With lockdown measures forcing most of us to stay at home, our living situation has never been more important. For those of us in houseshares the daily gripes of sharing space – fighting for fridge space and enforcing cleaning rotas – have become more acute than ever as we navigate an increasingly intense way of living with others.
For many, house-sharing is associated with our student years. Those of us who have moved in with a partner – or better yet, been able to afford a place of our own – might have breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of not having to scrub a stranger’s dirty dishes ever again. Yet with the cost of housing continuing to rise, moving back into a houseshare after having lived with a significant other is becoming increasingly common. For some, lockdown comes in the midst of grieving a relationship and adapting to a wholly new housing set up.
‘Following the breakdown of my marriage I moved into a flat for two and shared with another woman,’ says Jennifer, a social media consultant who divorced her former partner in her mid-thirties. ‘It’s not easy having a future planned and then going back to being single again and living with strangers. People come and go and you may never have any alone time apart from the time you spend in your room – despite living with others you can feel quite lonely.’
When entering into a marriage, most of us think we’ll never have to scour Spareroom again. Yet Jennifer’s situation is far from unique. Research shows that housing is unaffordable for women in every English region, with the average single woman needing twelve times their annual salary to be able to buy a home (compared to eight times for men). Intrinsic inequalities mean that women in previously secure housing situations may find themselves seeking cheaper alternative accommodation after a break-up, often turning to house-shares to soften the financial blow.
If I was still with my ex during lockdown we would have struggled, and cracks that were already there in the relationship would have become an issue more quickly
‘If you’re a woman on an average salary you’re very likely to only be able to afford a room in a houseshare,’ explains Sara Reis of the Women’s Budget Group. ‘The housing crisis is affecting us all but it hits women particularly hard because of their lower salaries, a consequence of the gender pay gap, and the social norms that still determine that women are the ones primarily responsible for caring for others… These two facts combined mean women on average earn less than men, so when it comes to renting, women struggle to afford a home of their own.’
Living with strangers is a challenge for anyone, but for women in the midst of a divorce moving into a houseshare can feel particularly isolating. The Holmes and Rahe stress scale, a widely-used tool to assess how life events impact our health, ranks divorce as the second most stressful change that we can experience. Going through the emotional, financial, and mental strains and stresses of a break-up is difficult enough, but experiencing this in the midst of strangers can exacerbate any issues that newly single women may struggle with. Add a global pandemic into the mix, and the sense of isolation can feel particularly intense.
‘I moved into a houseshare after divorcing from my husband three years ago,’ says Amy*, 36. ‘Since then I’ve really missed having my own space, and feeling able to fully relax in my home, which can sometimes feel difficult when living with others. I’d planned to move closer to my parents this year, who live in an area where I could have afforded to live alone, but Covid-19 has put everything on hold. Putting up with housemates being constantly around feels particularly galling now when I think that I could have been moving into my own place by now.’
However, in spite of the economic issues that force women to rely on houseshares, the decision to move into communal accommodation isn’t always negative. For Maya, who ended a long-term relationship in her twenties, moving from the home that she shared with her partner and into a flat with two other women ended up being an enjoyable experience. She and her housemates have been helping each other through the ups and downs of lockdown, and she feels that the experience is generally more positive than it might have been if she was still with her ex.
‘Living in a houseshare during lockdown has been my saviour,’ she says. “It means that I still have that social aspect and face-to-face communication that many people are missing right now. Usually my housemates and I have active social lives and don’t see each other lots during the week, but we’ve been making an extra effort to do things like cooking and doing home workouts together. If I was still with my ex during lockdown we would have struggled, and cracks that were already there in the relationship would have become an issue more quickly. It would have been a very hard time.’
For Jennifer, who eventually moved in with a new partner, the time that she spent in a houseshare while recovering from her heartbreak ended up being a formative experience. Reflecting, she mentions supportive and respectful housemates and a sense of renewed independence alongside some of the trickier aspects of house-sharing. Gaining roommates after a divorce or break-up may be far from ideal for many, but as the housing crisis continues to deepen and economic uncertainty prevails, Jennifer is able to look back and offer advice to women in the same situation.
’Take it day by day, and don’t be too hard on yourself,’ she says. ‘Going through a breakup is rough at the best of times but we’re in exceptional times now and you really need to look after your physical and mental health. Reach out to others and don’t keep everything bottled up. There is support out there you just have to ask. Keep active and keep talking.’