The first time I went through a proper break up I was at university. I still had a Nokia phone. It was neither ironic nor a burner; iPhones didn’t exist yet. Friends flooded my ant-infested student house, put The Notebook on and roasted a chicken which we ate in fresh French stick sandwiches smothered with garlic mayonnaise. Still, it was horrific. I couldn’t locate the pain that consumed me and I didn’t sleep for weeks.
When I think about it now, all I note is how easy it was for us to disentangle our lives. We grew up together but, in the decade that has passed since our break up, I have only seen him once. Our paths never crossed again, he has no social media presence and we had no joint financial obligations. I knew it was really over when his parents removed me from the family mobile plan which meant that he could call me for free. Vodafone sent me a notification text to let me know. It was the only bit of break up admin required.
Like most things as you get older, breakups get harder and more complicated. If we enter into relationships in order to build a life with another person we always run the risk that, one day, we may have to dismantle it. Once you are financially tied to another person, once you own or rent a home together, share a joint bank account, split your day-to-day living expenses and, even, take on debt together in the form of credit cards, overdrafts and loans, unpicking the life you have so carefully constructed can be costly.
The statistics speak for themselves: not everyone can afford to leave a relationship they no longer want to be in. Housing costs are particularly unaffordable for women in every part of this country according to the women’s budget group and, according to the Office for National Statistics, the 7.7 million people living alone in the UK spend on average £21 a week more than those living as a couple.
On top of that, research released earlier this year by the pollsters YouGov found that around a third of all women with a partner are entirely (6%) or somewhat (29%) financially dependent on them. Alarmingly, the research revealed that one in five women in full-time work say they are financially dependent on their partner and three in five say they wouldn’t cope well financially in a break-up.
Disentangling from someone you have loved and once imagined a future with is always going to feel like something inside you is shattering while you attempt to make a path forwards that avoids impaling yourself on the shards. That, however, does not negate the fact that sometimes separation is urgent and necessary. People change, infidelity occurs and, sadly, sometimes, emotional, economic and physical abuse are a reality.
So, if you are thinking of leaving your partner and you are not married, how do you prepare yourself financially?
Catherine Costley is a partner and family lawyer at leading London law firm Payne Hicks Beach. Emotional upheaval aside, she sees first hand how difficult the practical aspects of separation can be. “My main piece of advice would be that everyone should have a ‘go bag’,” she tells Refinery29.
“Lots of women don’t realise that there are very few legal protections for cohabitees.”
Olive Craig, SENIOR LEGAL OFFICER, Rights of women
There is no way around the fact that putting money to one side will be easier for some women than it will be for others but something is better than nothing. “It doesn’t matter how much or how little money you have, make sure you always have some money and, ideally, savings of your own," Catherine continues. "Love is amazing, we enter into relationships when we are full of hope, in good faith but you just never know what is going to happen.”
Separation can be particularly complex if you are not married because, as Catherine explains, there is no legal framework to protect cohabiting couples. According to the Office for National Statistics, they're the fastest growing family type. However, unlike married couples, cohabiting couples have relatively few protections if things do go wrong.
“In the UK,” she continues, “there is this idea of a ‘common law man or wife’ - that if you live together for long enough as though you are married you will be protected but you do not have the legal rights that you would have if you were married or in a civil partnership.”
Rights of Women is a charity which provides women who cannot afford the services of top lawyers like Catherine with the legal advice and information about how to navigate the rights they do have. Their Senior Legal Officer, Olive Craig, echoes Catherine’s warning.
“Lots of women don’t realise that there are very few legal protections for cohabitees,” Olive told Refinery29. “We speak to women on our family law advice line who experience real financial hardship and debt because of the lack of legal recognition of their relationship. It is very important to understand what your legal rights are before you start living with someone and enter into a cohabitation agreement. It is sensible to maintain some financial independence from your partner so that if you need to leave the situation in an emergency you are not prevented from doing so because of the lack of resources.”
“Remain practical even when you feel that your emotions are running wild,” Catherine adds. “There are steps you have to take and you need to treat it as a logistical matter.”
Refinery29 asked Catherine what those steps are and what, based on her extensive practice as a family lawyer, she would like women to know.
“It is important to talk about finances before moving in together and always protect your own financial independence," Catherine says, "while it might make sense to have a joint account for shared expenses, you can make sure there is no overdraft facility on it and agree how much both of you are going to put into the account each month.”
“It doesn’t matter how much or how little money you have, make sure you always have some money and, ideally, savings of your own."
Catherine Costley, partner and family lawyer at Payne Hicks Beach
This, Catherine explains, could look like a cohabitation agreement (which outlines who will pay for what in the event of a break up) for couples who live together whether that's in privately rented, social housing or a home you own together. It's also worth noting that contributing to or living in a property that is not in your name, does not automatically give you any interest in or entitlement to the property. "Any agreement in relation to property should be put in writing," she says firmly.
"If you break up and you have a loan or a credit card in both of your names," she adds "the bank doesn't care which one of you pays it off as long as it gets paid. So, I would suggest that if you are going to take on debt with your partner you really question why and whether that's something you want to do." Entering into personal debt for someone else’s benefit is rarely a good idea, Catherine warns. Be very careful about agreeing to loans or even credit card debt.
Added to that, Catherine notes that even if you are making plans for the future with your partner, you should always have your own bank account and be making financial plans for your future that are independent of them.
Cohabitation is on the rise but, as things stand, the rights that come with it are not set to expand. This could change. Along with Southall Black Sisters, Rights of Women have jointly responded to parliament's Women and Equalities Committee which has called for evidence on the Rights of Cohabiting Couples. They have said that new laws ought to be introduced to give cohabitees and former cohabitees rights they do not currently have. Both groups support the legal recognition of cohabitation and an accompanying framework of financial protection on separation that is similar to that available for couples who are ending a marriage or civil partnership.
Until that happens, Catherine says that it’s better to address your potential, hypothetical future break up while you’re still very much in love (no matter how awkward that might feel), “otherwise it’s like shutting the door after the horse has bolted”.
Rights of Women’s Family Law Line is a free and confidential advice line for women in England and Wales who need family law advice. You can find out how to contact them here.