You, Them and a U-Haul: Considering Cohabitation

Are you at a point in your life and relationship where you're considering moving in with a partner? We don't have to tell you that moving in with a partner is a big step, one we ideally want to put a lot of thought, discussion and negotiation into before we take it. We probably don't also have to tell you that some of us (ahem) have learned that the hard way. What we can tell you are some things to consider, talk through and get going in advance to be sure that if you make the move, it's a good one.

Choosing to move in together may be about wanting to spend more time together; to get more serious about a relationship, to make a life and home, maybe even a family of some form, with each other. Or maybe it's because the phrase "living in sin" sounds like an enticement rather than a warning. The choice might also be financial: living on our own when we're first starting out in our adult lives isn't something most of us can afford. Roommates are always an option, but if we're in a relationship, both need a place, also want to have more time together and make a more serious commitment, shacking up can potentially be a great way to get a pad we can afford with someone we want to spend more of our time, space and life with. But it can also be a recipe for disaster, especially if we rush it and haven't first taken some smart steps to get prepared.

On Your Own

Living on your own without parents or guardians, and living with someone else as a peer is always a big adjustment, even when it's one we want. But living with a partner, specifically, can be a lot tougher if you each don't already have some idea of how to live on your own and how you like to live on your own.

By the time we leave home, most of us have ideas about the way we would like to live and what we do and don't like in terms of our living situation at home. What we usually don't know is how realistic what we want is, or how to make our wants in our own places happen: we learn that over time. Without experience, we may not know what we need when we have to deal with added responsibilities and efforts in life we take on when there isn't any fallback with things like money management, doing the dishes, getting to school when the car breaks down or dealing with an overflowing toilet. One common theme in advice about cohabitation many relationships experts give is that it's crucial for people and relationships to come to and do cohabitating in such a way that each individual's own identity, stuff and lifestyle is still individual and whole; that we merge all of that with a partner when we cohabitate without either person losing themselves or their own established lifestyle or coming to a shared household without either.

When you're living with a sexual/romantic partner, you're trying to sustain and continue two different kinds of relationships: your relationship as partners and your relationship as housemates.

We strongly suggest living by yourself or with platonic flatmates before living with sexual/romantic partners. Economically, few people are in a position to live alone in their teens or twenties, so it's typical to have a first away-from-home place with roommates. Other affordable options can include renting a single room as a boarder in a house or getting a gig as a live-in nanny, sitter or RA.

With platonic housemates, you just have the one to primarily concern yourself with -- the one as housemates -- potentially in addition to your friendship, a relationship that's also a factor with a partner. It's also often a bit easier to be fully ourselves in a home right at the gate with housemates we aren't worried about impressing or sustaining romantic and/or sexual relationships with. Think having roomies will be a drag? Anyone you live with can potentially feel that way sometimes, and living with platonic housemates can be just as fun as living with a partner. You might find, like a lot of us do, that housemates you have in your life turn out to be some of your best friendships.

Have you already had that kind of experience, or are you skipping that step? Okay.

When you're thinking about moving in together, start with plenty of overnights or weekends at one another's own current places first. Experience how each of you lives, see how it works (or doesn't) with the way each of you wants to live. In those overnights or weekends, fit in more than just the fun or romantic stuff. How does cooking and cleaning up go together? What about running household errands? How do both of you do with respecting and caring for the other's space: when one of you leaves, is the place a wreck, or have you both taken care of it well as a team? How well do you give each other privacy and space when you're in the same place for a couple of days? How do you both feel spending days and nights at a time in the same space: does it feel comfortable for both of you, or do either of you feel restless, antsy or claustrophobic?

There's no rule that couples need to live together, so if you're worried that your living styles won't mesh too well, it's more than fine to keep living apart. If those test drives go well over time, that's a good sign. If you're having any trouble with overnights or weekends spent at each other's places, get those sorted before moving in together, especially if they are issues likely to follow you. The housemate of your partner's who drives you up a tree likely won't be an issue when you live together alone, but your partner snooping through your private stuff or pushing all of the cleanup on you will.

