The Truth About Living Together

Experts share smart tips for a smooth transition

Updated 12/06/06

Andrew Cobb

We never sent a save-the-date. The invitations had not been printed yet. Then they were printed, but not yet addressed. Then they were addressed, but not stamped. When my fiancé, Jamie, and I decided to move in together four months before our wedding, sometimes we acted—or acted out—very much unlike a couple in love. In the wake of every horrible argument we had as we got used to being roommates, these were my thoughts: The invitations aren't mailed yet—cancelling the whole thing wouldn't be so bad, would it?

One morning, as I was rushing around our apartment getting ready for work, we got into a fight about something very small and stupid, so small I can't even remember what it was. A few minutes into the argument, I said, "Do you think we should just end this?" "End the fight?" Jamie asked, cocking his head in confusion. "No, end this. Us. Break up," I answered. "We're not breaking up over this," he said. "Go to work and we'll talk in a little bit."

I should here note that I catastrophize everything. I was born worrying and doubting. I live my life as a semiprofessional storm cloud. Jamie, on the other hand, is the pragmatic optimist. I like to think that's what makes us so good for each other. But too often after we moved in during our engagement, I forgot all that in the stress of getting used to sharing space, as well as planning a wedding and working overtime to pay for it.

In talking to other brides, I found out that my experience was hardly unique. A couple moving in together is in a difficult situation to begin with. That becomes even more complex (a.k.a. worse), however, when the two are engaged and approaching a wedding; every fight seems that much louder because everything gets punctuated with the thought till-death-do-us-part>.

One New York woman, who moved into a city-size apartment with her fiancé three months before they got married, confided to me that, during what she knew was supposed to be the happiest time of her life, she immediately switched to thinking, What the f--k have I done? Other engaged couples move in together before starting the wedding planning as a way of testing the domestic waters: If the whole sharing-a-home thing is a disaster, they can still back out.

Romantic? No, but this sentiment is common—and so are the nonstop battles. "You're engaged and living together, and all of a sudden fighting more than ever, and you're flashing forward to all the arguments you're going to have for the rest of your life," says Sarah Jones of Encino, CA, who moved into an apartment with her fiancé, Gregg Stern, 11 months before their wedding. "I found myself irrationally despising him in advance—not so much for the argument we were having, but because he would be the person I would be fighting with forever." And often such feelings can lead to thoughts like, Maybe I should have dealt with all this before we gave the caterer a multithousand-dollar deposit or, Why did I decide my color scheme before I figured out how to live with this man who I can't even bear to be in the same room with while he chews his food?

At least part of what makes it so hard for engaged couples is the fact that he's your betrothed and not just a bunkmate. When there's a lot of tension in a plain old roommate situation, one or the other can just move out at the end of the lease. Even unengaged romantic couples who move in together have an escape hatch: breaking up. If things don't work out, sure it's painful, but there's not the added ignominy of then sending back the gifts and selling an unused bridal gown on eBay.

But some couples just don't know when to call it quits. "I had always been very judgmental of people who got married when they knew they shouldn't have—people who didn't have the courage to back out of their marriage because the wedding-planning train had left the station and there was no way of stopping it," says Jennifer Shotz of Brooklyn. "They knew, in their heart of hearts, they shouldn't marry this person. Sometimes, the wedding takes on more importance than the marriage." But after moving in with her then-fiancé, Brian Murphy, in spring 2003, Jennifer found herself having a good amount of empathy for people who just couldn't put a stop to all the wedding plans. "There are so many major decisions to be made, so many financial issues to work out, and all kinds of complicated family matters that you're dealing with while adjusting to the fact that you've just moved in together. So I began to question myself, Brian, our relationship, and even the wedding itself," says Jennifer, who eventually was able to put her doubts aside.

Even if you're completely sure about the guy you're marrying, you may still have second thoughts about giving up your individual life and lifestyle. "Moving in together means couples are joining more than just their piles of stuff—they're joining their habits and individual quirks," says Erica Ecker, a professional organizer and owner of The Spacialist in New York City. So, yes, this definitely might mean grit-teethedly enduring his Bubba recliner... or having a judgment-free (more likely judgment-lite) conversation about its (hopeful) eviction from your new home.

While cooperation and compromise are needed for shared space, Sarah found out (after many arguments) how important it is to designate areas of the apartment for each member of the couple. "Someone told me it was crucial to have a space that was mine alone—even if it was just a shelf. I thought, Don't be ridiculous. I'll have more than a shelf. But it's crazy, I didn't." In retrospect, she realizes, "The first thing men do is claim their territory, and I should have been more forceful staking out my space, too, the minute we moved in. Kind of like negotiating for vacation days before you take the new job."

For Alysia Poe of New York City, maintaining separate closets with her fiancé was an excellent start to happier cohabiting—one of those small but crucial ingredients in the marital recipe. "Even though we are sharing almost everything for the first time, we each have a space that's just for us," Alysia says. "We get to keep whatever we just can't throw out. He has seven nautical photos in his closet, and I have a stack of foreign-language novels."

