Can you stop living with your partner without breaking up?

We’ve all been taught from a young age how relationships are meant to progress.

There’s the talking stage, casual dating, more serious dating, then, usually after a year or so, you’ll probably consider living together, then the focus is marriage and kids.

And when it comes to these traditional ideas about relationships, moving in together is definitely a sign of success.

We see it play out in movies and TV dramas all the time. The anquish about finding the right way to ask a partner to move in. The presenting of a key as though it’s a diamond ring. The adorable, jubilant montage of one party moving in their belongings.

It is a commitment, a declaration that things are moving forward, a statement of increasing closeness and lives merging together.

But, what happens if living together doesn’t work out? Is it an automatic end to a relationship? Do you have to concede defeat, give the key back, never speak to each other again?

What about if you moved in together for purely practical reasons – a national lockdown, for instance? Or if you have realised that you’re not ready to live together, but you haven’t fallen out of love?

Is it possible to move out from living with your partner without it being seen as a catastrophic step backwards? If so… how do you even bring that up?

Elsa* says the stresses of lockdown had a big impact on her relationship with her boyfriend. The pair lived together for four months over the summer, but decided not to properly move in together when lockdown ended.

‘Obviously, lockdown was pretty intense, and my boyfriend was unemployed, so I think we experienced the real highs and lows of a relationship during that time,’ Elsa tells Metro.co.uk.

‘As it was coming to an end, most of my friends were like, “oh so you’re going to move in together now?” But he had been the first one to say, “I don’t think we’re ready.”

‘It was quite a shock, but I actually did agree. It felt like a bit of a failure.’

Elsa says she is still processing what happened over the last few months in her relationship. She feels as though their trial period of living together was a bit of a let down, and it has made her question things.

‘Other relationships look so easy from the outside,’ she explains. ‘I couldn’t believe we had lived together for four months and then it wasn’t all cute and perfect.

‘Plus, we discussed that lockdown had really taken away that significant, ceremonial “let’s live together” decision, and made it for us. So, we want to wait until we can make that decision with no external pressures.’

Elsa says that one of the most difficult parts of this decision has been the reaction from other people. She says people in her life assume the couple will never work, just because they have decided to wait.

‘I don’t think all of my friends and family understood because it doesn’t follow the natural progression of relationships,’ she explains.

‘I think, in general, people are really uncomfortable when relationships are hard or not working very well.

‘I’ve actually said to my friends that I want to be honest with them and say it like it is, because it is very alienating only hearing the good stuff about relationships.

‘Interestingly, a few of them said that they appreciated my honesty and then also said things weren’t perfect for them either.’

Contrary to popular thinking, Neil Wilkie, creator of online couples therapy platform The Relationship Paradigm, thinks that moving out or delaying moving in with your partner doesn’t have to be a backwards step.

‘It can be a very positive step to move from premature physical closeness to physical separation but greater emotional closeness,’ Neil tells Metro.co.uk. 

‘A metaphor might be – would you rather drink a bottle of Dom Perignon at room temperature straight from the bottle in one go? Or would you prefer to savour it at the perfect temperature and sip it slowly from a crystal glass?

‘Be very clear about the future that you both want. Understand that it is about the journey, not the destination.’

Neil adds that with the correct communication between the couple, moving out can work, and it can even make your stronger as a couple. But you have to be clear on your reasons.

‘If you are doing it because you are feeling claustrophobic in the relationship, then you should discuss this with your partner and work out what you need to have happen to get a sense of space,’ he explains.

‘If you are doing it because you have fallen out of love with them, then be honest and examine if that is a short-term blip or a long-term realisation. If it is long term, then part gently; don’t create a mirage that you will be back.

‘If you need space because life is just too difficult, then create the space you need.

‘If you rushed into living together too soon because of lockdown but you are sure that you still want a long-term relationship, then hold on to that intention and use the next period as an opportunity for gentle romance and enjoying deeper connection with each other.’

Jessica* stopped living with her boyfriend because of work reasons. She got a job in a different part of the country and decided to move away.

She says it was difficult at first, but making the move has actually brought them closer together in the long-term.

‘He had to stay where he was for another two years of his PhD,’ says Jessica.

‘I think it worked because we both knew it wasn’t permanent, and were both very busy working on the start of our careers.

