“Choosing” to Live With Your Ex

CW: Assault


Written by Elizabeth Hall.

Art by Rachel Feinstein.

A good apartment is hard to find. This is one thing I learn the morning after I end my 10 year relationship. In bed I scroll through apartment ads on my phone while my ex sleeps next to me. By the time they wake, I’m no longer searching for studios on the city’s edge. I’m typing, “Is it toxic to live with an ex?” I’m waiting for the screen to light up with facts. 

The facts quickly disabuse me of my fantasies of a swift exit. One bedroom apartments in L.A. rent for an average of $2,545/month. According to Curbed, Angelenos must earn $74,371/year to live comfortably in the city while the average annual pay for a full time employee is $46,425. Unsurprisingly, two thirds of L.A. renters struggle to afford their housing. This phenomenon extends beyond California. Harvard researchers found that nearly half of U.S. tenants are cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their income on rent. 

Unsurprisingly, two thirds of L.A. renters struggle to afford their housing.

Later that evening I sit down at the kitchen table with my ex. We choose to platonically cohabitate. We mouth the words “open communication” and “clear boundaries.” We write the house rules on a yellow pad. The most important one says no overnight guests, romantic or otherwise, without discussion. This rule is essential because our apartment is a shotgun. To reach my room, I must walk through their room, and to get to the bathroom, they must walk through my room. On my door, a broadside reads “EAT ASS BE FREE.” Like all the spots my ex and I’ve rented in the city, this apartment is small enough to hear each other’s conversations through the walls. Night after night I listen to my roommate unlock the front door, take off their shoes, rip the plastic off a frozen pizza, and open the oven door. I smell the sweet diesel of fresh weed being ground. Their smoke fills the hall, mixing with my own. I breathe it all in. 

Months pass. We extend the lease. We both start seeing other people. When dates inquire about my living situation, I say, “Very European.” In the fall, I draft an essay titled How to Live with Your Ex and Thrive. I believe I know my roommate, but I don’t know anything. 

One week I find a red barrette I don’t recognize sitting on the bathroom counter.

There are signs the house rules are shifting. One week I find a red barrette I don’t recognize sitting on the bathroom counter. In the mornings I sometimes hear the front door open and close right as my alarm sounds. When my editor asks to see How to Live with Your Ex, I say, “I need more time to find the through-line.

While I sense my relationship with my roommate is changing, I don’t want to admit it. Even as I increasingly struggle to ignore the signs. In the middle of the night, my bedroom door cracks open and yellow light pours inside. I pretend I’m asleep. I hear the bathroom door open and close then open again. I hear bare feet against the carpet. I sneak a peek: the feet exiting my room do not belong to my roommate. I do not fall back asleep. 

The following evening I ask my roommate if they’re bringing lovers over. They say, “Nope.” The evidence says otherwise. I don’t argue. I remember that I, too, used to alter my reality to avoid uncomfortable truths. Back then I thought my one true skill was the ability to reimagine my way out of any unsavory situation. Lately, however, I’m finding it hard to convince myself this is a skill.

My roommate’s skills stay sharp: he never admits he’s bringing people home. Even though I ask.

My roommate’s skills stay sharp: he never admits he’s bringing people home. Even though I ask. My sleuthing is specific: I need to know who may and may not be walking through my room while I’m asleep. This need is new. On a recent group camping trip, I awoke in the middle of the night to find one of my friends in my tent, his hand in my pants. My roommate does not deny the assault happened, they just don’t see how it has anything to do with them.

“What to do when a roommate lies,” I type into my phone one foggy morning after yet another sleepless night. One piece tells me, “It’s often easiest to work on building a better relationship with your roommate than starting from scratch.” I pause at the word easiest. What if I no longer want what’s easiest? And what if the supposedly easy choice to continue living with my ex is not actually a choice?

I start questioning why it’s so important for me to believe my living situation is a choice in the first place.

In American culture, choice is synonymous with agency. Several government policies, from school vouchers to healthcare, bolster the idea that choice increases personal freedom. Yet research shows the valorization of choice is largely a middle class perspective. Working class individuals often have more negative associations with choice, informed by the lack of options in their lives. Nonetheless, with much of society glamorizing choice as power, it’s tempting to believe that we fully control our fate. To dispel such delusions, I start thumbing through books on housing policy. I learn about my local tenants union. I start questioning why it’s so important for me to believe my living situation is a choice in the first place. To continue doing so requires me to engage in magical thinking, convince myself that I’m the sole source of all actions in my life and that the larger context I live within is irrelevant. I let go this fantasy. Instead I see living with an ex as an inherently experimental endeavor. 

As with all experiments, the searcher must set out without knowing the results and with full awareness that unforeseen variables may radically alter the outcome. My experiment with platonic cohabitation failed, but like utopian writer Aldous Huxley, I believe failed experiments are valuable as failures. Our collective failures add to our knowledge of the most important of all art forms – the art of living together.

About The Author

Elizabeth Hall was born in Louisiana and raised in Georgia. She is the author of the chapbook, TWO ESSAYS, and the book, I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist in nonfiction. She is currently finishing her second book, Season of the Rat, about rent, rape, and rats in LA.

Follow on IG: @wilderthanher

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