|Moving In Together
Could Be Hazardous for Your Relationship:
Setting Up House in the Right Direction
Martha Beck Ph.D.
originally published in O Magazine, June 2005
Most of us can spin a reasonably compelling romantic fairy tale. We know how to set
up the plot (handsome hero meets beautiful heroine, etc.). And we know just the
moment to say “The End”: when the lovers, from Beauty and her Beast to Cinderella
and her Prince, are about to shack up. That’s the point where enchanted love grinds
into the gritty annoyances and daily drudgery of human cohabitation.
This is true not only when we’re telling a story but also when we’re living it.
Entranced by true love’s dazzling combination of hormones and ignorance, we may
commit to sharing a home with our beloved before we’ve thought through the
consequences. If you’re considering moving in together, you may want to push your
imagination some distance beyond the usual happily ever after.
Love can conquer many a romantic hiccup that arises after move-in, but only if you take
a few key precautions.
1. Pledge allegiance to red flags.
No, I’m not suggesting you turn communist. By red flags I mean the uneasy feeling
that there’s something fundamentally wrong with your relationship. I know several
clients who've moved in with partners in order too silence just such hunches. Two, ten,
30 years later, as I’m helping them process the inevitable breakup, I ask, “When did you
see the problems?” Almost invariably, they respond, “On our second date’ or "The
week we met” or some other astonishingly early moment in their relationship.
Research suggests that we can sense red flags in someone else’s marriage after watching
a troubled couple interact for just a few minutes. Turning this intuition to ourselves,
we can scout for scarlet banners in our love lives – before, not after, moving in
Pay particular attention to what psychologist John Gottman calls the four Horsemen of
relationship apocalypse: withdrawal, criticism, defensiveness, and, above all,
contempt. If these elements characterize your relationship – through exchanges like “
do you have to be such an idiot?” “Only because you have to be such a b**ch” – you
might want to hang on to that loft-for-one. Thinking you can solve basic interpersonal
problems by moving in together is like trying to transform a rabid pit bull into a love
pup by stapling its tail to the parlor floor. You’ll still have a big angry mess on your
hands – only now you’ll be living with it.
2. Articulate your assumptions.
I remember eating at a friend’s house when I was young and noticing that her family
owned bizarrely large, abnormal spoons – I other words, spoons that weren’t exactly
like the ones at my house. To me, our spoons were normal, the definition of What
Spoons Should Be. Most of us outgrow such prejudices as we gain experience, but even
tolerant people retain a surprising number of untested assumptions shaped by life
The old toothpaste tube conflict is a cliché for a reason: All couples have slight-to-
serious differences in their beliefs about what is “normal.” From doing laundry to
dealing with stress, we tend to think that our way is THE way. It isn’t possible to
resolve all these clashing assumptions (or even anticipate them) before shacking up. But
you and your mate can discuss the fact that undiscovered prejudices will emerge, and
have a system in place for dealing with them.
Agree too discuss at least four options whenever styles conflict: my way, your way,
our way, or both ways. For instance, suppose your impoverished childhood taught you
to reuse aluminum foil, while your mate’s family just threw it away. If you and your
partner are pinching pennies, you may decide that reusing is a fabulous idea (your
way). If you become prosperous, you may decide to pitch your used foil (his way). If
this feels wasteful, you could adopt a new custom by recycling (our way). Or you can
simply agree to disagree, giving him permission to toss used bits of foil while you
treasure them like the Dead Sea Scrolls (both ways).
3. Decide who wears which pants when.
Among the myriad assumptions that make cohabitating problematic, there’s a category
so confusing and volatile that it deserves special attention. I’m talking about gender
roles, the expectations about the respective responsibilities of each partner in any given
relationship. In our culture, traditional divisions between “what men should do” and
“what women should do” have been destabilized by massive ideological and economic
trends, creating domestic conflicts in the process.
These days there’s no rule book for divvying up labor at work and at home. Modern
women, as well as men, may wear the pants in the family – but no one’s really sure who
wears which pants when. Do you assume you’ll march off to work in snappy business
trousers while your mate dons sweats and scrubs the kitchen floor? Does your partner
expect to lounge about while you’re out there punching the clock? The expectations
about who does what work – both at home and outside – run bone-deep for most
people. (By the way, I see the same contradictory demands in gay couples, each partner
vying for the aspects of gender roles they most prefer). Unless your assumptions are a
perfect match for your partner’s (not likely), they can create serious rifts when you
begin living together.
You and your partner need to talk about the division of labor in your prospective
household. Domestic and professional responsibilities often conflict, which means you
BOTH might be overburdened. Can you decide now who wears the required pants for
virtually every task involved in managing your household: cooking, cleaning, calling
the plumber, working overtime to pay for new fridge? Figuring out who tackles which
role may take a lot of start-up time, but believe me, it can save you enormous long-
term conflict. To do it right, though, you’ll need some training in negotiation.