With online relationships, you might find yourselves considering cohabitation when you've barely spent any time together at all; maybe even before you've met in-person. Online relationships have their own kind of intimacy and also involve a lot of spoken or written communication that can become or feel very deep. But we'd suggest big caution when it comes to cohabitation. We know making visits happen can be spendy, especially long-distance, but make it work. Be sure you've not only met in person more than a few times before even talking about living together, but if one or both of you is going to move to be near each other, see if you can't arrange it so you live near each other first, or with housemates in a larger household before you go it alone. Cohabitating is a big jump as it is, but doing it with a relationship that has rarely or never been in-person is a huge gamble.

Laying Down Some Ground Rules

Once you've agreed living together is something you both want to do, map out shared responsibilities and expenses in advance together and talk them through. These agreements may change over time, but it's risky to go into cohabitation without a good idea of how expenses and responsibilities will be divvied up. It's so not fun getting to the checkout at the grocery store the first time and not having any idea how you're going to split the bill, or finding out only after you've moved that your partner assumed you'd be the one to do all the cleaning and has no intention of sharing that work.

Grab a pen and paper and start on a list together so you can get a good look at what you'll both be signing on to. A list like that might look something like:
Shared expenses:

  • Rent and security deposit (or, in the unusual case you can afford to buy a home when first living together, down payment and mortgage, and if a condo, monthly assessment fees)
  • Food and drinks, both in the house/apartment and when going out or ordering in
  • Utilities (electric, gas, water, phone, internet and/or cable)
  • Transportation (if you're sharing a vehicle/gas)
  • Household goods (furniture, cleaning supplies, laundry, etc.)
  • Maintaining shared appliances
  • Any shared healthcare expenses, like safer sex or birth control, over-the-counter medicines or vitamins
  • Funds for date nights, in-house parties or other shared activities
  • Any pet costs, including regular and unexpected veterinarian bills
  • In the case there is or will be a child, the costs of child-rearing

Shared responsibilities:

  • Moving in, unpacking and setting up your place (as well as moving out, whether you split up or not)
  • Cleaning/tending to the whole shared space and stuff and/or spaces and stuff designated as separate (like your desk and their desk, or your closet and their closet)
  • Paying the bills and expenses
  • Making or arranging meals and grocery shopping
  • Scheduling your time together and time apart
  • Tending to any pets and caring for any children
  • Maintenance of any shared vehicles and small household fix-it type tasks
  • Communication with the landlord, utility companies and/or other services

Sit down with your live-in-to-(may)be and talk about how you're going to share all of these expenses and responsibilities. It may be that you just do a 50/50 split of everything, or you may come up with other arrangements based on your likes and dislikes, schedules, skills and abilities. For instance, one of you may like to cook more, while the other likes cleaning up afterward better. One of you may decide to be in charge of the kitchen while the other takes cleaning the bathroom. One of you may be a whiz with the laundry, while the other is great with accounting, so you agree to each take the chore you're best at or enjoy most. For sure, it may be that what you plan now, you'll adjust or adapt later, but starting out with a set of clear agreements is wise.

Making sure financial and household agreements are equitable from the onset is a big deal. We want to make sure our agreements and responsibilities are balanced, without any one person being responsible for the lion's share of everything.

If you know or suspect either of you are making any assumptions about who will take care of what based on gender roles (more common with male/female partnerships, but this can happen with all kinds of couples) rather than one what each of your skills/talents and preferences are, that's something smart to talk about. Maybe you grew up with a Dad who fixes everything in your home, and assume that's just what guys do, but the guy you're moving in with doesn't have those skills or doesn't like to do those things. Maybe you're assuming a female partner will do all the cooking because Mom did, or you just think that's what women do, but your partner either doesn't know how to cook or really hates cooking. Who does what should be based on agreements you actively make together, agreements that are not only equitable, but which also best suit the skills of each person based on who they are, not ideas about their gender.

If one of you has kids, that's a huge issue of its own, more complex than we have space for in a general piece like this. You obviously have many additional things to consider, talk about and weigh in cohabitating that childfree folks just don't. Our best basic advice? Take it really slow. We understand that sometimes finances, far more stretched when you're parenting, can be a bigger issue here, but having someone who isn't a good fit for both you and your kids can be much more catastrophic then a missed rent payment or an apartment you don't like. Give your kids time to get to know someone gradually over time, observe how that person is with your kids, and talk about what co-parenting is going to involve with your partner. If possible, see if you and your partner can't have some counseling sessions about moving in together with a qualified counselor first.

