It’s one thing to love someone, but it’s another thing entirely to live with them, as anyone who has watched Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby argue about a wagon wheel coffee table in “When Harry Met Sally” knows. Cohabiting can make or break a relationship and can quickly turn a love nest into a battleground. If you’re considering combining households with your partner, there are a few things to keep in mind.
“The first thing to realize is that everybody perceives things differently,” said Glennon Gordon, a couples therapist with offices in Tenleytown and Bethesda, Md. “I mean that literally. The way that I perceive something and the way you perceive something are as different as our fingerprints. So is the way we see our physical space.”
These differences extend beyond coffee table preferences. For some people, external space is correlated with their internal, or emotional, space; the home needs to be orderly for them to feel that way inside, Gordon said. For others, the two things are separate. A stack of dishes is just that; it does not imply a chaotic state of being.
The key is to never assume your partner will be just like you. “When you expect the other person to be completely different, as they most likely are, it makes compromise so much easier,” she said.
It’s also wise to consider all possible outcomes before signing a lease. “Think about the worst-case scenario,” said Cheryl New, a family lawyer at New & Lowinger in Bethesda, Md. “How does that play out?”
Moving in together is a serious commitment that can be a pain to undo. New’s advice is to be realistic and keep your receipts. “Nobody thinks they’re the types to bicker over pots and pans in a breakup,” she said. “In the end, of course, almost everyone does.”
Relationships are an art, not a science, and some people simply live better together than others. But there are steps you can take to avoid some common pitfalls. We spoke to experts for tips on how to combine your possessions, be a good roommate, blend styles and manage expectations while protecting yourself against a messy uncoupling, should the relationship go south.
Don’t rush it. As tempting as it may be to share a lease in today’s pricey rental market, the decision should be thought out. “Moving in together is about more than just getting on the same page,” Gordon said. In her experience, it’s often about navigating conflict. “Couples need to be able to handle the inevitable tensions that come up when you have to share everything: your space, your stuff, your time, your self. A lot of people assume that if they’re happy enough to move in together, they must be relatively similar people. But this is a whole new level of intimacy. It only works if people feel like they can be fully themselves.”
Discuss expectations. Before you start house- or apartment-hunting, have a conversation about how you both prefer to live. “Get specific,” said Natalie Ron, who founded the home-organizing company Swoon Spaces, which offers services in New York and Los Angeles. “What does a peaceful home look and feel like to your partner? How much of that are each of you responsible for?” These conversations should include each other’s upbringings. “Ask your partner about their parents’ relationship with money and how their childhood household was run,” Gordon said. “Did Mom do all the cooking and cleaning and Dad handled the expenses? If so, find out how much that factors into your partner’s current expectations. Know what you’re signing up for.”
Make a budget and track receipts. Keep a log of which person’s items are coming into the new home and who is buying new pieces. Budgeting can be tricky if you have different financial situations or differing ideas about how to spend money. “Some people are naturally more spontaneous, while others have to budget for everything,” Gordon said. Getting either party to change those habits probably won’t happen, so focus instead on how you manage the variation: “If you expect and respect differences, you’re much more likely to get along.”
Declutter before you move. Ron recommends that all of her clients who are on the verge of combining households get their own house in order first. “Think of it as a final, reflective moment for your single, independent self,” she said. “Go through your old clothing, letters from exes and trinkets that you’ve held on to over the years. Do they really need to come into your new home with you?” If some do, buy a couple of low-profile storage containers that can be stowed in the back of a closet. “Nobody expects you to toss your sentimental collectibles, but they will appreciate a sense of consciousness and order,” she said.
Understand each other’s triggers. Cleanliness is the most common source of friction for Gordon’s clients. “One person can walk by a piece of trash and not even see it,” she said. “Another person couldn’t possibly walk by it without getting anxious.” Be curious, not critical, about how your partner sees their space. Similarly, if your partner has a harder time parting with things, resist the urge to coach them through it. “It’s tempting to pressure someone to ‘just throw it out,’ but that almost always backfires,” Ron said. “Instead, find out what’s behind their attachment, whether it’s sentimental reasons or financial habits, and try to help them prioritize, so they don’t feel pushed or dismissed.”
Mix and match styles. “Even if one person is more design-inclined, it’s critical that both people feel like they have a say in their space,” Gordon said. “This is about more than ego; it’s also about mental health. It’s never good for someone to feel like a stranger in their own home — not good for the individual, and really not good for the relationship.” If you can, resist the urge to cast one partner aside; the cliched solution of granting the husband a single room to make his own, usually a “man cave” or the garage, feels superficial and dated. Instead, spend time browsing Pinterest boards and design blogs together to find pieces and aesthetics you’re both drawn to. “I promise: There will be common ground,” Ron said.
Give yourselves a grace period. Even the most prepared and organized couple will encounter surprises once they’re under the same roof. Gordon said many people struggle with how their partner spends their free time. “One person might cook or clean or grab the window [of time] to work out, while the other person takes a nap or stares at their phone for an hour,” Gordon said. “These variations can be shocking at first, and they take some getting used to.” Try not to let these differences balloon into judgmental statements about the other’s character or lobbying campaigns to get them to change their ways. Instead, respect conscious decisions about how you want to live, and take turns seeing things from the other’s perspective. “Is it really that your partner is lazy? Or is it that they’re better at relaxing than you?” Gordon said.
Megan Buerger is a freelance writer in New York.