By Katy Macek
You fell in love with your best friend. You two share everything, and, let’s be honest, you’re at his or her place more than your own. At first, you joke, “Maybe I should just move in.” Then you actually consider it. But are you really ready for sharing dish duty and cleaning the other’s hair out of the bathtub drain?
The only successful way to live with someone—whether it’s your partner, roommate or elderly parent—is to communicate your intentions before making that big step, says Chloe Moore, an advanced practice social worker. “Establish boundaries and roles that are utilizing both parties’ interests and natural strengths,” she says. “Identify what each party expects the other to manage and coordinate.”
This is especially important for women, who, whether because of history, underlying stereotypes or some combination, end up doing more than their share of housework or home organizing. In fact, several notable articles in 2018 and 2019 in The Guardian, Financial Times and Fast Company back this up: Women today spend an average of an hour and 20 minutes cooking, cleaning and doing laundry versus about half an hour per day for men. “This household chore inequality is evident over time, across professions, and even when women work longer hours and make more money,” notes a July 2019 Fast Company article.
Though Moore says there is not research to suggest an increase in anxiety and depression in women specifically because of shouldering more household responsibility, “anecdotally, we do see women in therapy often who are struggling with ways to make cohabitation work.”
Whether it’s how you treat each other, organize your space, plan joint meals or divvy out your finances (or not), here are some tips for cohabitation success.
Creating a home
Everything in your home can have a “ripple effect through every aspect of our lives,” says professional organizer Nicole Gruter. In other words, how your space is organized can greatly impact your emotional health—and your relationship’s health.
Before moving in together, Gruter suggests communicating your expectations and desires for the space. This conversation should include boundaries, ground rules, deal-breakers and what you require to live comfortably. For example, you’re OK with dirty dishes sitting in the sink, while your partner must have them washed after each meal or loaded in the dishwasher right away.
“There can’t be any assumptions, because we all live very differently,” she says. “Even if it’s just little details, those can turn into big arguments.”
Changing living patterns takes time, she adds, so don’t expect changes to happen overnight. After that, she says, you have to be willing to compromise.
“You want to prioritize whether the space is more important than the object,” she says. “It can be a source of strain and stress but also of growth, understanding and empathy.”
Moving into a new space together is different from one person moving into the other’s home, she adds. Fitting someone into what’s already there can lead to feelings of resentment.
To avoid this, she suggests gutting and decorating one room together, whether that means purchasing new furniture, a new piece of art or just rearranging what’s already there. This is a lot of work, but ultimately worth it.
“It’s putting the couple’s stamp on a place, and I think that has a lot of power behind it,” Gruter says. “Otherwise, the other person may not feel like it’s their home. I’ve seen that bubble to the surface over time.”
In non-romantic cohabitation situations, she imagines those scenarios would require creating very distinct spacial boundaries, so each person has their own zone.
Making money work
When UW Credit Union assistant branch manager Lindsey Elliott got married, she and her husband did what they thought most married couples do: Joined their finances.
Shortly after they married, however, she says that wasn’t working for them. They felt like they had to ask each other for permission for every purchase—and it stressed them out more.
“My husband makes more money than I do, but he’s also a bigger spender and I’m a better saver,” she says. “We thought we just had to do this, but we didn’t.”
Now, the couple maintains separate checking accounts for their “fun” money and each deposits a certain amount into a joint account for monthly expenses and date nights. And, she says, they’re much more content.
However, she says finances differ for every couple, and most of the time it comes down to personality and spending habits. At UW Credit Union, she says, these are the first topics that come up when she’s speaking with couples about whether they should open a joint checking account.
“It’s about having an open and honest conversation about where your finances are,” Elliott says. “And not being afraid. If it doesn’t work one way, you can change it.”
Couples who have similar spending habits might benefit from a joint checking account, she says, or couples with children who have more shared expenses. She also thinks it could lead to more transparent conversations about finances.
