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https://www.bbc.com-By Katie Bishop
After splitting up, some couples make a clean break. But others are in unavoidable situations, forced to cohabit with their ex-partner – and this may get worse.
When Chantal Tucker broke up with her long-term partner, she immediately started to look for a new place to live. Tucker, 37, who co-owned a flat in London with her boyfriend of five years, hoped her now-ex would buy her out, and even got as far as putting down a deposit on a room in a shared house. But when the pandemic hit, the arrangement fell through.
“We both agreed that the easiest thing was for me to stay put until the situation with Covid became clearer,” she says.
For a few months, the pair were able to live apart, with her remaining in their jointly-owned flat, as Tucker’s ex decided to stay with his parents for the duration of lockdown in order to assist with his mum’s medical needs. But six months later and with lockdowns lifting, they made an unconventional decision for going forward.
“I knew that I would never be able to afford to buy property again, and the prospect of renting in London forever was increasingly unpleasant,” she says. “My ex and I talked quite a bit during this time, and eventually he decided to move back into our flat.”
Since then, Tucker and her ex-partner have remained living together. They sleep in separate bedrooms, and even recently got a couple of cats to complete the set-up. And although their decision is unconventional, they are far from alone. A recent survey from British real-estate company Zoopla, seen by BBC Worklife, shows that a third of the 500 respondents who purchased a home with a partner and then broke up continue to co-habit. One in eight even still share a bed. For some, like Tucker, the experience is amicable, but a startling 91% of cohabiting exes reported that they have not been able to remain diplomatic, and 22% described the situation as “excruciating”.
With the UK experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, high interest rates and a slowing property market, many couples are finding themselves trapped in housing situations they are unable to pay their way out of. Experts say that they are only expecting the problem to worsen, with separating homeowners now living together for an average of 1.3 years post-split, and paying several thousand pounds on average to exit their mortgage or lease.
A financially motivated decision
For Tucker, the decision to remain living with her ex has been largely financially motivated. She points out that she earns substantially less than her former partner, and says she was concerned that the cost of renting would be prohibitively expensive, compared to the mortgage payments she currently shares.
Mark Pattanshetti, an associate director at London-based mortgage broker largemortgageloans.com, says he has seen growing concerns about the financial impact of separation among clients who come to him for advice. “I am seeing an increased number of couples taking the decision to live together despite their differences, due to the increased cost of living apart, and the future uncertainty of their jobs and incomes with an impending recession,” he says. “These couples are finding it more beneficial to remain in their current homes and renew their mortgage.”
Zoopla’s research shows 47% of people who are still sharing a mortgage with an ex pinpoint the cost of moving out as their main reason for staying. As well as the fees associated with selling and buying a home or breaking a rental agreement, there’s also the difficulty of affording to live alone. Data shows single people carry a more significant financial burden and spend more per year on basic expenses than their coupled-up counterparts (in the US, this is particularly exacerbated by health-care costs). And the past 10 years have seen a significant rise in people turning to house-shares due to the unaffordability of renting by themselves.
While some people might have been able to take the financial hit of moving out pre-pandemic, the subsequent cost-of-living crisis and fall in real wages – with this year seeing the largest decline since records began – mean that people who might once have been able to afford to live alone are now stuck living with former partners. In particular, rapid rises in interest rates means that some people are choosing to wait out the current crisis in order to avoid being hit with higher mortgage costs. “Although Covid isn’t impacting our lives in the same way now, there are still lots of wild political and economic variables,” says Tucker.
The broader toll
As the worsening economic situation drives couples to stay under the same roof rather than settle for a lower standard of living, Pattanshetti says this can also lead to other strains and stresses. He reports that many of the clients he talks to have concerns about the toll that living with an ex-partner might take on their wellbeing.
“The biggest concern is how the joint incomes will be used between partners if they choose to lead separate lives under the same roof, especially if one person earns more than the other and controls the majority of household spending and mortgage contributions,” he says. “There’s also the emotional strain on one or both parties, particularly if one partner is effectively forced into this arrangement because they are unable to move out of the family home.”
