9 Ways To Keep Things From Getting Messy If You're Living With Your Ex
No romantic relationship has gone unaffected in the fallout of COVID-19. Some for the better, and some for the worse. Couples are breaking up while quarantining together, divorce proceedings have been put on hold, and some have even opted to move in with an ex to help deal with the loneliness of it all. (No judgment there!)
Whatever the circumstances, many people out there may be in the difficult position of cohabiting with an ex as the world rides out this pandemic. How do we work around the complications, the pain of proximity, and the challenge of boundary setting?
We reached out to licensed couples' therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, to find out how exes can make this time easier on each other and themselves:
1. Get clear on what you're expecting.
Every relationship—and thus, every breakup—is going to look different, including expectations. As former partners, the two of you would be best served to get clear on what each other's expectations are moving forward.
"Are you seeing yourselves as former partners, now temporary roommates, with a romantic history?" Muñoz poses. "Are you transitioning into a friendship? Are you former spouses moving toward becoming co-parents? Former lovers still planning to be in business together?"
Have a conversation about how you want to view your new relationship as exes living together and what the expectations are. Talking openly about this can remove some of the tension and create a sense of teamwork. You're still two people who have a relationship, even if it's no longer a romantic one. Civility matters.
2. Proceed with caution when it comes to physical intimacy.
Some ex-partners who are quarantining together may want to continue being physically intimate with each other, which might include anything from snuggling up on the couch to having sex. This will feel fine for some people and extremely messy or painful for others.
Do what feels right for your circumstance, and be extra mindful of both your own feelings and your ex's feelings. Be crystal clear about what you're comfortable with and what you're expecting from each other to make sure no feelings get hurt. Err on the side of caution where possible, and continue checking in on each other to make sure everyone's doing OK. (Here's our guide on how to be friends with benefits the healthy way.)
Conversely, if you're opening up to exploring online dating with new partners, it wouldn't hurt to check in with each other about that, too.
3. Set (and honor) boundaries.
Whether the breakup was smooth sailing or rough waters, you're going to need to set some boundaries. This can be even more challenging if your breakup was actually civil and mutual because those romantic feelings may still be there.
If your priority is moving on from this relationship, Muñoz advises avoiding looking to your ex for sex, affection, emotional connection, or reassurances, as it will muddy the waters. And if that's a struggle, "you may want to create a 'Why I Need To Let Go of My Ex' list," she says.
Some other ideas for boundary-setting she recommends include agreeing on when you're going to be in different rooms or whether you need alone time. If you're confined to a small space, perhaps you can simply work with your backs to each other. You can even get creative and use a makeshift room divider of string, clothespins, and a sheet.
4. Divide your household duties.
Breakups are hard enough as it is without having to worry about household chores on top of it. Feeling disrespected when someone isn't keeping up with their chores is enough to spark a fight, so Muñoz suggests agreeing on a "division of duties" list that covers things like cleaning responsibilities, shopping, cooking, and parenting responsibilities.
5. Release judgment.
If letting go isn't an issue for you but hostility is, try to find the best in your ex. After all, you originally got together for some reason, Muñoz notes, and now it's time to make the best of a difficult situation. "Resist the impulse to judge and blame, and work on taking ownership," she says. "Remind yourself that you're both human, imperfect, and doing the best you can."
In this case, rather than a "Why I Need To Let Go" list, you may want to consider a "What I Love About My Ex" list that you can come back to as needed, "to help you approach them more openly," Muñoz adds.
6. Keep communicating when problems arise.
Going back to the idea of boundaries and expectations, as time goes on and the pandemic draws out, expectations will change—and it's important to keep communicating about it. "Mapping out the boundaries and agreements you've reached visually on a poster board and putting it somewhere visible can help," Muñoz says, so you can then "revisit your agreements and adjust them, if needed."
It's a good idea to set up a time to do this (even daily, if necessary), to have a brief conversation about where you're both at, any concerns you have, and any new boundaries that need to be established.
7. Focus on your own personal growth.
As difficult as it may be (in any breakup, honestly), you are in some way "single" now, and it's an opportunity to focus on you. This transition time can be used to work on yourself "through journaling, meditating, teletherapy, or some other method," Muñoz suggests. "Lean on your friends and family—and on yourself—to fulfill the needs you previously turned to your partner for." (From a safe distance, of course.) Take time make sure you're really able to get over the breakup.
In the end, this will help you, but also your ex, because you'll be able to "let go and/or live together more kindly and effectively," Muñoz says, and practice all the aforementioned tips from a place of compassion.
8. Know that you can leave if you don't feel safe.
If at any point you do not feel safe living with your ex—for example, if there's a risk of physical or emotional harm—you can leave. You do not need to stay trapped at home with an abusive partner.
If possible, call the free National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-787-3224) to speak with a trained advocate who can direct you to where you can get free shelter for the time being while you figure out your next steps. They also have a secure online chat option available if you don't have privacy for a phone call. (Here's our full guide on how to leave an abusive relationship.)
9. Have a post-COVID plan.
Once going your separate ways is more plausible, it's important to have a plan. Who is moving out? How can you create real closure after this bizarre co-living experience? Has anyone's feelings about ending the relationship changed over this time? You'll want to be both logistically and emotionally prepared for the difficulty that may arise when quarantine lifts and when your ex may no longer be immediately in your life.
Before you have this conversation, explicitly bring up to your ex that you want to sit down and talk about it, Muñoz says. "This shows respect for your partner and takes into account the possibility that they may need to prepare for this conversation to approach it calmly and nonreactively. You can say, 'I think it's important we talk about the future and how we're going to transition into our separate lives. Are you available to talk about this now or later today or this weekend?'"
You can then prepare your list of fears, needs, and positive wishes for one another. It will be a hard talk, but it will help you both move forward in the long run. "Try to follow a speaker/listener protocol where only one person talks, and only one person listens, at a time," Muñoz notes. "Even if your conversations trigger regret or sadness, try to allow these feelings to flow. Being authentic and vulnerable can create a bridge of connection even in the midst of separation."
This is by no means an easy pandemic for anyone, but for ex-partners navigating living together, there are certainly particular challenges that are bound to arise. Prioritize compassion—both for your ex and yourself—as you navigate this tricky situation.
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