the apartment that will need to be split months from now when it’s returned? Ask your friends to help you think of the “not right now” decisions that need to be made.
If You Absolutely Can’t Move Out…
Miranda and Steve taught us many things, including that breaking up in a major metropolitan city is absurdly expensive. It might end up being that you and your ex are staring down a few months of a lease or waiting for a home sale while you’re living together and have no option to live separately.
Know that you don’t have to be “friends” at this stage and just general respect can go a long way in keeping living conditions cordial. A study in Psychology Today recommends an idea called selective silence. Selective silence is all about not being provocative and, conversely, not taking the bait when your ex pokes at you. Once you’ve established your own space, work to just go about your routine.
If You’re Staying in the Home…
Do your best to give your space a refresh. You may not be in the mood or financial space to spend a bunch of money on redecoration, but tiny details can make a big difference in moving on. Rearrange your furniture. Buy new sheets. While you already know to take down pictures and souvenirs the two of you shared, take a beat before going scorched earth policy and throwing them all away.
Consider tucking a few in a box out of sight. They’re still a landmark of this time and space in your life and you may find that looking back on them a few years from now reminds you of how much strength you had getting through this rough time.