Moving in with a partner is one of the great existential pauses in the life of a thirtysomething. In the last week alone, two friends have called to discuss their relationships and we each share fears of moving in with our respective partners. It’s not for lack of interest or excitement, but a recognition of the purpose. For Sara, this means taking a step that feels, for her, more than an intentional choice, but a commitment to a decade or more. For Syd, it means being contained under a shared roof. Does this person, who insists that they love me and want to be with me exclusively, know what they are saying? Do they understand what that means? For myself, it means once more taking a leap into a place where I have been hurt before. It means a reorientation of life, sorting through belongings and tossing what will not fit into “our” space. It means walking through the anxious space that Sara and Syd have already named. It means, I suppose, commitment to an idea, an ideal, that I have only rarely seen held with success for any significant space of time.
Celebrities, who perhaps change addresses more than the average person, have naturally weighed in on the matter. In an interview with Women’s Health this month, actress Kate Beckinsale says that “I think more people would do well married if they didn’t have to live in the same house. Being married is kind of easy, but the living-with-the-person thing is a lot.” More, she adds,
For women especially — and this is generalizing — but I think it’s common for us to mentally subjugate our needs to whoever else is in the room, so if you’ve got a husband, a boyfriend, kids or parents, it’s so easy to come in with an idea of what you’d like to do, and then end up going, “Oh no, no, no, it’s fine.” And it’s quite nice to not always have to negotiate that.
She’s not the only one orienting her life around this view. Offering his opinion for Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley writes about Gwenyth Paltrow, who revealed earlier this year that she and her husband live apart.
[Paltrow] spends three days of the week living apart from her new husband has naturally left us all considering whether our own domestic arrangements need shaking up a bit.
The actress married Brad Falchuk last September but they have both kept separate homes and spend three nights apart each week. Paltrow has said it helps keep the relationship fresh, which is touching, because we all know how stale a marriage can get after you’ve been together for nine months. Her intimacy teacher — I’m not making this up — says the arrangement is good for “polarity”.
Paltrow is quoted as saying all her married friends think the arrangement is “ideal”. This being Paltrow, there is even a jaunty name for it: living apart together or, maybe, living together apart — I can’t remember.
It’s not quite up there with the self-glorifying “conscious uncoupling” she engaged in with former husband Chris Martin, when they decided to stop living together in favour of living apart. So it was sort of together, living apart. Or parting together but living. Or maybe living apart, togetherly. Paltrow’s phraseology at times suggests someone who spends their life making the inverted commas gesture with her hands as she describes her existence.
There are a series of assumptions in Western society that we call the “relational incline.”
- When you are single, the question is when you will find a partner?
- As soon as you find a partner, the question is when it will become official, when you will move in together?
- Move in, and then when will you marry?
- As soon as you are married, when will you have a child?
- The child arrives, now when will you have another?
- Now that you’ve had children, plural, where will they go to college?
Moving in does not necessarily have to be part of that incline any more than the other stages. One can have children without marriage; indeed, many bonds are made for life without signatures and witnesses. Partnerships can dissolve but still continue in another form. Many of these stages, we are aware, are arbitrary without context and unique, intricate, personal investment. The incline has nothing at all to do with our own relationships and instead everything to do with the expectations placed upon us by those outside of it.
The allure of the predictable staircase is notable. We take these steps to prove and validate that okay, yeah, you still enjoy one another and will likely survive another winter together without first cannibalizing one another. This traditional model keeps us from, as Shrimsley notes, “considering whether our own domestic arrangements need shaking up a bit.” But while Shrimsley may be suggesting that the traditional model of relationships, this predictable staircase, is the norm, it is relatively new and certainly not preferable for all parties at all times in all places.
For those who choose to move in together, to commit to one another, to commit to trying – at least trying – to stick it out under one roof, there are many questions. Logistics, emotional and relational impact, the mundane choices of which toilet paper you buy or temperature to set the thermostat suddenly become points for discussion where they were once matters of old hat.
In a previous relationship, the woman had two dogs and her house reeked of them. Even after their baths or when she would allow them outside, her home still smelled of food puree and there was hair everywhere. It was not a deal-breaker initially, but it certainly kept me away. I did not want to live with the constant anxiety of whether the larger dog would playfully jump on me or wake up to the smaller dog jumping into bed with us. The small ways of life like my light sleeping were suddenly an issue.
