Sara*, 23, has been living with her ex-boyfriend for nearly two years now. The pair moved in together after eight months of being in an official relationship — and broke up after the first week after he "decided he didn’t know what he wanted". Locked into a 12-month tenancy, they had no choice but to remain living together.
Sara and her ex had known each other since the age of 11 and so she tells Refinery29 that living together was comfortable, for a while at least. "We had been friends for so long that it felt normal once I had gotten over the initial shock of it all," she says. That’s why, when their tenancy was up, it felt natural for the two of them to find a new place and continue living together as exes. "Neither of us wanted to go back to our parents and living alone in a city just isn’t feasible financially," Sara adds.
Sara isn’t alone. Research carried out in July 2022 by UK property site Zoopla found that 34% of those who purchased a home with a partner and then split up have been forced to remain living with them post-breakup, with nearly half citing financial reasons. Zoopla’s findings are far from robust – the survey only featured responses from 500 homeowners – but they are indicative of reality for many homeowners and renters alike. A 2019 survey by insurance company Direct Line found that 9 million people had to live with an ex after breaking up, with finances cited as the second most common reason for doing so.
Since then, living costs have soared. In February, rent prices hit yet another "staggering" increase. Demand and supply issues are causing mayhem in the rental market, with property showing frequently seeing lines of people extending around the corner. On average, single people are spending 37% of their salary on rent and with women earning less on average than men, they’re often left struggling to afford to rent without a friend or partner.
Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that Sara decided to stick with what she knew. Inevitably though, things got sticky when her ex started dating new people. Again, Sara isn’t alone in this. Of those who told Zoopla they stayed living with an ex, 15% said that their ex-partner began seeing someone else while they were still living together.
At the time, Sara was in and out of hospital after a relative suffered a major medical emergency, which didn’t help. "I was spending all my days at the hospital in various meetings with doctors, then coming home to see him texting another woman or listening to the playlists they’d made for each other," she recalls. "All I wanted to do was go home to him at the end of the day and speak to him about everything [as] he was the person I found comfort in."
I was spending all my days at the hospital in various meetings with doctors, then coming home to see him texting another woman or listening to the playlists they'd made for each other.
This had a negative impact on Sara's mental health. "I was depressed for a while and still am now," she says. "Even as I’m feeling a lot more stable, it physically pains me to think I went through such a dark time. I feel less in turmoil about it but I struggle to separate the side of him that is my longtime friend and the side that is my ex and caused me a lot of unnecessary heartache."
Helen Ferguson, a psychotherapist specialising in trauma, explains that having to watch your ex re-enter the world of dating will have a profound effect on your mental health. "Self-esteem and self-worth are all linked with emotional health and emotional awareness, and our ability to understand and value ourselves," she tells Refinery29. "So in a situation where you're no longer with your ex-partner but you're still living with them, and they start meeting new people, that is going to impact on your self-worth and mental health."
She adds that living with an ex can be genuinely "traumatic" in that it stops you from processing your emotions around the breakup, which is likely why nearly a quarter (22%) of respondents to Zoopla’s survey said they found the situation excruciating.
This is because emotions are constantly being re-triggered. "When you're going through a breakup, managing that emotional turmoil is tough enough," says Helen. "When you’re separated from that person, you’re able to work through the emotions that come up independently."
Without a daily reminder of your breakup, it’s likely to be easier to work through those emotions and deal with them as they arise – like when you see your ex on a mutual friend’s Instagram story, for example. Living with your ex means reliving those emotions indefinitely. This is known as ambiguous loss. "When people can't achieve that full closure, those unpleasant feelings don't get released and they're not able to be processed and worked through in the same way," says Helen.
These feelings can be even more intense and, indeed, dangerous when someone is forced to live with an abusive ex-partner. Laura*, 26, moved in with her partner after just four months of being together in order to help them out. After months of trialling different flats and shared houses – a money drainer in itself – Laura finally found somewhere for them to live.
Once they moved in, things changed. Laura’s partner began to withdraw emotionally and became emotionally abusive. Eventually, they broke up. "This was super hard for me to comprehend because I’d put so much money into [this house]," she tells us. Not only had she forked out nearly $8,000 on new furniture and other costs but her brother had acted as a guarantor, too. On top of that, Laura says she had become "alienated" from her friends and family throughout the relationship. "I had no one to go and stay with and the housing situation was so bad that I knew it would be impossible for me to find somewhere to live," she says. "Especially since [landlords] prefer couples."
The pair ended up in an on-again-off-again relationship, prolonging the stonewalling, gaslighting and emotional manipulation. This, says Helen, is a "very vulnerable and unsafe position to be in". "It’s a continuing trauma," she says. "And that can lead to CPTSD [complex post-traumatic stress disorder]." She stresses that anyone in this situation should work on finding a way out immediately.
For Laura, the negative mental health implications were extreme. As someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD), Laura says she has to be "really on top of" managing her compulsive coping mechanisms. "This really set me back," she tells us. "I started drinking a lot again, I was no longer eating, I left my job impulsively – it was really bad."
Things will go differently for different people, depending on the nature of the breakup and, of course, the relationship but Helen stresses the need for boundaries when living with an ex. "Have an open discussion of how living together is actually going to work and be open about your emotional needs," she says. "This then lays the groundwork for moving on into a platonic relationship."
Helen also stresses the need for space to heal and to begin to individuate yourself after spending so long wrapped up in somebody else’s life. "It's about rebuilding your identities and acting in a way that feels right for you," she says. "So establish your own routine and hobbies, make time for your friends, all those kinds of things."
Finally, she says it’s important not to act on emotion – particularly when it comes to rekindling the romance. This is easier said than done, of course. "Living together is hard," Sara says, "because when one of you eventually and inevitably starts missing the other person and forgetting the reasons you split, the person is sitting right next to you at the dinner table."
*Name changed to protect identity