let's stay together

Breaking Up Only Made Us Closer

Once we had nothing left to lose, we were finally honest.

Illustration: Courtesy: Chioma Ebinama
Illustration: Courtesy: Chioma Ebinama
Illustration: Courtesy: Chioma Ebinama

The last thing I see every night and the first thing I see every morning is the face of the woman who broke my heart. I’m sure she could say the same thing about me. Because neither of us can afford to move out, I currently share a one-bedroom apartment with my ex-girlfriend.

We spent eight years together having fun and seeing where it goes. “We’ll see” was our relationship’s mantra. Should we order Chinese food tonight? We’ll see. Do you want kids? We’ll see. Should we break up? We’ll see.

Finally, on a trip with friends over Halloween weekend — as a stand-up comedian I pride myself on my impeccable timing — we were having an argument over the open nature of our relationship and I goaded her, “Do you want to break up or something?”

Yes. She did.

The answer to the question “do you want to break up or something?” has never and will never be anything but “yes.” If you have to ask, you should just pack up your things and leave.

I did. For a few nights. I slept on friends’ couches and imagined moving cross-country and burning every bridge in my life. Then I returned, unpacked, and stayed. It’s hard to be dramatic when neither of you has any money saved to move or can afford the one-bedroom apartment you’re locked into for another eight months on your own.

The first weeks we shifted in and out of relationship mode. Some days felt like we were still together and nothing had changed, while other days we could hardly make eye contact. Nights that ended with cuddling on the couch were interspersed between nights that ended with tears. After a month or so, the sharp pain dulled and was replaced with an ache I could only feel if I was really looking for it. As long as I didn’t touch it, things were fine.

Which brings me back to our sleeping arrangement. If there is a way to sleep in the same bed with your ex every night, have a friendly relationship, and not continue to hook up with them, I am unaware of it. It’s a triangle and you can only have two corners. Want a friendly relationship where you’re not hooking up? Don’t share a bed. Want to share a bed but not hook up? Things aren’t going to be friendly.

We are still friendly and still sharing a bed, which is a long, clumsy way of saying that we are still hooking up. She has a nightmare and I hold her. I leave my shoes in the living room and they magically find their way to my closet. In some ways nothing has changed. In others, it’s all very different.

Do you remember senior year of high school when the cheerleaders and the theater kids and the mathletes put their differences aside because childhood was over and nothing mattered anymore? That’s what it feels like. We have complete freedom to be ourselves and express our needs and talk about what was good, what went wrong, and what we should’ve done differently.

Sometimes our late night pillow talk feels like a relationship after-show. We’ll cuddle together and say brutally honest things we would’ve never said a year ago. Things that we should’ve said a year ago.

“I never felt like your equal.”

“I don’t want a partner who has to force herself to enjoy my interests.”

“You should’ve discussed it with me before you decided to go off your medication.”

Supernatural is a bad TV show.”

Saying any of these things earlier may have saved us. Or prompted us to end it earlier. Either way, we would have been forced out of autopilot.

In this new not-relationship, some of our roles have reversed. These days, I wake up earlier than she does. She’d always been the one to nudge me out of bed around ten, but now I have a job with hours that have duped me into becoming a morning person. Early in the breakup, she told me it had felt like her job to protect me for all these years, and that she couldn’t stand being the one to hurt me. (She also told me she had wanted to break up with me months before, but I was struggling with unemployment and undiagnosed OCD, and she wanted to wait until I was in a better place to handle it). Now it’s become my job to play the caretaker.

She tells me about her day while we’re drifting to sleep and I listen more intently than I did before. Instead of thinking about my own day, I focus on her words. I’ve never been a great listener. Because of my OCD, my head is always 20 places at once. Thinking about what could go wrong and what trivial actions I could take to stop it. But thanks to a combination of Zoloft and having nothing to lose, I’m able to focus completely and entirely on her words in a way that I wasn’t capable of when we were together.

Our relationship in its current form is confusing to many people — our friends, our family, ourselves. Depending on if the glass is half-full or half-empty that day, I refer to her as my kind-of-girlfriend or my kind-of-ex-girlfriend. When I explain our situation (living together, friendly, absolutely still hooking up), people will often roll their eyes and say, “Oh, so you’re still together.” But our breakup has changed our relationship in ways that seem imperceptible on paper, yet drastic to us.

Our arguments are shorter, our discussions are more honest, and our grievances are expressed without sugarcoating. What’s the worst that could happen? We break up? I’m no longer afraid of what my life would be like without her because our breakup, ironically enough, has assured me that she is here to stay. Maybe never as a spouse, but absolutely as a friend and member of my chosen family.

We’re no longer playing the roles we wrote for ourselves when we started dating. Roles that fit for the time but grew stale. I’m grateful for our breakup in the same way that a veteran TV actor is grateful their show was not picked up for another season: It was time for something new. I am, however, open to a reboot if the circumstances are right.

The weekend arrives and she flies to the West Coast to be with a man she loves but is not dating. I invite over a woman who I am dating but do not love. We sleep together in the bed that I share with my ex.

When my ex’s flight gets in, we embrace and she tells me she missed me. I tell her I missed her, too. We have breakfast and discuss if we want to move into a two-bedroom and continue living together after our lease is up in the summer.

I say, “We’ll see.”

Breaking Up Only Made Us Closer