With Lizzie and I at this point in our lives, there are discussions of work and traffic. If I continue to work an hour away, how many days will this necessitate a commute? Will we “compromise” by moving to a new, shared house – perhaps even in another state? Lizzie has more assets attached to her than I do, so of course, there are discussions at the periphery (again, that incline insists on asking questions before we’ve even arrived at our next station!) about prenuptial agreements and protecting her wealth. I am the poor Bennett of this reverse-gender Austen novel and, impoverished as I am, it is assumed I will be moving into her home rather than (Scrimsley would, I presume to be aghast at this) following a more conventional, traditional pageant.
While I might teasingly write all of this, I mean to put forward that the ways in which two lives can cohabitate are important at a basic level. So much stress is placed on the financial burdens and chore duties, but these are quite negotiable. Rather, I mean to say that the proverbial “little foxes” often spoil the metaphorical vine. Moving in becomes difficult not in the larger, noticeable ways but in the gentle congress of assumptions. Oh, you mean to say you leave the television on at night for background noise? How odd.
I make light only to, I suppose, unsettle us. It is a tactic I use in my classes on rhetoric and logic – the absurd often helps an opponent align their argument and “get serious” with a defense. I wonder, Dear Reader, where you find yourself in all of this, whether you too are thinking of moving in with someone and are doing the silent algebra necessary to measure the logistics of such a decision.
Before the Move-In
- You need to have had a real argument. Or four. Maybe six. Seven, to be safe.
The objective here isn’t to argue yourselves out of a relationship, it’s to get past the veneer of politeness. Once, for a year and a half, I dated a woman whose resentment was like clothing. She resented everything about me – but she refused to have an argument. For her, women were supposed to “submit” and not argue because that was what her mother taught her. When she finally started to say how she felt about things, we were able to argue, give voice to our individual truths, and – thankfully – break up.
Every partnership will encounter an offense. That’s life. My little brother is one of the most important people in my life, and we still argue or feel like the other person does weird things, makes bad choices, and say hurtful things. I’ve had partners who have called me every offensive thing under the sun. I’ve also received the silent treatment for days – in one case, for years. I’m still waiting on that girl to respond to my last text and pick up her things!
You have to know who you are moving in with, and not just the pretty appearance they put on for you. Better to learn that they are verbally abusive, emotionally manipulative, or that you need more work before you hurt someone then naively walk into a shared space thinking the sun shines on their ass only to find out they won’t fight fair when you don’t see things the same way.
- Yep. You also need to talk about mental and emotional health.
I have depression. I’m pretty public about this. It’s one of the first things I tell someone, whether they are a student (to normalize their own mental health issues), a romantic partner (so they know I’m not “moody and broody” to be sexy, but have a legitimate issue), or even a stranger at the pub (because hey, why not?). However, I’m not as vocal about my anxiety. I’m not so eager to tell people, “I wake up in the middle of the night because I have the kind of anxiety that does that” and I don’t see a pressing need to tell people this also affects my sexual interest. It’s a real thing, though. And whenever you put people together in a small space (like an apartment), they need to know those kinds of things so they can say hey, let’s take a walk or see if hey, I’m going out tonight if you want to come, that’s great, but maybe you’d like to stay in and read?
In hindsight, I wish I had known one of my previous partners had emotional dysregulation before we committed to one another. I also wish some of my early partners had the benefit of understanding I wasn’t “jumpy” but was genuinely working through anxiety and PTSD-related coping mechanisms. More than that, I wish I had understood myself. I made a lot of mistakes as a young man because I relied heavily on my partner for their emotional labor when the truth was I needed to go to therapy.
- Get comfortable with being grossed out.
Farts. Flossing. Weird noises. Toenail clippings. Period blood. Urine on the toilet bowl. Dirty dishes that… uh… begin to grow things. These are just some of the things we take for granted, then tend to get weirded out by when someone else is responsible.
Personally, I clip my nails outside – but I admit it’s a little weird that I throw them in the yard.
Hey! Plato kept his in a jar. Don’t judge. 😉
- You need to understand the finances. Who pays for what, how much, when, etc.
This was (and remains) a big one for me. I’m one of those “good ol’ boys” who was raised to believe that men should pay for everything and quietly resent their partner. It has taken me a long time to let my partner be a partner, and not a cosmetic attachment to my life.
