SHIFT: Is your partner's ex killing the romantic vibe?

Ex-partners sharing the same abode is becoming more common for parenting and financial reasons, but it complicates new relationships.

Lisa Machado 4 minute read September 20, 2021
woman spying on ex-boyfriend

It can be tough to be the new partner when the ex is still hanging around. GETTY

“So I say to him, ‘Your ex-wife doesn’t live in the basement, does she?’”

This from the woman who cuts my hair.

“It’s because of you, you know, that I need to ask these things,” she grimaced as she snipped a piece of frizzy grey hair. “You’d be surprised how many guys have their exes lurking close by.”

She was referring to the awkward living arrangement that my ex-husband and I agreed upon when we separated a couple of years ago. He lives in the basement while the kids and I live upstairs. It’s a bit strange, admittedly, particularly when a woman’s voice floats up through the vents, or the neighbours gleefully comment on the comings and goings — “Does he know she is the same height as him?” a man down the street likes to ask. Then again, I’m sure it’s not fun either, to hear heavy male footsteps settling at the kitchen table. But it works for the kids.

“It doesn’t work for me, though,” my stylist whined after telling me about an apparently wealthy and handsome bank exec she had met on a bar patio — “he was tall, dark AND rich” — who invited her back to his Toronto walk-up. Not one to follow the never-do-it-on-the-first-date rule, she happily accepted with visions of fine furniture, satin sheets and fancy moves dancing in her head. Turns out her date happily delivered on all accounts, but when she spied his ex’s curly brown hair bouncing past outside the living room window — along with a waving jewelled hand — things sort of fizzled.

“Nothing like a used-to-be-wife to kill a sexual buzz,” she said.

An old friend shared a similar story about his sister who, recently divorced, lives in a “tiny house” that sits in the backyard of her matrimonial home. The set up mostly works well — her kids, aged six and eleven, visit whenever they want, while she joins them and their dad for dinner in the big house a few times each week.

“The thing is, she is never alone,” he said, “Like really alone.” He went on to describe the discomfort she felt having to answer questions from her kids about the man who was sprinkling rose petals on her doorstep at 6 a.m., and the “jumpy” shadows, as her son put it, that he spotted in her front room from his bedroom window.

“What am I, 16?” she had tearfully asked my friend after a desperate effort to get some serious alone time with her lover resulted in a flustered conversation with a police officer who had tapped on her car’s foggy window to ask if she — with her rumpled grey hair and mid-section stretch marks — was a consenting adult.

There’s no question that getting moments alone as a new couple can be a challenge at the best of times. Between the demands of work and family, there never seems to be enough minutes for us to spend time alone as individuals, never mind explore blossoming relationships. Add in a global pandemic that has, for the most part, shut down any meaningful travel, made weekend getaways outrageously pricey and transformed romantic nights-out into anxiety-filled potential death wishes, and well, budding love is left a little wilted.

And if you’ve got a live-in ex and a bunch of kids, it can be hard to remember why you even bothered attempting a relationship with someone new in the first place.

According to Certified Divorce Financial Analyst Shawn Leamon, the decision to live together “boils down to finances and children” — moving is expensive. Plus, staying in the same home — or very close to it, like my friend’s sister in the tiny house — allows both people to co-parent, and saves the kids from schlepping back and forth between different abodes.

But if you are the “other,” like the woman who cuts my hair, it can be hard to get past all that’s warm and fuzzy about your love interest’s living arrangements. There may be a bit of jealousy, but, perhaps worse, is the realization that as long as the ex is one floor down, one floor up or even in the backyard, you are never truly alone — which is a little ironic after many of us have had months of feeling nothing but alone.

The flip side is that time together becomes more special. Intimacy is found in other places, like long walks and talks, meals made together and, as my hair stylist advises, connecting often throughout the day with technology, like texting and messaging — what she calls “late-night love.” (According to the experts, digital communication is an effective way of making deep intimate connections and building strong relationships.)

I suppose if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the ability to face change with an eye on what it’s going to take for us to be okay is so important for survival — not in a heart-still-beating sort of way, but in an I’m-going-to-make-this-work kind of way.

And if that leaves you negotiating with a police officer, half-naked in a parking lot, or sweeping dried flower petals of love off of your doorstep, or waving to curly-haired exes, I’d say you’re doing pretty well in these very crazy times.

This story originally appeared in the Healthing weekender. To subscribe, click here.