I am living with my ex. Should we have some physical distance between us?

I’m living with my ex-partner after mutually deciding to break up a few weeks ago. We rent a two-bed house and have a cat. The issue is my ex wants to stay in this living situation for the next few months and has no urgency to find alternative accommodation. I feel the urgency but don’t know what to do and whether to move back with my parents or stick it out.

I feel this is very unhealthy and the ritualistic habits developed over time are still happening … dinner, sleeping in the same bed, cleaning duties, shopping. Am I unrealistic in thinking that we should have some physical distance between us, or is this normal? I’m not sure what to do. It may sound selfish but I don’t want to be the one with all the upheaval, especially as I have worked so hard to make this house a home.

Eleanor says: I think you already know this, but might want permission to really believe it: as a fairly firm rule, you can’t move frictionlessly from being in a relationship to being close friends.

People try to break that rule all the time. They think they’re emotionally intelligent or mature enough that, while everyone else’s breakups involve fights and silence, they can get through one and keep the relationship more or less intact, still spending all their time together or saying things like “they’re my best friend”.

I’ve done it – your ex is doing it now. It makes sense: it’s a way of minimising how much pain we have to deal with in any one moment. Maybe getting through the breakup conversation itself was so hard that, for a while, you decided to spare yourselves the devastation of actually separating.

As an analgesic, it works: as long as you’re coming home to each other or texting all the time or “being there for whatever you need”, you don’t experience the pain of pulling apart.

But you don’t experience the good of pulling apart, either – the rawness, the learning, the solitude, the feeling of the unfamiliar, the freedom, the ability to see yourself through your eyes only.

Don’t deny yourself that good. Don’t get tricked into separating in label only. It’s a truism that’s weirdly hard for us to get our heads around but, for things to change, things have to change.

You’re going to have to stop being cooperative about this. I don’t mean you should be rude – I mean you should start insisting on the fact that you are no longer a team. It’s no longer the default that you collaborate, or make decisions together. Your preferences are yours, your ex’s are theirs, and it’s now a matter of politeness – not necessity – that you adjust for each other.

So why, when you want to live apart, is your preference being so completely thwarted? Start by making sure you’ve communicated that you don’t want or like this. Don’t worry about whether you’ll seem rude – your job right now is to practice authorising your choices alone. You could try arguing that you should get the house because you worked to make it a home, but in candour I think you should prioritise getting out of this arrangement over winning that fight.

Every week you spend like this is a week you deprive yourself of your new life. True, moving to your parents’ or a sublet would mean the upheaval of moving. But that’s a nuisance for a weekend. An ex who crowds your emotional life, who gives you the anaesthesia of familiarity, who tells you it is immature or hostile to want to actually separate? That’s a nuisance for a very, very long time.

It will without doubt hurt both of you to announce you want to actually change. But you have to feel the pain of real separation to get the joy of real discovery.

Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

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