My mother gave us a $100 gift certificate to Crate and Barrel, but she didn’t tell me what to anticipate.
I Googled “Moving in with your boyfriend,” but the search results landed with a thud. The advice was dry and didn’t speak to my concerns: How do I know if I’m picking a compatible person to move in with? What if he’s annoyed by my hourlong phone calls with my sister, the sweatpants I wear around the house, or the insane amount of hair I shed on every available surface?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans than ever are choosing to live together before marriage. And the Pew Research Center says more than half of all women aged 19 to 44 who marry for the first time have lived with their husbands before walking down the aisle. Unmarried millennials are more likely to live with their partners than any previous generation at this stage in their lives.
It’s clear why couples find cohabitation so appealing. Aside from the convenience it affords, the prospect of splitting rent and utility bills is too seductive to pass up. Add in a desire to shed roommates and a reluctance to renew a pricey lease, and you can see why plenty of couples choose cohabitation, even if they aren’t exactly sure what comes next.
I was so focused on the elation of moving in with Mike that I didn’t even consider what would happen if our relationship went down in flames. We had never discussed who would stay in the condo, who would take possession of the Passat we leased together, or which one of us would get to keep our three-legged cat, Eleanor.
Turns out we’re not alone. Most couples don’t take the time to walk through the financial and legal implications of cohabitation beforehand. According to leading legal and financial experts, that’s a major mistake and a missed opportunity.
Frederick Hertz, author of “Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples,” says the first step toward moving in together is to figure out what will happen should you part ways: “You can either plan your breakup in a civilized, caring, thoughtful way, or you can try to avoid it and have it be a nasty fight later on.”
If you are renting or own a home, figure out who will stay in the event of a breakup. Nail down who will pay any pesky fees or taxes. Come up with a plan.
In light of this practical advice, I pushed Mike to discuss what would happen if we should break up.
Initially, he was reluctant to discuss the possibility. He said he’d be so devastated that he would start a new life from scratch. While I appreciated the drama of his response, we still needed to develop a road map.
Since Mike had owned his condo before we started dating, we agreed he should continue to live in it. I volunteered to move in with my parents until I found a more permanent place. I’d keep the Passat and pay the remaining payments on the lease. And Eleanor would stay with me. (I was thrilled I could keep the cat, but I didn’t want to cheer too loudly.)
After we settled on the details of our dissolution, we gave each other a long hug.
Pam Friedman, a marital financial expert and author of “I Now Pronounce You Financially Fit,” agrees that the biggest mistake couples make is moving in together before having these candid talks. She advises couples to be honest about their fears and insecurities and meet them head on: What happens if we break up? Or get sick? Or die?
Some unmarried couples might benefit from a cohabitation agreement, also known as a no-nup, a legal agreement about who gets what in the event of a breakup or major life event.
“You’ve got to think five steps ahead,” Ms. Friedman said. “And it’s no fun at first. Then it becomes a project you can work on together.”
Apart from thorny financial and legal concerns, cohabitation creates a new set of emotional constraints for couples as well.
Galena Rhoades, a professor and researcher who studies cohabitation at the University of Denver, calls it a “sandwich period,” when people juggle dating and marriage issues concurrently.
“When you live together,” Dr. Rhoades explained, “you face all the issues dating couples face — time together, managing friends, jealousy, ex-partners — but you also face all the issues married couples face, like household contributions, managing money together and planning for future expenditures.”
It can be an especially risky undertaking if the couple immediately goes from a long-distance relationship to cohabitation. Katie Leggett and Allen Hotchkiss did just that. The couple dated for over a year while Ms. Leggett lived in the West Village and Mr. Hotchkiss lived in Chicago. Then they moved into an apartment together in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“We knew we could get more bang for our buck if we just took the plunge and moved in together when my lease was up, versus getting separate studios, or dealing with roommates for another year in our late 20s,” Ms. Leggett said. “It was definitely an adjustment.”