Women who have lived with roommates before moving in with their fiancés may have it a little easier. At least they're used to shared quarters. Those who have been living alone, however, often face more complicated adjustments to a life of cohabitation than negotiating their own closets. "I had a really hard time at first not having my own quiet space," says one New Yorker who'd lived alone for a decade before moving in with her fiancé. "I missed the feng shui of a place that was all mine. I missed talking on the phone to friends without anyone listening in." To catch some privacy, she would head out to the gourmet café around the corner. In time, though, she learned that it was okay to need time alone, but to behave more like an adult about itmdash;in other words, without stomping to the door or slamming it on the way out. "Things improved for both of us," she says.

Many brides report that the good news is that the biggest source of contention is the wedding itself—which means there's an end in sight. "About 70 percent of the fights Gregg and I have ever had were about the wedding," Sarah remembers. "And my mom won every time." If nothing else, those fights can serve as entry points into discussions about larger issues. "I'm a firm believer in wedding-planning as a metaphor for negotiating marriage," Jennifer says. "Our fights were about whether to splurge on the expensive portable toilets, but they were also about how we thought about money and how we problem-solved." Such arguing can be a good thing, says Pamela Berger, a Brooklyn psychotherapist: "When you compromise, you are allowing for the other person's needs, and that's an essential part of what it means to be in a partnership in the first place."

As for Jamie and me, we finally were able to put that partnership first. Once again, we became a couple instead of a wedding-planning, box-unpacking twosome. We made furniture for our new home and took off for long weekends. And I realized, after truly opening my eyes and looking at this wonderful, loving (sometimes maddening) gift of a man, that no two people can move into a spot with all their worldly belongings and agree about everything right off the bat—or ever. Living together calls for attention to lots of details. It may involve a few tears and sometimes being in a lethal mood. It's a lot like planning a wedding.

Peaceful unpacking can be an art—and a challenge. But with a solid game plan, says Linda Rothschild, founder of Cross It Off Your List, a New York City company that helps people get organized, you two really can live together without murder. Here's how:

Don't expect an even split. "One person may have better things than the other, so you have to be realistic about what's going to work," Rothschild says. "You're merging. It's no 'me and mine' anymore. " She insists that you be ruthless about what to keep and what to toss. If you and your fiancé are a partnership of pack rats, Rothschild encourages calling in a neutral third party to mediate. "It should be someone who has no vested interest, like a professional organizer, or someone with a good eye for decorating," she says. Hopefully, that person can talk some sense into both of you (and loosen your death grip around the disintegrating hockey pads he hasn't worn in a decade).

Don't hang together. Ideally, both partners should have their own closet—"and the woman should get the bigger one," Rothschild says, laughing. To maximize closet space, she recommends hanging a second, lower horizontal bar and installing built-in shelves. An armoire, too, is helpful.

Be paper smart. "Every home needs a place for paper to live," Rothschild says. She recommends designating a certain area—a spot for the bills, a place for the wedding-response cards—that both partners are comfortable with and can remember to use (preferably near the door or the computer).

Display with discretion. "You can keep that sentimental something out of view," Rothschild says. Consider a shadowbox, which can convert clutter to art—his collection of bicentennial quarters and lucky bottle opener that look like mish-mash on the desk can be a form of modern art on the wall in a shadowbox. Well, sort of.

Make room for the registry gifts. "I see so many couples who have boxes and boxes of stuff they don't use because they don't have shelf or closet space to put them, and all this goes into an attic or basement at the parents' house or in storage," Rothschild says. So in planning your registry, make sure you will have a place for your treasured items.

A seamless move-in calls for lots of cardboard boxes and, most importantly, straight talk and a spirit of compromise between you and your fiancé. Elana Katz, a psychotherapist in New York City and a teaching faculty member of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, recommends that engaged couples try these five simple guidelines:

Seek virgin territory. In a perfect world—which, granted, isn't even in the same solar system as the real estate market—you'd be moving into a brand-new place together. When one of you invades the other's space, however, it's that much harder to create new house rules that suit (and benefit) both of you. "People don't recognize how different sensibilities and styles can be," Dr. Katz says. "Most of us take our own style as the given and the other's as aberrant."

Converse about cash. "It's so unsexy to talk about money," Dr. Katz points out, but it needs to be done. Before you move in, discuss how the household finances will be split or covered, depending upon your respective incomes. Plus, Dr. Katz says, talk about how your lifestyle might change. Moving in can feel really different if you're used to going out to restaurants and all of a sudden, you're eating frozen pizza every night.

Tackle the mundane. Short of making a construction-paper chore wheel, sit down and figure out who will do what around the house. "If you don't deal with it, it's in the foreground all the time," says Dr. Katz.

Fight right. "Try to avoid sentences that start with "You always" or "You never," she says. And instead of saying what he's doing wrong ("You slob! You left your socks on the floor—again!"), Dr. Katz suggests that you gently let your know how his actions affect you inside ("I love being your fiancé , but not feeling like your maid."). Then strike a bargain: He can leave the socks on the floor in the bedroom (maybe!) but not in the living room. The idea is to make sure that the solution is livable for both parties.

Make a date to duke it out. When one of you wants to talk about something that's bothering you, the other may not want to deal with it just then. Both people should be prepared for those "big topic" conversations. So, Dr. Katz suggests that instead of saying, "I don't want to talk about it" and leaving the subject suspended, try "I've had a rough day and am not at my best, but Saturday morning, we'll grab coffee, take a walk, and circle the park until we solve this."

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