It may be both of you need to learn some skills coming into cohabitation. If no one knows how to cook, clean, manage a bill-paying system or fix a leaky faucet, then both people will need to learn those basic skills either in advance, or as you go. Doing your best to assure each person in a household knows how to manage every part of it can help prevent resentments. If and when someone is out of town, or you split from a household, it can help prevent anyone from feeling like they can't even take care of themselves and the space they live in in the most basic way.

Two for the Money

Moving in together isn't just about a romantic partnership: there's also a financial partnership that goes along with it, even if and when we keep our finances mostly or entirely separate.

We can't say one thing about money strongly enough: in a relationship (particularly early on), try to maintain financial independence. Both partners should have some stable source of financial income or support they can rely on. If that's not true for one or both yet or when you're planning a move, you may want to hold off. Any one person being mostly or entirely dependent on the other financially can put both in a very financially vulnerable position and in an emotionally and interpersonally precarious spot. In the case of a breakup, the person paying and making less can wind up with a lease or other bills left in their hands they're unable to pay, but are legally obligated to. (Been there, done that, had to sell the t-shirt and everything else in order to avoid litigation.) For sure, now and then we might lean on each other some if one of us is momentarily skint, but on the whole, what's ideal is for our finances to be balanced.

Map out how you'll be paying expenses beforehand. What's your system to pay them: are you going to pick a day of the month or week where you sit down with bills and write checks, or pay bills in some way as they come in? Are you going to pay by check, cash or an electronic agreement? How will you divide those arrangements up? What accounts will they be coming from? Will your landlord, utility company or others accept more than one check or account? Put some thought into how you'll split the expenses, especially if one of you uses more of something than the other, like if one partner has an extra room for an art studio, or if your lives are such that one of you eats at home a lot, while the other usually eats out.

It may seem like the most straightforward way to split and manage expenses is to open up a joint account, but joint bank accounts can be pretty risky propositions. You can share and pay expenses with separate accounts just fine. If you're going to have a joint account, don't rush in, and be sure that it's one that requires both of you to sign off on withdrawals. As well, both of you should also have your OWN account which holds a solid majority of your individual savings. Consider using a joint account only for shared expenses, with each person never putting in more than a month or two's worth of expenses. Don't set up a direct deposit for your paycheck to go straight into the joint account. Protect yourselves: getting hurt financially can sometimes do as much damage as getting hurt emotionally, and setting up any shared finances in a sound way also can help you avoid arguments about money, which are always a drag and often inevitable, especially when accounts are shared.

Try to avoid arrangements where one person pays the bills and the other pays their partner back. These situations often end up as messy and confusing, with people forgetting to pay each other back. There are a couple of great alternatives for this, such as both people writing a check for each bill with each person paying half or alternating who pays what each month. So, one month one person could pay the rent while the other pays for food and utilities and then the next month they switch. Another way of keeping expenses equitable (that works with roomies, too!) is to keep a small whiteboard where each person writes down every household expense they personally pay. Then, at the end of the month, you can total things up and see who owes whom money.

Just like in the rest of your relationship, when you live together, decisions should be jointly made and negotiated well. Things can easily get a lot more heated and loaded when you live in the same space, so if you don't already do a good job at making decisions as a team, or are having trouble negotiating when stakes are high, like with sex, invest a good deal of time and energy in refining the way you communicate first. Want some help with that? You can check out this piece on sexual communication, which contains a lot of helps you can use with any kind of communication, or this piece on healthy relationships.

Any time we move into a new place -- with or without a partner -- we'll have extra expenses. A move itself usually costs money, especially if you don't have friends with a van or a truck or who will to help you move. You'll think you had everything you needed, but then realize there's no shower curtain or neither of you actually have any sheets for a queen-size bed. Stocking the kitchen and bathroom with the basics and purchasing any needed furniture, even secondhand, can add up pretty quickly. Figure that whatever you think the move will cost, it's bound to cost at least a couple hundred bucks more. It can also help to cut corners where you can, for example, rather than trying to buy new furniture, ask family what old items they might have to get rid of, or shop at the Goodwill for your couch instead of at Ikea.

