I spent New Year’s Eve 2017 on the road in an ice storm with my then-boyfriend, a tall, lanky man who was seven years my senior. A few days later, we’d made it all the way from New York to our new shared apartment in New Orleans. Two newly-renovated, squeaky clean bedrooms in the traditional New Orleans shotgun style: no hallways, so one must walk through each room to get to the next. It was the nicest apartment I’d ever lived in. It was also the worst possible place to spend six months living with my ex-boyfriend.
The breakup happened about eight months after we moved to the city. It was quick and cordial. The man’s love language was “acts of service”; words were never his thing. That was, among many reasons, why we didn’t last. I ended it one evening on the balcony of a wine bar. He agreed that it was for the best, and that was that. But we’d just recently signed a new lease on our apartment, and there were six months left of it.
After a few days, I started sleeping on a tiny futon in our spare bedroom. You had to walk through the bedroom to get to any other room in the house — which my ex did whenever he felt like it. Meanwhile, he kept our old room, the only private room in the house. The arrangement felt like sleeping on an ex’s living room couch.
Time is subjective, you know. If you’re planning a wedding, six months is no time at all. If your spouse is away at war, it’s a lifetime. And if you’re living with your ex on a futon with no privacy, six months simply dissolves into your hands; it’s as if it never happened, even as you’re living it. You can’t fully be aware of the details, because if you were, it’d be unbearable. It wasn’t until much later that I did the math on my fingers and realized just how long I’d lived this absurd life.
Over the course of those many weeks that never happened, my anxiety symptoms flared. My skin broke out into flaming red pimples. I ground my teeth nonstop. Vivid nightmares stole my sleep. I was constantly on edge.
But if you’d asked me, at the time, what it was like to live with my ex — as many people did, with pity plastered all over their faces — I’d have told you that it was “surprisingly fine.” I was sure it was fine. I was so sure that when I finally connected the dots between my nightmares, my terrible skin, and my living situation, the six months were nearly up already.
In one sense, living together was, in fact, easy. There were no residual feelings between us, no post-breakup drama to manage. We were both seeing other people, but it was more awkward than painful. And in another sense, I made it easy. I stayed out of his way, sleeping elsewhere whenever possible; I never fought with him, even when he left dishes in the sink for weeks. I let him keep the private bedroom. I let him walk through my room whenever he needed to. I made it work.
Why? Why not move out, or press him to move? Why not insist on taking the private room, or on taking turns?
When my friends and family asked me these questions, I gave excuses: “Because our lease isn’t up, and both of our names are on it.” “Because neither one of us can afford the place alone, and I’d rather live with him than some random roommate.” “Because it’s fine, really.”
The real reason, though, wasn’t any of those. I did think about leaving; every time another month flew by, I considered broaching the subject with him.
But I never did, because I had terrible boundaries. They were as nonexistent as the hallways in our home.
Hilariously enough, my ex was in a similar living situation when we met in New York. He was living with his ex at the time, in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. I thought it was ludicrous. I said I could never. I judged both of them, hard. (And yes, I went on to date him anyway.)
He turned out to be a kind, caring partner. When I had a quarter-life crisis and quit my job in New York, he shouldered our living costs without complaint. And when I said I couldn’t stand New York any longer and that I was moving to New Orleans, he rented a car and drove through an ice storm with me to get here.
He did all of this without me asking it of him. And so, I thought I owed him something else he’d never asked for: my own comfort and happiness. Six months of it, to be exact.
I felt guilty that he’d come all the way here for me, only for me to break up with him less than a year later. I felt guilty about everything nice he’d ever done for me, which was a lot of things. Waiting for our lease to end meant making things easier for him, and so I felt it was the least I could do. In a classic no-boundaries-having mistake, my brain was convinced that his comfort was my responsibility, while my comfort was… well, nobody’s.
For half a year, I made it work. I made it work by shoving my feelings so deep down that they ceased to exist. By that point in my life, I was a pro at it.
My body was on high alert, but my mind had no idea just how badly I felt about my living situation. How could I possibly have asserted my boundaries, when I had no idea what they even were?
Some of us learn about boundaries when we are children. We learn about them when our caregivers ask about our feelings, desires, and limits; when they ask for our permission, and respect when we say "no." By the time we’re adults, we know exactly what we are and aren’t okay with. We know how to make it clear.
But some of us don’t learn any of this. We’re not used to asking ourselves what we feel or need because nobody ever asked it of us, and “what cannot be communicated to the [m]other cannot be communicated to the self,” as psychologist John Bowlby wrote in a paper on attachment theory. Often, we learn another lesson instead: our boundaries don’t count — only other people’s do. Our parents treated us however they wanted to, then blamed us for their feelings and behavior.
In my family, the only person whose feelings mattered was my father. He was the violent, terrifying ruler of our home. From him, I learned how to make myself small, how to placate, and how to stay vigilant for someone else’s anger. With my entire family focused on surviving his abuse, my own feelings couldn’t possibly have been less important. The older I got, the number I felt. This adaptation is common for children who live with inescapable sources of fear, like abusive caregivers. Neither fight nor flight were options, and if I were to feel my real feelings, my life would have been intolerable. So I froze instead, and stayed frozen. Just like I did when I lived with my ex.
If we’re lucky, people like me will course-correct when we’re older, with the help of a therapist. But even after that, we forget. We make mistakes.
It was 2014 when my therapist made me write down the name of a little book called Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No. I read it, highlighted it, and had many epiphanies. But things didn’t click into place until years later, when I was staring down my ex’s dishes in the sink, wondering why I felt like I owed him something. Healing is not linear.
Like feelings, boundaries become functionally nonexistent if you ignore them for too long. More and more, my sweet, generous ex turned into a rude, inconsiderate roommate. He took advantage of our living situation and seemingly forgot that I lived there at all. Things eventually got so bad that, for the last month of our lease, I moved into a friend’s house and charged him on Venmo for my half of our shared apartment’s rent.
Later, I moved in with roommates. Determined to have a space that felt like my own again, I spent three days re-painting my room, carefully picked out new furniture, and hoarded as many plants as I could. Soon, I’ll move into my own apartment for the first time since I started dating my ex. I cannot wait.
I’ll never get those six months of my life back. But I did learn some things – not for the first time, and probably not for the last.
I learned that you can’t figure out what you need until you figure out how you feel. I’ll never forget how shocked I was when I had this epiphany: “I’m really unhappy here. This is a stressful situation.” It’s such a simple thing, and yet I hadn’t had a clue.
I also learned that your boundaries are your responsibility. Part of me was waiting for my ex to have a lightbulb moment and set some boundaries for me, without me having to say or do anything. It was never going to happen. Kindness is a fair expectation, of course, but it was never his job to determine my needs or limits.
Lastly, I learned that nobody can know what you need unless you tell them. Who knows how things would have turned out if I’d sat my ex down and said, “This living situation isn’t healthy for me. Unless we can make space in this apartment for my privacy, I’m moving out by the end of the month.” Just typing those words made me feel better!
It took six months for me to tune into my boundaries enough to leave my ex and our lovely shotgun apartment behind. Next time, I hope to be quicker on the draw.