4. Negotiate needs, not positions.
In the rosy glow of fairy-tale romance, it seems impossible that you and your true love
will ever have serious differences. Moving in together will dissolve that little illusion as
fast as you can say “What the heck are you doing with my CD collection?” You can
avoid ruining a relationship if you have one negotiation skill: addressing needs rather
To illustrate what I mean, here’s a classic. Two schoolmates are sitting in the same
room, trying to study but arguing instead. One student wants the window open; the
other insists that it must be closed. Just before they come to blows, a teacher asks the
students a simple question: What’s the reason for each one’s position?
“I need fresh air,” says the open-window advocate.
“But the wind is blowing my paper around!” complains his opponent.
The teacher suggests opening a window in the next room, which lets in air without
creating a breeze. Presto, everyone’s happy. This simple strategy has helped many of
my clients smooth out relationship wrinkles. For example, Benny loved to eat out; his
girlfriend, Meg, always wanted to stay home. They argued a lot about this issue. I
asked Benny why he wanted to go out. “I like ethnic food,” he said. Meg’s concern
was that they couldn't afford restaurant meals. Once they identified their objectives, it
took Meg and Benny only minutes to dream up a weekly date, when they’d pick a
menu from an ethnic cookbook, then shop, cook, and eat together. Working from why
– rather than repeating what you want – is one of the quickest ways that I know to
short-circuit arguments like this.
5. Avoid tunnel (of love) vision.
It takes time and effort to establish a workable live-in love. But don’t let the exciting,
tumultuous process of setting up a house distract you from your nonromantic
relationships. Couples who focus too completely on each other may become enmeshed,
develop what I've taken to calling tunnel-of-love vision, and abandon friends, family,
and private time. No matter how engrossing your new living situation may be, this is a
bad idea. Sustaining a happy domestic life requires a resilient support system. And
maintaining that network is imperative, by either spending a few minutes every day in
peaceful solitude or having coffee with friends. You’ll be in a much better position to
handle a career crisis, the death of your goldfish, or a near-lethal PMS shift without
stressing your new roomie beyond all human endurance.
It’s true that the territory beyond moving in together, beyond The End, is less like a
fairy tale than early courtship. The sequel tends to sound less exciting and more
mundane, its themes increasingly subtle and complex. It requires attention to our
intuition, careful expression of confusing emotions, skillful communication, and a good
deal of consistent daily work. The story of a contented life together is frankly less fun
to tell than the uncertain adventure of finding love. On the other hand, it’s much more
fun to live.
Want an honest and long-lasting relationship? Make sure you and your partner can
recite these five statements which are the polar opposites of what most Americans see
as loving commitment:
I Can Live Without You, No Problem!
"I can't live," wails the singer, "if living is without you." The emotion that fuels this kind
of relationship isn't love; it's desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it
invariably fails to meet either partner's needs. If this is how you feel, don't start dating.
Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person
responsible for them: you.
"I can live without you" is an assurance that sets the stage for real love.
My love For You Will Definitely Change!
Most human beings seem innately averse to change. Once we've established some
measure of comfort or stability, we want to nail it in place so that there's no possibility
of loss. Unfortunately, this is another promise that is more likely to scuttle a
relationship than shore it up.
The reason is that everything—and everyone—is constantly changing. We age, grow,
learn, get sick, get well, gain weight, lose weight, find new interests and drop old ones.
Many people fear that if their love is free to change, it will vanish. The opposite is true.
A love that is allowed to adapt to new circumstances is virtually indestructible.
You're Not Everything I Need!
I'm a big fan of sexual monogamy, but I'm puzzled by lovers who claim that their
romantic partner is the only person they need in their lives or that time together is the
only activity necessary for emotional fulfillment. Humans are designed to live in
groups, explore ideas, and constantly learn new skills. Trying to get all this input from
one person is like trying to get a full range of vitamins by eating only ice cream. When a
couple believes "We must fulfill all of each other's needs, each becomes exhausted by the
effort to be all things to the other and neither can develop fully as an individual.
Sacrificing all our individual needs doesn't strengthen a relationship. Mutually
supporting each other's personal growth does.
I Won't Always Hold You Close!
There's a thin line between a romantic statement like "I love you so much, I want to
share my life with you until death do us part" and the lunatic-fringe anthem "I love you
so much that if you try to leave me, I'll kill you." People who say such things love others
the way spiders love flies; they love to capture them, wrap them in immobilizing
fetters, and drain nourishment out of them at peckish moments. This is not the kind of
love you want.
The way you can tell real love from spider love is simple: Possessiveness and
exploitation involve controlling the loved one, whereas true love is based on setting the
beloved free to make his or her own choices.
You And I Aren't One
Perhaps you are neither a spider nor a fly, but a chameleon who morphs to match the
one you love. Or you may date chameleons, choosing partners who conform to your
personality. Either way, you're not in a healthy relationship. In fact, you're not in a
relationship at all.
If you're living by the "We are one" ideal, it's high time you found out how terrific love
for two can be in practice. Follow your heart in a direction your partner wouldn't go.
Dare to explore your differences. Agree to disagree. If you're accustomed to
disappearing, this will allow you to see that you can be loved as you really are. If you
tend to dominate, you'll find out how interesting it is to love an actual person.