My partner and I just moved in together again this summer after a year of long distance, a year broken up and two-and-a-half years of dating and living together before that, going back almost five years now. We’ve struggled through my partner’s depression and almost addict-level lying problem, and we resurfaced with a surprisingly strong relationship. Living together has always been a source of reassurance—we do it well and love sharing space, when there is enough of it, but cohabitating is also where the small stuff turns into big stuff. In the past, my effort at homemaking definitely outweighed my partner’s, which was a source of stress and sadness.
In round two of living together, we’re renegotiating what boundaries mean. I mean all boundaries: personal, physical and aesthetic. We are both hard-headed, and I am guilty of fretting over more of the small stuff while my partner simmers, letting those complaints creep up later.
What are your thoughts on how to balance autonomy with intimacy when it comes to living with a partner? How can we both be strong-minded, independent people who spend our time fairly differently but build a physical and emotional home that is common ground? How can we make sure that we don’t fall into old patterns?
One way we’ve been meeting in the middle is a weekly check-in. We each state three things we admire or appreciate about the other, plus one request or complaint. This has given us a routine space to address the small stuff. But there’s bigger stuff, too. How do we make sure we’re not losing our big-picture selves in all of the little compromises?
Recently, my mother and I hosted a family reunion. Add this to a long list of things I never thought I’d do. But after one lasagna, two trays of chicken Marbella and three bottles of wine I looked around the table and realized it was happening.
My modern family includes ex-husbands and wives, new boyfriends, 40-year marriages, unmarried cohabitation and lifelong singletons, and I thought they might have some advice for you on this particular moment.
The general consensus is that there isn’t a secret to cohabitation. My aunt and uncle lived on a boat together once, and it sent them into therapy. My parents lived together for 20 years and never agreed once on a color of a wall. My mom and her boyfriend couldn’t be happier with him doing all the cleaning and her doing all the cooking. My cousin and his wife don’t have any time to think about what makes a good relationship because they spend every ounce of mental energy they have chasing around their twins.
I personally have never officially moved in with somebody I was romantically involved with, but I have come close. I’ve also had some really wonderful and really terrible roommates. I suppose a modern cohabitation at its best is somewhere between living with a ghost (pretty much invisible, sometimes entertaining, always surprisingly) and living with your parent (brings you soup, listens to your fears, lets you cry on their shoulder).
My advice for you this week is about that dance of togetherness and aloneness that modern couples attempt every day. I, like my family, have no single answer, but I do have some guidelines.
MAKE YOUR OWN TIME
There’s a lot of talk these days about extroverted introverts and introverted extroverts and all that jazz. I’m not sure how Myers-Briggs you want to get about your relationship, but if you know you need to be alone a fair amount to feel sane, then set that up early. Maybe steal one of those “Do Not Disturb” signs from a hotel to hang on the bedroom when you need to. We all have a teenager inside of us who doesn’t want to be messed with, and your partner has just moved in with that person so let them know early.
MAKE YOUR OWN SPACE
My dad had a basement, and my mom had a desk. My uncle has his piano, and my aunt has her garden. Figure out what of your shared space you need domain over, and then articulate that. We’re not talking red-tape-no-go-zones, but it’s important to have ownership over a physical area.
MAKE YOUR OWN FRIENDS
Do things solo where you meet people on your own. Especially if you’ve just moved to a spot where you don’t know that many people. Strike out on your own to meet people doing things that you want. That way you’ll have somebody to complain to about the other one.
MAKE A CONTRACT TOGETHER
Before I was a sex columnist I was a kindergarten teacher. We used to make behavior contracts at the beginning of every school year. They included things like “respect yourself, respect others and respect our environment.” Agreeing on some things at the very start will serve you well down the line. Things such as snack time. And naps.
MAKE FOOD TOGETHER
People who eat together get along better. Ask yourself how often you want to commit to sitting down to each together and then do it.
MAKE FRIENDS TOGETHER
I personally have never understood “couple friends.” Duos that hang out with other duos and talk about duo things. It just seems like watered-down conversation most of the time. However, if you feel you don’t have a great model of partnership in your own home, it’s essential to go out and find some. Spend time with these people. Make them an integral part of your life. Moving in with your romantic partner can be isolating, so situate yourselves as part of a larger community where you can talk. Plus, maybe someday these people will look after your kids for free. Just saying…
REMEMBER THAT CONFLICT CAN BE SEXY
I have two friends who live together and fight constantly. It seems like they’re always just about to get into an argument or are just getting out of one. BUT as far as I can tell they have one of the healthier sex lives of any couple I know. Humans weren’t built to get along all the time. I hear make-up sex is great. It’s cool to yell sometimes, just as long as you refer back to your kindergarten contract at the end of the day.
YOU WILL MESS IT UP
About halfway through the family reunion my cousin leaned over to me and said, “People wait way too long to get married.” I was surprised, given that he waited till his 40s. But I think what he meant was that people think they’re preparing for marriage in those years before they actually do it. But when you’re actually in a cohabitation, it’s a whole other bag. Partnership is messy. Don’t aim for awesome. Aim for OK. Or as somebody really smart recently said to me, “Don’t try to stay open. Just try not to close.”
We could all learn a lot from that.
Just the Tips is Playboy.com’s weekly advice column with professional matchmaker Katherine Cooper. Have a question for Katherine about sex, love or dating? Shoot her a note at email@example.com or follow her @kathkathcoop.