Living together with your partner for the first time? From the importance of taking your own space to talking things out, Stylist explores the best ways to overcome challenges and make moving in with your loved one a success.
Welcome to No Love Lost, where we explore everything from attachment theory to sexting, to unpick how our experiences of relationships and dating have been changed and challenged during lockdown.
It’s a key part of the traditional “happily ever after” relationship narrative. You meet your partner, you fall in love, and you eventually decide to merge your lives, schedules and novelty mug collection by moving in together.
But, like most things in life, this relationship milestone may not be altogether what you expect – especially if you’ve never done it before. It may highlight things about your partner – and yourself – that make you question the compatibility of your relationship. Or, it might bring you closer together. The trick is how to navigate this life decision; a decision that has perhaps been brought forward for many couples pressured by coronavirus lockdown regulations.
The first rule? Don’t fool yourself into believing that nothing will change after you and your partner decide to live under the same roof. “It can be easy for people to assume that everything will be consistent to how it was before you move in with a partner – but there will often be surprises when you start to cohabit,” Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist at London’s Private Therapy Clinic, says.
While Georgina, 27, told Stylist that the experience of moving in with her partner often felt “like training a dog”, there are many ways to approach this massive life step that doesn’t involve obedience classes or a planned escape route.
First off, it’s important to have really honest conversations with your partner about why you are making this big move in the first place. Are you doing it because it is truly the best thing for you both, or are there financial pressures – or other things – at play?
Dating coach Kate Mansfield warns that the motivations behind your decision are crucial. “It’s common to rush the process for financial reasons. But often that can backfire because it puts pressure on the relationship, creating issues,” she says.
If you can, the best thing is to take money out of the equation completely to make your choice, Mansfield recommends. “It’s helpful to think: ‘if I put money aside, would I still want to make this decision right now?’”
After you’ve worked out these elements, communication is your next step. It’s absolutely key at every stage, but is integral at the beginning for setting out how you mean to go on.
Niamh, 26, realised soon after moving in that being super-clear about what she needed out of her partner was very helpful – rather than waiting around for him to figure it out and getting frustrated.
“I found I was just expecting [him] to be a mind reader and know exactly what I wanted and needed, and do it before I even asked,” she says. “But then I realised no, that’s bullshit. We’re all just people. Most of us want to do right by our partners, and right by our friends. So it’s better to just tell people what you need.”
For Niamh, working in communications means that she really values quiet time to herself at the end of a busy day. So telling her partner about this was crucial, limiting the chance of arguments or tensions when she wasn’t feeling sociable. “For me, it was all about being able to communicate to your partner like: ‘Babe, I love you, but can we chat tomorrow or can we just watch a film in silence tonight?’” Niamh says.
Couples therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari warns against communicating in a “defensive” way, but instead trying to be as constructive as possible. “When one communicates in a defensive way – by ignoring, avoiding, shaming or criticising – it can create hurt, upset, and a rupture in connection,” she says. “In turn, this leads the partner to react in a defensive way. This creates a cycle of negativity, tension and stress.”
Megan, 27, moved in with her partner last year and quickly found herself caught up in doing his domestic chores, which wasn’t what she’d bargained for at all. “I felt like I had moved in and taken on the responsibility of his mum, who had done absolutely everything for him [before I’d moved in],” she says. “So I found myself doing his laundry, cleaning and tidying ALL the time. I put a stop to that pretty soon.”
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Setting boundaries was a big move for Megan; communicating to her partner what she was and wasn’t prepared to do when it came to household tasks. “I made it clear from the beginning that if [my partner] wanted me to live with him, I would need my own space and equal responsibilities when it came to roles around the house.”
Space is an important – and sometimes difficult – thing to get right with your partner when you’ve just moved in. But it’s crucial that you both take it, no matter how delightful the honeymoon period of super-accessible sex and spooning can be. Megan and her partner separated their stuff out into separate bedrooms, to maintain some places of individual refuge. “It was exactly what I needed after living independently for so many years,” she says. “I didn’t love feeling like we were living on top of each other.”
Georgia, 26, lived with a former partner at the age of 20 and insists that having separate bedrooms (if possible) is a lifesaver at times of conflict. “When any friends of mine are looking to move in with a partner, I tell them one thing – you need a door,” she tells Stylist. “You really need a door to close if you get into arguments. You don’t want to be sat in the same room without any space to cool down. That’s going to make things 10 times worse.”
Whatever physical space you’re moving into and sharing with your partner, try to take time to do your own thing, while also carving out time for your significant other. Dr Ben-Ari says these check-ins can make up a regular routine of activities like “eating together, communicating your deepest thoughts, feelings, desires and dreams, prioritising ‘us’ time and having dates without technology”.
A crucial red flag to watch out for is feelings or habits of co-dependence – do you feel excessively emotionally or psychologically reliant on your partner? This may spell trouble in a cohabitation setting, and living together in close quarters may make it easier for a controlling dynamic like this to present itself.
For Georgia, her and her partner’s co-dependent habits while living together were a major part of the relationship’s downfall. “Our whole problem was that we spent too much time together, we were really co-dependent,” she says. “We would start to take on each other mood’s and get on each other’s nerves unnecessarily. It left me feeling so drained.
“We’d try and take time apart, but would end up giving up within half an hour. We ended up so unhealthily attached,” she says. “And it ended up in us not having a lot in our lives but each other.”
Sophie Thomas, Channel 4’s Love Guru and relationship coach, advises that the best thing to do is to find a compromise between codependency and operating completely separately. “Healthy relationships are built on interdependence, rather than being totally independent or codependent,” says Thomas. “This means being supportive and encouraging to one another whilst taking responsibility for our own happiness, rather than transferring it on to our partner.”
In spite of the romance that surrounds a decision to move in together, the importance of being realistic and open to both changes and obstacles remains paramount. It’s not all morning sex and candlelit dinners, after all.
So within your parameters of domestic bliss, be sure that you are making space for the mundanity – and sometimes ugliness – of the world outside, including disagreements, domestic tasks and the importance of respecting personal space. And through it all, communication remains the best way of ensuring these issues don’t spiral out of control.
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“Think about your relationship as if it’s a business deal – or from a kind of a professional point of view,” Mansfield recommends. “Think of it as having meetings about how you’re going to do things, who’s doing what, and what the outcomes and expectations are.
“You’re constantly working together as a team, constantly measuring, talking openly about success and failure in the relationship.”
It might not be the sexiest ‘moving in’ mantra to live by, but talking through every stage and every need you might have throughout the process is the best way to establish the right boundaries and create the cohabitation situation you want. Valuing the perceived mundanity of routine and communication as highly as the whimsy of romance is absolutely key.
“Communication and routine are equally as important as romance,” Dr Ben-Ari insists. “We need romance to spice things up, to bring energy to the relationship, and we need communication for safety, emotional intimacy and closeness.”
Images: Malte Mueller on Getty, Maskot on Getty, Oscar Wong on Getty, 10’000 Hours on Getty