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I met Noel when I was 19. He was my first "real" boyfriend.
Before him, the sum of my romantic encounters consisted of a six-month online romance, with a Texan named Domonic, and a summer fling, with a guy named Chris who lived with his parents and was repeatedly busted for using their greenhouse to grow bad weed.
Both of them were majestic in their arsehole-ishness: Domonic fleeced me out of several hundred pounds and, on what I made sure was our last night together, Chris punched me in the stomach. My introduction to the world of girlfriending had thus far been pretty horrendous.
Noel was about as different from those guys as anyone could possibly get. He was a down-to-earth working class bloke from a tough northern town, but he was also an artist, a geek for all things classic sci-fi, and a keen traveler. Our dates consisted of trips to vintage stores to buy him silly ties for work, of breakfasts scoffed in greasy spoon cafes at 4pm, and of endless bookstore trawls.
I’d just moved out of University halls and ended up stuck with a hastily found pinboard-ad flatmate who policed everything I did: what I wore, how late I stayed out, even what I ate. Noel was living with a hard-drinking drummer. We were both sick to death of our domestic arrangements, and we were still in that first-six-months, madly-in-love stage. It seemed obvious: we should be each other’s flatmates.
All we could afford was a five-storey walk-up, 132 sq ft studio flat. Everything was in one room, except the cupboard-like bathroom: We had a futon bed/sofa, a tiny kitchenette, and a bunch of books. We were told repeatedly that this was a disaster waiting to happen.
However, Noel and I lived in the tiny flat for over two years, and looking back, I remember happy times. The space was extremely cheap to heat. The roof was flat, so we could climb up and sunbathe. We even got a house rabbit. Out of our tiny flat, we hosted parties and even started a literary magazine. There was literally nowhere for either of us to go: there were no doors to slam or lock ourselves behind. We basically had no choice but to get along.
When the relationship hit its third year, we both got jobs at a community college on the other side of town. Our commute from the tiny flat was over an hour, so we needed to move closer. Again, we couldn’t afford much, but found an attic conversion with a separate bedroom and even a tiny boxroom. The kitchen was still only large enough for one person to stand in at a time, but we loved the place, and for the first year’s lease, everything was fine.
I graduated from my undergrad and went straight into a Masters on scholarship; Noel got a permanent contract at work and began to be promoted. We signed a second year’s lease and my parents dropped hints about wedding bells.
Noel and I were only 23, but by now we’d been together four years, and it was all looking pretty permanent.
Then things started to go awry. Noel set up the boxroom as his “boy room” –- he moved his computer in there and played Call of Duty most nights until the early hours. I barely noticed: I was engulfed in my Masters degree and fell into a spiral of stress.
He started hanging out with a bunch of dudes from work who encouraged him to stay out late and drink. I stopped hanging out with anyone. We never really fought. We just drifted slowly further and further apart until eventually, we were no longer in a relationship. We were just two people who happened to share the same house.
After a little protestation, Noel agreed that our relationship had quietly morphed from romantic to platonic. We still had four months left on a lease neither of us wanted to break. Since we’d turned into “just flatmates” anyway, we decided to just carry on as normal, though this wasn’t easy in the tiny attic. We bought a folding bed and squeezed it into the “boy room,” but all Noel’s clothes were still in the wardrobe in what had been our room. I did his laundry along with mine, out of habit. We still went out to dinner and movies together. We lived in this weird limbo for weeks, and the end of the lease crept ever closer.
Eventually, we had to face it: What were we going to do next? Neither of us fancied the idea of taking a chance on living with total strangers again. My sister was moving to town, but she and I couldn’t afford a place on our own. Eventually, one of us floated the idea of she, Noel and I sharing a flat together, and we couldn’t think of any real reason why it wouldn’t work.
We signed our new lease just days before the five-year anniversary of my first date with Noel.
There were three of us, and we moved further out of town, so for the first time we could afford a flat that could definitely be called “big.” We each had our own room, the bathroom had a full-size bath in it, and we could all stand in our kitchen at once (just). For the first time since we met, Noel and I had complete privacy.
This was actually what killed our cohabitation. Now that he had his own room with all his stuff in it, Noel became a recluse. He reverted to bachelor mode, games controller in hand, rarely doing laundry and eating instant noodles most nights. I had to force myself to disconnect the girlfriend part of my brain and let him do his thing, which was hard.
The stress over my Masters got so bad that, just before graduation, I was diagnosed with depression. I spent several long months practicing the self-care exercises I’d been given by my doctor, which involved a lot of me being alone in my room, too. We became even less than flatmates: we were just people who happened to pay one third of the same bills.
By the time the year’s lease on the big flat came up, Noel and I had spent so little time together that we were more than happy to go our separate ways.
Fast-forward two and a half years, and we’re totally fine again. I’m living with a wonderful new bloke, and Noel is also in a new relationship. We still work together at the same place and regularly spend lunch breaks together. We still go to dinner and the movies together; we made our Halloween costumes together this year. Noel still visits my parents occasionally and hangs out with my sister.
He’s part of my new bloke’s board-gaming group, and quite often joins the two of us on nights out. I’ve had acquaintances express confusion, and some have even expressed disgust. One person asked me if I had “some kind of Tilda Swinton type arrangement,” in a shocked whisper, as if polyamory were the most terrible thing ever.
I don’t -– Noel and I really are Just Good Friends these days. I joke that I’ve promoted him from “boyfriend” to “best friend.” But I have been pretty shocked by people’s responses to our slowly changing status.
It seems a lot of folk were convinced that, because we kept living together, we must also have kept sleeping together, or had some kind of on-off thing. Many people have said to me they’d expected us to get married, and seem almost affronted that we didn’t. And I’ve endured literally hundreds of comments on how “weird” and “wrong” it is for me to still be really good friends with my ex.
People ask, “Isn’t that super awkward?” or, “How does your new boyfriend feel about it?” The answer is no, it really is all fine. I’m glad that Noel and I spent that additional year living together -– it was tricky, but it allowed us to fully transition out of our state of coupledom and join the rest of the world again.
The fact that we were able to do that together, under one roof, was really helpful. We were able to take a whole year to divide our record collection, for example. We were each able to check in on how the other was doing. Movies, TV and the popular media so often depict breakups as painfully acrimonious, but I’d like to suggest that actually, seeing things through to their natural conclusion can also work.
Relationships are like big, ugly houseplants: You might get to a point where you can’t bear to have yours in the house any more. However, if you can bear to keep tending it even when it withers, you might see it grow into something awesome.