October 19, 2020

BML-25

Whatever it takes

How to Move Out Without Breaking Up

Jamie Thurber loves her boyfriend. That is the truth now, and it was the truth for the year-and-a-half she lived with him in his home in St. Louis. But like so many people who’ve found themselves rapidly accelerating toward a very serious long-term relationship, Thurber started mulling the thorny questions of her trajectory. Was this life really supposed to be her future? Is this the man she was going to have kids with? Can things maybe just slow down for a second? The house became deafening with those uncertainties thundering in the background. Eventually, says Thurber, it was difficult to know if she was really thinking and speaking for herself—the sort of doubts that every couple faces at least once during their time together.

For Thurber, it seemed personal space was the antidote. If she could get a little distance, maybe she could listen to the reverberations of her own wants and needs more clearly. She’d once again become conversational with her internal monologue, or in other words, she’d remember what it’s like to be alone. So in 2015, Thurber had a crazy idea. Maybe she needed to go backwards before she went forwards.

“I remember saying, ‘So I’m going to move out.’ And he said, ‘…are we breaking up?’ I said no. He said okay,” says Thurber, who is now 32 and works as a consultant. “He was super understanding. He could’ve easily been like, ‘No, that’s not what we’re doing.’ It was scary.”

Just like that, Thurber and her boyfriend went back to basics. She moved about 45 minutes away, and they each kept a handful of creature comforts, (toothbrushes, a favorite pillow,) at each other’s addresses.

“He asked if he could help me find a place, and I said, ‘Absolutely, I’d love your input,'” says Thurber. “Including him in that was [very important.] I think that played a big part in him being okay with that shift.” Slowly but surely, and much to her delight, Thurber sunk back into her old ways.

There is no official term for this process of a “conscious resettling,” to put it in Goop-speak. On the internet, there are clunky phrases like “moving out but staying together,” or “moving out, not breaking up,” and from the Reddit posts I’ve seen, the people considering these demands are often in their late teens and early 20s, who were perhaps impulsive in deciding to live together in the first place. But even for older, more established couples, there’s a lot of financial pressure to move in together as soon as possible. Who wants to spend money on an apartment they never sleep in at a time when rents across America are skyrocketing? It’s inevitable some couples will realize too late that they weren’t quite ready to cohabitate. But, as was the case for Thurber, the end of a shared lease doesn’t have to spell the end of a relationship.

Dr. Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist who has encountered countless different flavors of dysfunction during his professional career, generally agrees with Thurber. A conscientious moveout, presented with a robust list of logical reasons for the change, and authored without a secret uncoupling plot, can be good medicine for a couple who bit off more than they can chew. Unfortunately, this style of thinking runs counter to a dating culture that is typically obsessed with forward momentum.

“[Moving out] can be a very mature move in a relationship.” he says. “If you try to cohabitate, and you decide that it’s not working, but you both mutually decide that you want to stay together, it may actually mean that the relationship itself isn’t at the point of cohabitation. It just means that you’re not ready to live together. I don’t know if it will ever get there, but it doesn’t mean that the relationship is doomed.”

Alicia, a 28-year old who works at a couples counseling center and asked to be identified by her first name, put Klapow’s theories to practice. She’d been with her boyfriend for four years, three of them long-distance, before moving to his city, Austin, Texas, and settling in his apartment. Like Thurber, Alicia discovered a new kind of existential disorientation once she became fully enmeshed in her partner’s daily life. She wanted to get married and have kids; he wasn’t sure when he wanted those things, or if he wanted them at all. Alicia’s image of their life together quickly became muddled and distressed, as the two began to realize they never explicitly discussed what the cohabitation step meant to each of them.

So on a fateful date night, Alicia bared her wounds and said her piece. A couple of her girlfriends had invited her to come live with them, and she would be taking them up on that opportunity. “I kind of blindsided him which I feel badly about,” Alicia recalls now. “It’s the only time I have ever felt unsure that we would have a future together, which was a scary prospect for me.”

