Cohabitating is a personal decision that should be given deep thought; it can be a great way to join two lives or a disaster waiting to happen. We talked with self-help expert and relationship coach John McGrail and Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days author Jonathan Alpert about the 15 things to consider before you start packing.
1. Living together before marriage won't fix pre-existing problems.
In fact, it will probably make them worse. If you fight constantly, battle over commitment issues, or feel generally uncomfortable living apart, moving in together is relationship suicide. This is especially true of couples who are already at odds over whether or not to marry. Living with somebody opposed to marriage won't make them change their mind, and moving in with somebody who expects marriage won't pacify their need for commitment. "They're not going to change their mind," McGrail says. "If one really has that sense of needing a commitment and the other one doesn't, the chance of that dynamic changing through living together is very slim."
2. Talk about where you stand.
The goals of cohabitation should be clear from the outset. Is it a trial period, is it a lifelong commitment, and what are your plans for the future? "I think it's important to have a discussion about the status of the relationship," Alpert says. "Where are we? Are we looking for the same things, are we both looking for marriage or staying together but not marriage?" Don't wait until you've signed a lease to talk about where you see the relationship going. If you don't feel comfortable talking to somebody about where you stand with them, you probably won't feel comfortable living with them.
3. You shouldn't do it to save money.
Just because something saves money doesn't mean it's practical. "So often I see people who move in together because they're trying to save money, and it just turns disastrous," Alpert says. "It's not the best motivation." Deciding to live together before marriage is a huge step and a choice that is better made out of love and commitment. Sure, saving money is a perk, but it can't be the deciding factor.
4. Lifestyle issues that never mattered suddenly will.
Things you never thought of before will be unavoidable topics after the move. "Have you talked about finances, have you talked about children, how do you feel about exclusivity in a relationship, have you seen the habits and behaviors of the other person?" McGrail asks. "And where you have to make compromises, is it okay?" Spending habits, hygiene, religion, sleep schedules, and social habits are just a few of the lifestyle choices that can cause huge conflicts. "These things aren't really known when you're dating," Alpert says. "But when you live together, that's when everything comes out."
5. There may be territory issues.
"In a perfect world, you would get a new place altogether, as opposed to moving into on a partner's place," Alpert says. We realize that isn't always possible, but if it is, it will help to quell any territorial issues. In the event that one of you is a homeowner or your existing leases don't line up, it's important for the current owner to realize they are moving into a shared sphere. "There needs to be an understanding on the part of the homeowner that if you're agreeing to cohabitate, what's yours is theirs," Alpert says.
6. Agree on financial responsibilities.
Before you live together, splitting financial duties is fairly simple and rarely awkward. Someone buys dinner here, the other picks up a bar tab there. Living together means bigger bills on a more regular basis. "It's important that the couple agree, whichever way they are going to do it," McGrail says. Both experts suggest splitting the bills in half, or contributing a percentage of each income to the bills. "If people are earning similar salaries, then it certainly makes sense to split it down the middle," Alpert says. "If there is a discrepancy in earnings, then a similar percentage seems to work well." Whatever you do, be sure both parties agree wholeheartedly before the move, and don't forget to discuss what will happen in the event that one of you is out of work for a while.
7. Other people will be affected.
This won't just be a change for you and your partner—a lot of people you may not have considered will factor in. Maybe you and your best friend still do sleepovers, or your parents pop by every single Sunday. This may not fly once you're sharing space, and you are certain to get a lot of mixed reviews on your move. "There is still some level of societal disapproval with people who cohabitate," McGrail says. "That's not nearly as prevalent as it was 15 to 20 years ago, but it's still there." Most times you can let other people's opinions on your cohabitation go in one ear and out the other, but if one or both of you have children or come from a culture that is deeply opposed to living together before marriage, it may be worth it to give pause to the move.
8. You will rely on each other more.
"The dynamic will often change," Alpert says. And often in ways you never considered. Not only are you more apt to fight over small differences (see #4), but you're definitely going to depend on each other for much more. Cohabitating means sharing big responsibilities: financial, emotional, and practical. Is this the person you want to hash out a grocery list with, come home to after a bad day, and ask to bring you a roll of toilet paper when you run out in a particularly embarrassing situation?
9. Do a possession purge.
You can't realistically bring two vacuums, two blenders, two coffee tables, and 10 frying pans into your shared space. Technically, yes, you actually can; but it will be too cluttered, not to mention awkward. Keeping all of your belongings suggests the move is temporary—if it is a trial period, it's better to get a storage unit or lend some things out for a while. If you're sure it's a permanent union, go through your things together and get rid of extras in a way that makes you both feel satisfied.
10. Make a plan for dividing chores.
"One of the things that has to be discussed is how to divide chores," Alpert says. "There may be certain things he likes doing or she likes doing, so have a conversation about that." If you're both busy and contributing financially, it's fair that you share household responsibilities. Discuss these things before living together, and figure out who enjoys what most, who hates certain things, and what you will do about it. There is a whole gamut of things to consider: Who will make dinner? Who will clean the toilet seat? How much does a sink full of dishes bother each of you? "Some people are very, very picky about how their environment looks—they keep the place clean and tidy, wash the dishes after every meal," McGrail says. "Other people, it's not so important to them." It's far from a sexy topic, but it will prevent a lot of arguing.
11. You'll lose your privacy.
"When people are in a relationship but not living together, they know they can always retreat to their own place if they want privacy," Alpert says. "When you live together, you eliminate that option." Think about that long and hard, but also keep an open mind. All the things you do alone in your home, you'll probably now have to do in the presence of another person. Do you like to hang out naked? bleach your facial hair? binge on bad reality TV? or maybe all three at once? Someone might see that. But here is the good news: It's probably someone who likes seeing you naked and will love you no matter where you grow hair. If you can't bear the thought, then you're not ready for this.
12. It's more important than ever to make time for yourself.
"When people make that transition from being in a relationship to living together, there is often an expectation that they need to spend every minute together because that's what they're used to," Alpert says. "Just because you're living together, you don't need to spend every moment together." You will spend so much time together—like, too much time together. Be understanding, and give your partner space; and let them know that you need space, too. Making time with your friends or just spending a few hours alone will do wonders for each person's sanity.
13. Hope for the best—plan for the worst.
What we are not saying is to move in with somebody expecting to move out. What we are saying is to have some sort of loose exit strategy in case things go south. You don't need to have an apartment on reserve or anything—you aren't Carrie Bradshaw—but you should have some money saved up in case you need to break your lease, put down a new deposit, or hire a moving truck in a hurry.
14. Successful cohabitation doesn't always mean a smooth marriage.
"It can be a great way for a couple to find out how compatible they are, and in some ways it can be an indicator as to what they could expect, should they go further and get married," McGrail says, "However, as I mentioned, I have found through experience that regardless how long a couple lives together, the second they get married, there is a change in the energy." An official, legal commitment like marriage will definitely change things, whether it's for the better or for the worse. Living together before marriage is a great indication of compatibility, but it is not a perfect picture of how marriage will be. "A lot of times, people can kind of hold it together for a year or so. They can be on their best behavior," Alpert adds. If cohabitation is smooth sailing, it's probably good news, but don't rely on that experience entirely.
15. Only you really know.
You and your partner are the only ones who really know when it's time to move in, how to handle responsibilities, and whether you're a good fit. All relationships are different, and you don't need to check off everything on this list to make it work, and there may be things you need to do that aren't on the list. The most important thing is only entering into an emotional and financial agreement that makes you feel comfortable, respected, and loved. Anything else is bad news.