It's an unconventional setup, but it works for us.

By Cori Howard
Updated October 24, 2017
Woman and Man Reading on Couch
Credit: Morsa Images/Getty Images

It was the best of all possible choices. After 20 years together and two kids, my partner and I had made the excruciating decision to end our relationship. There was no drama, no infidelity, no fireworks. We simply couldn’t live together anymore and pretend to be one big, happy family. We hadn’t been “happy” in a decade.

Ours was a common-law marriage that began as a passionate romance, an unlikely attraction between cultures and classes. He was an immigrant from Burma trying to build a new life in Canada. I was a white Jewish woman, 15 years younger, besotted with this gentle, Buddhist man. But once we had kids, things started to fall apart. After years of neglect, unrealistic expectations, and clashing parenting ideals, our relationship became platonic, domestic, and cold.

We stuck it out for the sake of our teenaged children as long as we could. My partner probably would have stuck it out longer. Not because he wanted it to work, but simply because it was easier. And he doesn’t mind pretending. I, however, am a truth-teller, and the longer the lie of us went on, the harder it became to maintain the façade.

As we contemplated our separation, we considered what our lives would be like if he moved to a condo on the other side of town—the only option financially feasible in a city as expensive as ours. I couldn’t face the extra shuttling—on top of all the time we already spent in the car driving our kids around—the time lost, the heartache, the hassle. He knew that scenario would leave him broke and lonely. I knew it would leave our family broken and disconnected, even more so than we had already become.

Moving to the basement was my idea—an olive branch—a possibly permanent solution to a bad situation. We had a tenant in the basement suite. For many years, it was the only way we could afford our house. But now, faced with the possibility of maintaining two households, it was cheaper to give her notice and suffer the loss of that monthly income for the benefit of keeping us together under one roof. I knew it would be better emotionally for our kids and for me. As for my partner, I couldn’t assess what would be better for him because he’d long since shut himself off and stopped communicating.

It was not without great hesitation and trepidation that I made the offer. I knew it would be weird on many levels, particularly for my kids when their friends came over. But the benefits seemed to outweigh the challenges. My ex-partner could see the kids every day, instead of a few times a week. They wouldn’t have to move between houses, and I could live with them full-time and see them every day. My routine with them would basically remain unchanged, with the exception that now I had a room of my own, an extra closet, and a friend in the basement who would help with cooking and driving. Well, that was the idea.

Friends and family were skeptical. They thought it would be messy, hard, and complicated. It was, and it is, all those things. But we had never married, never played by the rules. It wasn’t really surprising that we decided to handle separation differently than most. But now, I wonder how unusual our arrangement really is. I have friends with secret apartments, friends who live in the same house but different bedrooms, friends whose kids stay at the house and the parents rotate. Once you start talking openly about marriage, you hear all sorts of crazy things.

Before the big day, we agreed to some basic ground rules: No boyfriends or girlfriends in the house, an open door between the basement and the main floor, and an understanding (mostly mine) that we’d have to work hard to be kind and generous to each other.

The initial transition was really hard. He didn’t take any initiative to fix the place up. Knowing it needed some renovations to make it livable and to encourage my kids to spend time down there, I organized and paid for new carpet, new paint, and new light fixtures. I invited him upstairs to have dinner with us whenever he wanted, but after the first week, he stopped coming. He stopped helping buy groceries too. He started cooking meals only for himself. I let him have that life and took on the burden of extra shopping and cooking without complaint. Small price to pay, right?

I worried it was a slippery slope. It wasn’t. Eventually, he started texting from work asking if he could pick up food or kids on his way home. He often asks if I need meals and will cook a big pot of something delicious and bring it upstairs. When I cook, I always offer him some. If I need help with anything, I know I can ask him.

But being a romantic sentimentalist makes living every day with the stark reminder of our failed love painful. I often find myself irritated when I hear his footsteps coming up the stairs, for the eighth time, just to check on the kids. I’m constantly shocked at his cavalier attitude when he walks in when my parents or friends visit, completely oblivious to the judgment or discomfort of other people. On the rare occasion when both our kids are gone and we are both home, the house feels heavy. I have to work hard to shed the sadness of our peculiar separation arrangement so I can enjoy my time alone.

I also have to work hard to be kind. Over our two decades together, my default behavior eventually became pretty nasty. I was often impatient, intolerant, and rude. Around him, I had become my worst self. So I took our new living arrangement as a personal challenge to become a better person.

Ultimately, we became the roommates we had been for so long, but without the pressure of having to share a bed and with the beautiful freedom of having personal space. I don’t know how long we will live separated in the same house. But for now, it’s a place of solitude. It’s so much better than the angry miserable house of tension it was before.