In a previous relationship, I paid for everything. I share this example because, this one time, I literally paid for everything for the entire six months of our relationship. By the end, I was frustrated but “refined” and “cultured” enough not to talk about why – the money! By the end of those six months, I was incredibly frustrated and wound up giving her a lame excuse about “just not feeling it” to break up when the fact of the matter was I felt more like a Sugar Daddy than a boyfriend.
After that, I wised up and started to talk about money with my girlfriend. One even told me she loved me but didn’t want to actually tell anyone she was seeing me until my credit score was higher. Talk about your negative motivation! And while yes, those are hard conversations to have, money can ruin a relationship if you’re not upfront about it. Who will write the check for rent every month? Who is responsible for eating out? Does your partner expect you to take a shower every other day instead of every day because they are the ones paying the water bill? You’ve got to get on top of these things and work it out before moving in together.
- Stake out your closet and corner, but this is supposed to be shared space.
One of the issues Lizzie and I are working on is sharing space together.
As a former New Yorker, an entire room of her house is an office and living space with television and sofa. She has lots of room in her house, but this is what she decided to do because it felt familiar.
Having an office double as a living area allows what would otherwise be the living area to be an intentional family space, without a television. This is a priority for her. The prospect of moving in my library of 2,000+ books terrifies her because having shelves that rival the Beast from the Disney classic is not where her priorities rest. Despite this friction, here’s where we agree: we both have a minimalist design aesthetic. Bookshelves above us, lining the ceiling is a workable (and stylish!) compromise for us.
There has never a question of whether I should or shouldn’t bring my books, but how we would manage the space together. When a partner makes you feel like you don’t belong, listen to them – because you don’t. Partners need to be able to navigate and negotiate sharing space together.
- You need to know their sleep patterns.
When I first started staying over at Lizzie’s house, it was obvious to both of us that she likes to sleep in. And by “sleep in,” I mean sleep until a normal, healthy time when any reasonable person would wake up compared to my own pattern of waking up for school around 6:30am. I like to get to work early so I can catch up on e-mails, write, or even read a little bit. I’m totally fine waking up at 4am and watching a show on Netflix alone. It doesn’t make me more productive; in fact, I tell everyone that Lizzie gets more done between 8am and 4pm than I get done in double that time! It’s really about learning each other’s rhythms and being able to sleep through the creaking floorboards before daylight because you know each other’s routine.
- You can’t hide anything. You know that. Right? Of course, you do.
An old friend told me that she once went to check her e-mail and found her father’s porn sites still open on the computer. My grandmother was notorious for finding holiday presents if they were hidden in her home. More than one friend has told me that they don’t count the beers in the fridge, but they certainly know when a partner is in the middle of a binge – even when that partner denies it. It’s a lot like that teaching that Jesus gives in the Gospels (see Matt. 10:26, Mark 4:22, or Luke 8:17), “There’s nothing hidden that will not eventually be made known.”
This doesn’t have to be a debilitating challenge – if you like porn, talk about it. When your bathroom stinks, open a window or turn on the fan. You can’t hide anything for very long, so be honest about what’s going on. Chances are, they already know your secrets, but talking about them – naming them and confronting them – allows you and your partner to either “get real” with each other and to better understand one another… or it begins the process for the two of you to part ways. Best to figure that out before you sign the lease.
- Finally, you have to wise up that this isn’t “playing house.” This is a house. Perhaps even a home.
When something turns up missing, you’re either going to join forces or turn on one another. When the ceiling light stops working, you’re either going to get the ladder out together or it’ll stay broke. This isn’t going to be a hotel situation where your partner cleans up after you and is responsible for everything. You do it together, or you talk about what each of you can be responsible for alone. There is no “my room” and “your room,” like you’re playing pretend in kindergartner. Y’all are adults working this out together.
After the Move-in
- Recognize that you do not have to do everything together.
Lizzie is really great about this. While we both register as introverts in personality profiles, she works from home and going on helps balance her while I am around people all day and sitting down to read is what helps me. Our schedules are dissimilar, but at the core, we understand one another. At least once a weekend, she will get drinks with a friend and assure me I do not have to come with her. Most times, I don’t. And we are fine with that because we’re not terribly dependent on one another.
With someone like my father, clinginess contributed to a great deal of friction in his marriages. It’s not wrong, or even unflattering. After their divorce, my parents began to enjoy a new appreciation for one another that is maintained by not needing to be around one another, but choosing it. Their new understanding of one another after the divorce helped make a more secure friendship possible.