She had two motivations. One, to shake up the stalemate that had consumed their discussions about the future. And two, if they were never to move past that, she’d prefer to end their relationship without needing to pack up her stuff.

None of that came to pass. Today, three years after moving out, Alicia says it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made. “We have grown so much as a couple. Though I miss seeing him every day, we are finally getting the ‘dating’ experience that we never had—he comes over to my house on weekends, and we see each other some weeknights as well,” she says. “I got to decorate the way I want, make meals the way I want, and settle myself into a day-to-day routine as an adult human with a full time job and responsibilities. It’s really nice.”

While the long-term outcome was positive, the move out process itself was far from painless. In any avenue of life, taking a step backwards feels like a failure, even when it isn’t. In hindsight, Alicia tells me it was like pressing a “reset button”—offering themselves the space to grow, learn, and be more effective at their partnership duties. But friends and family are another story entirely. As Alicia quickly found out, there is no way to explain a cordial move out without falling into a torrent of well-meaning, but ultimately exasperating concerns from loved ones.

“When I would be catching up with a friend or family member on the phone, they would always throw [in] a tentative, ‘So how are things with you and your boyfriend?'” says Alicia. “This made me realize that despite my reassurances to everyone that we were fine, there was a lot of disbelief and uncertainty that we actually were fine. And I came to realize that’s okay. We know how we are, and that’s the important bit. Everyone else can deal!”

To be fair, those concerns are often valid. Breakups are hard enough as it is, and plenty of people have attempted a conscious resettling only to find a much longer, much more anguished divorce on the other end. Bela Zecker, a 28-year old in Brooklyn who works in the music industry, wanted to remove herself from a cohabitation arrangement with her boyfriend when she was much younger and living in London. The story she told him was that she wanted an “independent” experience in the city before moving back to the United States for her first grown-up job. Looking back though, Zecker recognizes that there was already discontent in her relationship. She simply couldn’t muster the strength to leave all at once.

“I didn’t want to rock the boat with a full-on breakup,” she says. “A running theme through my earlier relationships was accepting that I wasn’t happy or fulfilled in a relationship long before I had the guts to directly say as much.”

Ironically, Zecker is currently in a relationship with someone she met as a platonic roommate. Cohabitation is baked into their DNA. That said, if she ever found herself single again, her previous experiences have taught her to be much slower to jump on a mutual lease. Incremental breakups are no fun, and Zecker isn’t keen to put herself through that again. (It helps that she’s no longer a broke college student.) Ideally, Zecker will be able to keep her economic reality, and her romantic desire to live with a partner, separate for the rest of her life.

“I’ve heard of some older couples who decide to live apart after sharing a space for decades, and are really happy, so it’s not necessarily a death knell,” she says. “But right now my experience suggests that no longer wanting to share a space means you don’t actually want to share a life with that person.”

Thurber, on the other hand, is gearing up for the second act. She and her boyfriend, once again, have plans to move in together. This time though, her head is in the right place. It will be their place, not his. Both of them know they want to be under the same roof. The balance of power is equitable. “There’s a lot of relief in knowing some of the things that bothered me [the first time,] are not a big deal,” she adds.

Alicia expects to move in with her boyfriend this year as well. Through the rejuvenating power of therapy and sleeping alone, Alicia knows exactly where the two of them stand. This time, there will be no surprises. “We have been very intentional about discussing the nitty gritty details about two humans cohabiting the same space: Cleanliness and tidiness, division of chores, furniture and decor choices,” she says. “It’s not a glamorous road, but I’m glad we took it.”

Consciously resettling is a dramatic choice. Families will be worried. Confidantes will be confused. Group texts will rain with gossip. The only people who will know if the step backwards is worth it are the partners themselves. But love is powerful enough to make even the unthinkable ideas work—even admitting that you want to spend the rest of your life with someone that you can’t live with right now.

A finished blank white jigsaw puzzle sits amidst a pile of the new love birds dating supplies
A finished blank white jigsaw puzzle sits amidst a pile of the new love birds dating supplies

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Originally Appeared on GQ