Are you agreeing for one person to be financially dependent on the other by design right from the start? Some people do, such as in households where someone agrees to work and someone else agrees to be the person taking care of the household in other ways. While we don't personally advise that, if you want to do that, make sure your agreements are even more solid than in a two-income situation, and have a sound plan in case of a break-up or situation where a partner loses the income both people are relying on. If you or your partner are agreeing to support the other, it also needs to be understood as a gift, not something where there is any expectation of financial or emotional payback.

Space: The Final Frontier

While before living together, the idea of cohabitation may seem amazing because you finally get to spend all the time together you want, you'll likely find at some point that the time you now want is time for yourself and for the other parts of your life. As the band Saffire once opined, how can I say I miss you when I can't get you to leave? Talk about the ways you'll each have time and space for yourself and with friends and/or family. We're fans of figuring out some way in cohabitation situations for each person to have their own physical space. When Virginia Woolf talked about needing a room of one's own, she wasn't messing around. When money is tight, each person having an actual room of their own may not be doable, but having a desk, table, or corner probably is. If your place together is really small, at least see if you can't find a cozy coffee shop or park nearby where each of you could hang out sometimes to get time to yourself.

Other kinds of space and privacy are also important. Making a home and a life with someone is totally healthy, but becoming completely enmeshed, to the point that you're not still your own people with parts of your lives of your own isn't. People in healthy partnerships still need some autonomy, privacy and space -- emotional, psychological and physical -- of their own. Make clear agreements about what both of you won't have license to without asking the other for permission, such as email, a journal, messages on your own cell phones or opening postal mail not addressed to both of you. Honor those agreements: don't snoop just because you can.

What expectations do each of you have around time you will spend together? Believe it or not, sometimes when you're living together it can feel like you spend less dedicated time together because you can see each other in passing all of the time. You might want map out a night or two where you do something together as a habit, like Sunday night being the night to cook a meal together and relax, or Friday night being a date night. If either of you have friends over a lot -- and if you're young and have your own place, you may find a lot of friends want to share your bounty -- are there any nights where friends hanging out are off-limits? What nights should either or both of you expect you may not see each other, but instead see friends? While getting good time together is important, making sure each person has enough time to do their own thing is crucial too, and it isn't unusual for people to have differing needs in terms of the time they spend alone and with others: talking out how much time you each want/need to spend together and apart helps ensure that no one feels ignored or conversely, like they don't have enough time to themselves.

I'll Be Your Mirror

When you move in with a partner, they're going to be seeing you at times you can't control HOW they see you. For instance, if you don't feel secure being seen without makeup or shaving or your hair done just're going to need to get over that. If you're someone who gets a menstrual period, and you and a partner haven't ever been in really close proximity during your period, there's no avoiding that now. Partners will often do things they may have tried to avoid doing in your presence before, like farting, messing with their nose hairs or scratching their bottom. You'll be around each other when you're cranky or sick as well as when you're relaxed and in a good mood.

People will tend to get more comfortable with each other as they live together. It may be that your partner "presents" less often than they used to. They probably won't always shower, wax or dress up; put on makeup, whiten their teeth or wear their fancy underpants every day. We'll hear people say someone "let themselves go," but what that often is is just someone who feels at home, so they mellow out on messing with looks because that's what we tend to do in our own homes and spaces.

The same goes for being emotionally seen. Just like we can tend to physically, emotionally and intellectually, when we're in our own home and feel at home, we tend to let our guard down a lot more. People who have put up false fronts of some kind tend to either drop them or have them discovered with a live-in partner. So, emotionally, living together can make both of us a lot more vulnerable. Being more vulnerable together, and taking good care of a partner's increased vulnerabilities, can create more intimacy and closeness in a relationship, but if we're not ready to be closer to someone in that way it can feel suffocating and scary instead of like a bonus.

Sex Changes

Sex can get a little more complicated when you live with a partner. It's great to finally have your own, private space for sex, and to be able to have more time together to spend with sex without rushing, having to be so quiet, or sneaking around. When you just want to hang out, living together can also help you avoid feeling like you have to squeeze sex and time talking or doing things into one short evening or afternoon. We often don't have to do that anymore when we live in the same place.