Although we’ve tried to remain civil, it’s been a rollercoaster of experiences. Sometimes it’s amicable, but then sometimes we avoid each other and don’t speak for days – Ryan Harris
Sara Reis, deputy director and head of research and policy at the UK Women’s Budget Group, adds that the situation can force low-earning partners – often women – like Tucker into a vulnerable position. In the UK, research suggests that more than a third of women are financially dependent on their partner compared to just 11% of men. Similarly, Zoopla’s survey showed 46% of women said that they had no savings when they split up with their partner, making the thought of finding a deposit for a rental property or covering the costs of buying a new home impossible.
“Women generally have lower earnings and incomes, so when they break up with partners, they are less likely to be able to afford to rent their own home, never mind buying a place,” says Reis. She also points out that the situation worsened in recent years. “Women were also more likely to see their incomes reduced during the pandemic, and many were forced into debt.”
Although the rise in interest rates might have hit homeowners particularly hard, many renters are also finding themselves in a similar situation. Ryan Harris, 28, has remained living with his ex-partner in their rented London flat since they split up earlier this year. Unable to afford the money they need to break their three-year lease, the pair have been stuck together since they broke up in May.
“We needed to save £3,000 each to be released from the [rental] contract. We are saving up for this, but with the cost-of-living crisis biting we are still trying to find the money,” he says. “Although we’ve tried to remain civil, it’s been a rollercoaster of experiences. Sometimes it’s amicable, but then sometimes we avoid each other and don’t speak for days.”
Ryan and his ex-boyfriend initially shared the flat with another tenant, meaning that they even had to sleep in the same bed for the first two months. Their housemate eventually decided to leave, pointing to how poor the atmosphere had become since the breakup as their reason to go. And although this gave Ryan more space and his own bedroom, he says that he has struggled with recent developments, including his former partner bringing someone else home for the first time.
“I’m ready to move out as soon as I can, but I think realistically it will probably be a few months,” he says. “It has definitely made me think twice about moving in with a partner in future.”
Fears for the future
Tucker is one of the lucky ones when it comes to cohabiting exes. Her breakup was amicable, and she says she and her former partner remain supportive of each other, and consider themselves friends. But although she and her ex are currently happy with their living situation, she does have fears for the future.
“I think the main driver for change would be if one of us got into another long-term relationship,” she says. “My ex imagines moving in with someone eventually, which I think is totally natural.”
She says she worries about going back to renting, and that she and her ex have discussed what they would do if one of them wanted to sell up. “Perhaps I could stay in the flat and get a lodger to pay the rest of the mortgage,” she says.
And although Tucker has managed to reach a peaceable solution, the situation remains precarious for a large swath of homeowners and renters alike going through a split. The situation doesn’t look likely to improve anytime soon; some economists speculate that rising interest rates might lead to a housing market crash, with analysts predicting that house prices could fall by up to 15% next year. Couples who co-own property might be forced to stay put until their house price recovers, or risk being in negative equity if they choose to sell.
For tenants, rapidly rising interest rates are having the knock-on effect of increasing rent. As the gap between earnings and living costs becomes increasingly narrow for non-homeowners, and living alone becomes an increasingly untenable option, many may choose to stay with an ex in a pre-existing agreement rather than battle a rocketing rental market to find a new place.
“The future looks very uncertain in financial terms,” says Reis. “It looks unlikely that mortgage rates with go back down to pre-mini-budget levels, which means higher sustained housing costs for homeowners. It will also make it harder for buyers, particularly women, to get a new mortgage.”
Although these fears remain on the horizon, for now Tucker says she’s happy to continue communicating with her ex, and to keep talking and adjusting as life changes. “Apart from having to explain our situation to incredulous friends, it’s been pretty great discovering a new kind of partnership not predicated on a romantic commitment,” she says. “It’s helped us learn to look after each other as friends, but also to be a bit more emotionally independent.”