While it’s mostly couples who discuss joint checking accounts at UW Credit Union, Elliott says, especially at their downtown branches, they also see roommates open accounts together to avoid sending money back and forth.
Adult children who are taking care of sick or elderly parents also should consider a joint account, she says. This leads to less hassle when dealing with illnesses and can be helpful to have someone who can navigate technology.
“If something happens, there are less hurdles to access the finances,” she says. “And we do see a lot of elder abuse, so having another adult on there to double-check everything is helpful.”
Help! We eat different things.
There is perhaps nothing more enjoyable than sitting down to savor a meal with a loved one. But what if that loved one is a practicing vegan while you love a medium-rare filet mignon?
Don’t panic, says certified nutritionist Maria Viall. Living with someone who views food differently than you is possible—and even enjoyable. Her golden rule for success? Acceptance.
“Even if you don’t necessarily agree, you’re probably not going to get them to eat how you do,” says Viall, who has never in her practice or her own relationships, seen that happen. “All you can do is accept that you might be able to encourage them or make food that satisfies both [of you].”
But that doesn’t mean two people with different preferences can’t make things work. Viall’s partner, for example, loves a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon, while she prefers a green smoothie. So, each morning, they make their own—together.
“We can both sit down and enjoy our respective breakfasts together,” she says. “We can make it social without eating the same thing.”
She calls this concept “communal dining,” or the idea that the socialization happening around the dinner table is as important as the food you’re eating.
Another idea is to create a “family-style” meal. In the case of a vegan and carnivore, she suggests having fish or chicken alongside a protein substitute such as smoked tempeh or roasted vegetables.
“Having that dining-out mentality in our own homes can be helpful,” she says.
She also suggests experimenting with different ways to cook, such as substituting coconut oil for butter. “It’s about finding things in the middle you both enjoy.”
To alleviate the stress that could come with cooking different dishes, she suggests alternating nights of cooking, perhaps on a nightly or weekly basis, and the same with grocery shopping.
It all comes down to communicating.
“Without having that conversation of how to navigate that as a couple, it’s going to be really hard,” she says. “The whole thing with cohabitating is that you are together. This isn’t all on one person.”
This won’t work unless you do
Household stressors can have the biggest impact on a relationship. Small things like your partner not taking the garbage out or never cleaning up a mess can add up over time. Judy Utevsky, a therapist with the Family Therapy Center of Madison, says agreeing on who is doing which household chores before crossing the threshold of your new home is important, even if those conversations are awkward or difficult.
Utevsky recommends splitting work into three categories: What you can’t stand doing, what you like to do and what you’re willing to do. Based on that discussion, agree who will do what, and don’t be afraid to change it over time.
“It’s about making a request and having a discussion,” she says. Have conversations such as, “This is how I need to live to be a sane human being,” and “Can you do this?” before moving in.
She suggests using “intentional dialogue” or making an appointment to sit down and talk about a specific topic. Then, by taking turns to speak and listen, each person gets a chance to share their side of the story.
If you’re still not clicking, it’s not time to give up yet, says Moore. Individual or couples’ therapy can be a great resource to learn better communication skills and get an outsider’s perspective on the relationship—whether it be romantic, a new family or adult children moving in with parents.
But, Moore adds, don’t try to make something work if it’s not causing you joy. Know where to draw the line.
“It’s OK to terminate a bad relationship,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to live with things that are making you stressed and uncomfortable.”
However, experts all agreed that these conversations—about finances, food, organization, household chores or otherwise—should happen before moving in together. Then, the odds of a successful cohabitation increase.
Utevsky says it comes down to accepting that another person’s way of thinking may be different than your own and finding a way to navigate those differences with care.
“According to marriage researcher John Gottman, the biggest predictor of a marriage succeeding is a man’s willingness to accept influence from his wife,” she says. “In all relationships, LGBTQ and heterosexual, accepting influence from one’s partner or spouse is important. Each person needs to be able to hear what the other is asking and be willing to look at things differently.”