At the same time, it's good to talk through expectations around sex in advance, even if you might speculate a bit, not knowing how things are going to go when you're actually living in the same space. For example, it's not uncommon for people to have a lotta-lotta sex when they first move in, then to find the frequency slows down. Are you both prepared for that, including knowing that if it happens, it doesn't make sense to freak out and figure something must be horribly wrong? You or a partner might also assume that sex can just happen at any time, but the other of you may feel like that's asking too much of your schedule or makes you feel like you can't plan on having any time guaranteed for the other parts of your life.

Boundaries with sex might also shift or need a change when you're living in the same space. Some people feel like it's sexy to be getting dressed or be taking a shower and have a partner come up and initiate sex, while to others that feels invasive. You and a partner may have different wants and needs around nudity in the house, the level of noise made with sex (especially if your neighbors or housemates aren't so cool with it), or when and where sex happens. One or both of you may find that sexual activities you weren't interested in before, or didn't feel comfortable exploring in your parent's house or in your dorm are things one or both of you are interested in now. Like anything else, and as with sexual relationships in general, just keep in good communication about sex, watch your assumptions or expectations, and be prepared to be surprised and flexible.

A Potpourri of Live-In Lessons

  • Get both names on everything as much as you can, and try and keep services only one of you uses (like one person's cell phone) in only that person's name. Sometimes that won't seem like that big of a deal at first, but it certainly will when one of you finds you're suddenly without a place to stay or are being held legally responsible for the other person's $500 phone bill.
  • Take. Your. Time. Breakups or relationship shifts are hard enough, but when there are legal agreements involved, money is involved, and you still have to live together when you're splitting up or have split up, it can be a real nightmare. Don't rush in, especially since you often won't be able to rush out. Trust your instincts and feelings around the idea of living with a partner; if cohabitation isn't something you feel really comfortable with and good about, don't force it.
  • Moving into a new space neither of you have lived in before tends to be what's most comfortable and successful for couples. It's hard for someone's existing space not to feel like their place you're staying in, rather than a joint place you share. A new place also makes it a whole lot easier for each person to really have their own space, and to create a space that feels reflective of both people, rather than primarily about one.
  • Don't assume that because you live together either of you can make plans for the other without asking. When you want to have shared plans, ask. Coming home after a horrible day at school or work to find 10 dinner guests you didn't know would be there and you'd need to help cook for can really suck. The same goes for making plans involving your shared space: for example, one partner having some pals over to watch a movie or play video games when the other needs some quiet time to study for a big exam the next day is likely to cause conflict.
  • A shared calendar where you both write in the things you're doing and where you'll be can help avoid arguments or worrying. Someone waiting on the other for dinner or expecting they'll be there to help clean up and wondering where the heck the other person is can be a recipe for disaster. It can also be easier to make our own plans when we have a good sense of what our partner's plans are without having to touch base verbally all the time.
  • Get out of the house! It can be easy to get in a habit of staying in when you live together: after all, there's no need for either one of you to go anywhere to see the other. But it's still important to get out and do something different and fun at least once in a while, even if it's just going out for coffee or taking a long walk. Otherwise, your house can start to feel less like a home, and more like an episode of Lost.
  • Be honest about the skills you can bring to living together and about your limitations. If you are not the best housekeeper ever, just say so. If you're great at fixing things, but don't want to be seen as Ms. Fix-It full-time, put that out there. Whoever you live with is going to find out both your skills and your lack-of-skills soon enough. Being forthright from the onset can help prevent a living situation that either just isn't going to work for what both people want and need, or allow you to set up some systems in advance to make varied skills and limitations workable.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Moving in together doesn't give you or your partner psychic powers, so if there's something that isn't working for either of you, you've got to talk about it, especially once you're sharing living space. Whether you want to divide the household responsibilities differently or are worried that you aren't getting enough quality time, just like before you lived together, your partner isn't going to know unless you tell them about it. Checking in with each other a bit more often during the first few months, to make sure you're both happy and comfortable with the way things are going, can really help make cohabitation great for both of you.
  • Be aware of -- and open about -- your differences. If one of you is a vegetarian and the other can't live without steak, you'll need to discuss how to manage grocery shopping and cooking. Maybe you don't mind a bit of clutter or disorganization, but your partner likes everything super-tidy: how are you going to work that out? Living with another person, whether it's a romantic partner or a platonic roommate, takes some compromise, and if each of you are up front about areas where you're willing to be flexible and things you absolutely must have or can't deal with, the process of figuring out how to deal with your differences will go a lot more smoothly.
  • Don't presume the title of this section is advocating for the use of potpourri. It's absolutely not.