‘Aside from him feeling a little hurt about me prioritising a better job over staying in Bristol, I think we handled it really well. And in reality, travelling to see each other every weekend wasn’t as much trouble as it sounds.

‘If anything, it brought us closer. Going from living in one room together for months, to living apart for two years, we knew we could handle pretty much any living situation, so long as we saw each other regularly.

‘Now I’ve moved out of my flat and we’re living together at his parents’ until we buy a place together later this year. It’s definitely nice to know we’ll finally be living under one room – that’s just for us, no house mates!’

When you have a tangible reason to move out – like a work commitment – bringing up that conversation is always going to be a bit easier.

But what about if you just don’t think living together is working right now? Or if you think you rushed into the move?

Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, says it’s important to remember that these feelings are common, particularly at the moment.

‘It’s understandable that many of us are feeling more vulnerable at the moment so we might have a greater desire for connection,’ she says.

‘The most important thing is to have a clear, open conversation about this from the get-go. Make sure that both of you are on the same page about lockdown being a very unique situation, and that you’re choosing to spend this time together right now, but that you’ll be checking in along the way to see whether this is a setup you want to continue with when the lockdown period ends.

‘Life – and relationships – aren’t always linear. There’s no right or wrong way to build a healthy relationship. The most important thing is that you communicate in a way that ensures both people feel safe in the relationship, regardless of what the living situation happens to be.’

As for the critics – who cares? Only you know what this step actually means for your relationship. If friends and family don’t approve or understand, well, this is your relationship, not theirs.

‘Moving out could say any number of things about the relationship, positive or negative,’ says Dr Elena.

‘Of course, there may be some people who fear making any permanent commitment due to their own fears around intimacy or perhaps the longevity of the relationship.

‘On the other hand, there may be others who make this decision simply because the timing isn’t right – perhaps they want to continue living with friends for another year or they want to give the relationship more time to develop before making that kind of commitment.’

How to bring up moving out with your partner

As with any awkward conversation in a relationship – it is best not to let things bubble under the surface. Airing your thoughts as soon as possible will almost always be your best bet.

‘The earlier you have that conversation, the better,’ says Dr Elena. ‘This will ensure both of you are on the same page.

‘I would start the conversation by emphasising how much you love and care for them. Make it clear that this decision doesn’t change anything about the way you feel for them and that you want to allow the relationship more time to develop before making that commitment.’

If you want to make this shift without breaking up or upsetting your partner, Neil says it’s really important to set the scene to have this talk in the best possible environment.

‘Create time and space, free of interruptions,’ suggests Neil. ‘Tell your partner that you want to talk about your relationship and how to make it even better. Their role is to listen, without interrupting.

‘Explain how you are feeling, reassuring them that you love them (if you do).

‘Say what you love and like about being together and what you are finding difficult (expressed from the perspective of “I feel” rather than blaming them).

‘Describe why you feel the relationship will be better if you live in different places.

‘Talk through your dreams for the future. Then get them to do the same.’

Neil says that for people who prefer practical or visual communication, you can use large sheets of paper and coloured pens. 

‘Separately, draw a picture that represents life as it is right now for you, and then a picture representing your ideal life in the future,’ he says.

‘Work out what you need to have happen to get you from now to the future.

‘Compare, contrast and discuss.’

How do you know if you should move out?

Neil suggests trying the following test to help you asses where you are in your relationship, and what you want in the future:

‘Rate your relationship out of 10 on each of the key elements:

  • Communication
  • Connection
  • Commitment
  • Fun
  • Growth
  • Trust

‘If your scores are low, you have three fundamental choices:

‘Reflecting on those three simple choices; what does your heart tell you, what does your head tell you and what does your gut tell you? 

‘If all of those are aligned on separating, then that is a clear answer. 

‘Now, imagine acting on that and ending the relationship. 

‘How does that feel and what do those feelings tell you?

‘If your partner agrees; that is good. If they want you to stay but you are very clear that you should go, then go. You will be doing neither of you any favours if you stay against your best judgement.’

Ultimately, you are the only one who knows what is right for you.

In any relationship decision, talking to your partner – early and often – will help to keep you on the same page.

There are so many pressures when it comes to relationships, and hitting key ‘markers’ of success, but there is no singular way to build a happy, lasting relationship, so don’t feel as though you have to follow anyone else’s path.

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