“There were very few surprises upon moving in with each other,” Mr. Hotchkiss recalled. “Talking about all of the possible ‘what if’ scenarios is the only way to make sure living together is the right move.”
A self-confessed Type A germophobe, Ms. Leggett follows a strict set of rules: No shoes in the house and no clothes that have been worn on the subways on the bed. She showers twice a day.
Mr. Hotchkiss is more laid back. “For me, it was about picking the right battles and respecting Katie’s key points of contention, like taking my shoes off at the door or not wearing my ‘subway clothes’ on the bed,” Mr. Hotchkiss said. This willingness to meet in the middle eased the transition considerably.
Mike and I slid into certain habits when it came to chores. I’m happiest food shopping, cooking meals and emptying the dishwasher. Mike prefers washing the dishes, doing the laundry, making the bed and taking out the trash.
The key, says Jolie Kerr, Esquire’s cleaning advice columnist and host of the podcast “Ask a Clean Person,” is to treat each other as teammates rather than adversaries: “You play to each other’s strengths.”
We were happy to assign chores based on whoever expressed more enthusiasm. However it quickly became evident that our cleanliness standards are wildly different.
Mike can spot a sesame seed five yards away, and he folds his T-shirts into precise, flat squares. I leave a trail of crumbs in my wake, and my clothes are not so much folded as herded into a vague rectangle. We had to adjust our standards. I’m learning to sweep up my errant crumbs, and he’s learning to live with a little chaos.
And I knew Mike detested clutter, but we didn’t have any discussions about how we would adjust his 874-square-foot space to fit both our physical needs. Apparently, this lack of conversation around design is also very common.
Sheena Murphy, a founder and designer at a Brooklyn-based design studio called Sheep and Stone, encourages partners to be explicit about their expectations and boundaries: “One of the biggest things people don’t do is talk about living together, what that means and how you’re going to set up your home.”
After a year of dating, Armando Morales and Annie Simeone decided it was silly for them both to be paying New York City rents, especially since hers was twice what he paid. Last June they figured they could make it work in Mr. Morales’s apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, pending a drastic reworking of the space.
Fortunately, Ms. Simeone works as a production designer for film and television. She created a rendering of the apartment and its furniture layout using a three-dimensional modeling program, which allowed her to envision various floor plans. Mr. Morales crafted custom shelving so they could save even more space.
“We have a classic New York railroad, with a kitchen on one end and the bedroom on the other. In between is an office and a living room,” Mr. Morales said. “It’s perfect for a couple in that you can be together but also have separate space when you need it.”
Another reason couples choose to cohabitate is to spend more time together. It’s been interesting to see how Mike and I use that time.
Like most modern couples, we are never far away from our cellphones. We’re quick to browse social media at the slightest lull in conversation. I prefer to scroll through Facebook while he’s more of a Twitter guy. Over time, I sensed that our willingness to plug in (and ignore each other) was affecting the quality of our interactions.
Christine Carter, author of “The Sweet Spot” and “Raising Happiness,” sees this play out in plenty of couples. She recommends setting ground rules for technology usage and minimizing double-screen time, as she calls it.
If you’re doing something mindless with your partner, like watching TV, just focus on that. Don’t also check your work email, play Candy Crush or do anything else to draw your attention away from each other.
“Your partner can be a source of deep and lasting joy, connection, meaning, fulfillment,” Dr. Carter said. “Your phone cannot.”
In the end, some of my initial concerns proved silly. Mike doesn’t mind that I shed like Mr. Snuffleupagus in August. When I conduct marathon phone calls with my sister, he catches up on his social media apps. He’s happy to scrub the toilet, as long as I clean the shower.
We are stronger for taking this step and navigating our sandwich phase — this premarriage, postdating bubble — with clear eyes.
Having those difficult talks about our finances and being more mindful of the space we share, the chores we perform and the habits we cultivate, we’re well on our way to creating a happy home.
After living together for two years — and after countless loads of laundry and a dizzying number of dishwasher cycles — Mike and I tied the knot on April 21, 2017. Eleanor is thrilled.