We shouldn't have to say it, but we're going to, just in case. If you know or suspect you are in an abusive or unhealthy relationship, the last thing you want to do is to make a move into a place together. It's hard enough to get out of something abusive or unhealthy as it is, and about a million times harder if you live together. Abuse also almost always escalates once people cohabitate. When it comes to abusive or unhealthy relationships, you want to work on getting away from them, not tying yourself to them more.

You may find some of these conversations aren't entirely easy. For instance, you may discover, with a partner or yourself, some funky ideas held about who does what in a household you weren't expecting, or some fears either of you have about living together. You or a partner may have voiced something that makes clear there's a pretty big barrier at the current time to moving in together in a way that will work, a barrier which neither of you want, but which you can't ignore or rationalize. That's okay: you can talk through things like this and evaluate them, and if it turns out there were some big divides or problematic attitudes you didn't see coming, you can always change your mind or move moving plans forward to a later date. Whether you're living alone or with others, moving in always tends to be a lot easier, practically and emotionally, than moving out, so you want to be sure that living with anyone seems very likely to be a positive move before you do it. If your talks make it seem like it might not be, better to find out before you move than after.

A Final Checklist

So, you've read through all of this, and are feeling strongly that cohabitation is the thing for you and yours. We've put together a wee checklist to help you with that final decision. If you don't agree with most of these statements, you may want to think again about whether cohabitation is the right thing for you right now, or in your particular relationship.

  • My partner and I have talked at length about what our expectations are in moving in together and what we each want and hope to gain or experience in cohabitating.
  • My partner and I have a good idea of how we like to live independently, and (ideally) have spent some time living away from home alone or with housemates.
  • My partner and I have done several overnights and weekends at each other's places; we're comfortable with the way our living styles mesh and feel we can deal, and want to deal, with the ways they don't.
  • My partner and I each have our own source of income or some sound way to pay our share of the expenses.
  • My partner and I have had discussions about our likes and dislikes, wants and needs in sharing space, about our shared responsibilities and expenses; we've made some initial agreements, talked about things like space and privacy, boundaries and sex as well as more practical matters, like the actual process of moving, and I feel comfortable discussing and negotiating these kinds of things with my partner.
  • My partner and I are capable of communicating about daily disagreements well, without fighting; capable of clearing conflict without holding on to anger or resentment.
  • I am comfortable with my partner seeing me in my natural habitat - like when I'm sick, first thing in the morning with stinky breath, in my sweats, when I'm not shaved in a way I like to be, when I'm stressed or in a bad mood -- and feel comfortable knowing I'll see my partner that way sometimes as well.
  • I will not hang my Twilight or Backstreet Boys poster in the dining room, demand my action figures or shoes get a whole wall for proper display, claim I can fix things I know I cannot resulting in hundreds of dollars of repair, claim I cannot fix something when I can but am just too lazy to do it, insist my cat gets her own bedroom, bathroom and phone line, dye all my partner's clothes purple without permission because I've decided I really like them in purple or... just kidding. (Not really. We're actually dead serious.)

Not there yet? That's okay. Not everyone is in the right time, place, headspace or relationship to cohabitate. That doesn't mean something is terribly, horribly wrong with your life or relationship, just that it's not the kind of right to have living together be a good fit. It might be that you just need to spend some more time working the kinks out, or having more experience with your own, solo adult life first, or it might be that this relationship just isn't the kind best-suited to moving in that direction. Even relationships we enjoy and which are good aren't always the right ones to turn into live-ins.

All good? Feeling totally ready to pack up and shack up? Then good luck, and enjoy the agony, the ecstasy, the wonderful and the super-annoying that is living with someone we love.

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