If you're financially comfortable (but romantically bankrupt) is a breakup worth it?
My older sister Catherine warned me.
She had picked me up from the airport a week before Christmas in 2006. As the dusk gave way to dark and the Texas horizon rolled out before us, we rode in silence—until I confessed. I had come dangerously close to cheating on Nathan (some names have been changed), my boyfriend of four years, with a friend of mine. Everything was confusing save for one devastating confirmation: I wanted to break up with Nathan. Catherine heard me out, her face stony and unyielding like a sphinx, as I presented my side. Finally, she sighed. "All I have to say," she said, her eyes fixed on the highway, "is that if you're going to break up with him, you better have your exit plan in place. That means money."
As far as financially sound strategies for urban living goes, it doesn't get much smarter than falling in love. Make the commitment, move in together, save hundreds of dollars in rent (and therapy, if you're living in New York). All of this only works, of course, if you stay together. Some 11 million Americans who live with a partner outside of marriage are keen to this option and the advantages that come with it. But what happens when the love withers? True love may be priceless, but breakups have their cost as well.
Nathan and I met in Boston and were friends for a year before we started dating. Midway through the inaugural "we" phase, I got an employment offer to move to New York at the same time he got laid off. Starting a new life together in the big city made sense. We had both always wanted to move there separately, but the prohibitive costs of doing so made it nearly impossible on our own (we both worked in publishing at the time, earning modest salaries). By year three of living with Nathan, we arrived at the ultimate renter's score: a one-bedroom apartment in a hot neighborhood in Brooklyn, with all utilities included and its own dedicated washer and dryer. I had just turned 30, and for the first time in my life, I had $4,000 stashed away in a personal savings account. To everyone who knew us, we were a happy, healthy couple. The problem was we had stopped having sex. I had told myself that was a small trade-off for financial and emotional security. Nathan was a generous, kind, and trustworthy companion. Leaving him and the life we had built together seemed impractical, irresponsible, even selfish. Turns out, I'm not alone.
A comfort-rich lifestyle at the expense of a sex-poor relationship is something that has kept Susan from leaving her husband of seven years. The 34-year-old writer and editor who lives in Boston says the alternative is bleak since her husband generates the majority of their household income. "For me, that would mean living in a hovel with roommates," she says. "Who wants to do that? I already went to college." She describes her situation as "living with her best friend," the future of which she knows has an endpoint. "The truth is, I'm happy in the day-to-day, but we're probably not going to end up together."
For Julia, a 27-year-old photo editor in New York, a growing sexual attraction to her close friend Michael threatened her relationship with Jordan, her boyfriend of six years, with whom she has been sharing anapartment. As she grappled with her decision to choose between sex and comfort, one thing was clear: Financially, breaking up wasn't an option. "I really couldn't afford to live alone even if I wanted to," she says. In the end, staying with Jordan was the obvious choice. "We have the best time together," she says. "He's artistic, smart, funny. And he's also stable. He has seen me at my worst, when I'm moody and crying. I just don't know if Michael would be able to handle that."
Although Julia insists that her decision to stay with Jordan was made independent of the money issue, one can't help but wonder if she would have stayed had she the means to leave. Put simply, financing for a breakup is crucial to recovering from it. That's why my sister Catherine, a 34-year-old human resources consultant who lives in Texas had no qualms about accepting $5,000 from her boyfriend Sam, when he ended their relationship eight years ago. "We were practically married," she says, of their four years together. "As far as Texas is concerned, I was like his common-law wife, entitled to his assets. A lot of [his giving her the money] had to do with the fact that he was a great guy and that he wanted to take care of me, but there was also the fear that I could go after him in that way."
Scoring seed money for a breakup was not likely in my case. Even so, there was no urgent reason to justify leaving. My doing so would require a significant breach of confidence—a situation that would make it difficult to stay. So I cheated on Nathan. And then promptly broke up with him.
Of course it was painful, as most breakups tend to be. But that was nothing compared to the next six months, in which we continued to live together until we were both able to secure our own apartments.