- Work out the (unromantic) divisions of labor
By this, I mean you and your partner(s) should actively and intentionally name the unenthusiastic bits of life together. Who is responsible (more or less) for laundry? When the smoke detector batteries need to be changed, who will climb the ladder and who will hold it?
It’s okay if this takes time. In fact, being mindful that it takes time could help alleviate a great deal of pressure. You don’t have to have everything figured out two weeks in, or even a year after living together. But studies show that having defined rules – whether those are traditional gender norms, domestic expectations, or viewing habits – help us to better orient ourselves. Think of every other circle you move in. A group of friends gets together and while everyone has their turn at being funny, there will usually be someone specific who is “the funny one.” At a family dinner, there is usually someone you can count on to bring potato salad or the dessert. Can we break those rules? Absolutely. But we must first understand where we fit before we do that, and being aware of the expectations of roles and the division of labor is a necessary way to help keep things copacetic.
- Take some ownership (aka “Grow up”).
Boy howdy, this requires a heapin’ helpin’ of introspection.
It’s enough to say that living with another person is bound to show you where you still need to grow, what you need to change about yourself, and how immature or stubborn you really are. It’s important to own that experience now, rather than later, because failing to own up to your stuff and then doing the necessary work to set it right, erodes and then damages a partnership.
- Apologize. Frequently.
The biggest part of owning up to your mistakes, your shortcomings, and room for growth is to, yes, apologize. It doesn’t have to be a big event with sobbing and promises of eternal contrition; no, very often, it’s enough to honestly admit the mistake, apologize, to ask for forgiveness, and move on.
One of the first things I notice about someone is their flaws. It’s not critical, it’s zeroing in on their humanness, the accumulated faults and fractures that make them unique. As a student of art, I often celebrate these quirks – it makes the person unique and original. My favorite people are the ones who are broken in some way – and can own up to it. Which is to say, some of the most meaningful relationships I have had center around a short and tense conversation where we admit where we are wrong and the other person recognizes that with us. Our bond grows as we share space with the hurt our faults have caused, owned it instead of shifted the blame somehow, apologized for the impact, and then moved forward together.
As any good recovery program, even a basic Twelve Step meeting will make abundantly clear: admitting our faults and soberly, honestly confronting the fallout is a healing thing. I’m not even talking about the apology yet, either. Admitting our mistakes – small ones as well as the big – makes us human, and sharing a healthy cup of honesty with someone (ex: “Wow. I fucked up. Like… really badly.”) makes it possible for us to weight the impact of what we have done, the consequences of our choices, behaviors, and words. Recognizing the weight of that is what makes it possible for us to say, finally, “I’m sorry. I’m really, truly sorry for what this has done to you. And I will do my best to keep it from happening again because I am ashamed and do not want to hurt you in this way again.”
- Decorate together.
I might also say “rebuild.”
So much of life tears us down. Having someone who will help you rebuild and who you can join in building something better beside them is everything the Romantics eloquently committed to poetry.
I might also say “celebrate.”
Happiness in life will never be achieved with checklists and duty. Humans require impromptu dance parties, dressing up, and occasionally silly costumes.
I might also say “live and dwell and exist and breathe together.”
Sharing space with someone is never about the space itself, but about sharing existence with this person, this special person who you have chosen and who, in turn, chooses you.
“No shit,” you say.
Yeah, no shit.
Obviously, you need to crank the dial up on the Communication. Frequently.
A partnership might fail for any one of a thousand reasons, but it shouldn’t fail because you unplugged and stopped talking to one another. Or because you lied. Or because it was easier to pretend.
- Compromise. But… maybe not too much.
Every relationship, intimate or otherwise, would benefit from learning about negotiating styles and strategies. We need to be able to see not only what the people in our lives do, but also how they do it, and why. What motivates them?
Many couples suffer from passive or even abusive tactics, ranging from manipulation to physical intimidation. There are limits to what we can compromise on when we find ourselves in these situations. Over time, if we are not careful, “compromise” begins to erode our sense of self. As Beckinsale said herself, “It’s so easy to come in with an idea of what you’d like to do, and then end up going, ‘Oh no, no, no, it’s fine.'” We can, over time, grow out of touch with our own desires, interests, and wants because we have compromised too much.
This requires a sense of self, a constant checking-in on what you desire and want to see happen. Only then can you consciously and fully compromise, rather than give in and eventually give up.
- “5 Reasons Why So Many Women Love Living Alone” by Dr. Bella DePaulo
Randall Frederick is a writer and college instructor living outside of New Orleans.