First-Year Survival: The Art of Fine-Tuning Everyday Life

Here's how to get off on the best foot when you begin living with someone.

Posted Sep 05, 2020

 john hain/Pixabay
Source: john hain/Pixabay

That first year or two of living together or being married can be tough. It brings together that rubbing of lives, life-in-the-details, intimacy in a totally new way, and often those details, those specific, and often annoying behaviors, are what often drive new couples crazy. It's a real challenge that the statistics bear out—after the seven-year itch, one of the biggest danger points for couples is getting through that first year. Whether you get through it successfully or not depends on how accommodative you are to each other's pet peeves.

Why? Because when you move from dating—seeing you a few times a week, can do what I want a majority of the time—is way different from suddenly being together in close quarters large parts of the day. Problems that may get swept under the rug while dating, now are bombarding you seemingly 24/7. And this is a time where couples instinctively try to establish patterns and routines to stay sane—figuring out who takes out the trash, who cooks dinner, what we do when dinner is done, dividing up household chores—and this is when individual habits trigger annoyances. While most couples somehow work it out, some couples literally can't work this out and break up.

Here are the seven keys to getting off on the best foot:

1. Decide what's absolutely important.

Putting the toilet seat up? Not leaving papers on the dining room table or clothes on the bedroom floor? Not leaving hair in the sink or looking at your phone at dinner?

What you want here is not a laundry list of 30 items but a shortlist of three or four. The laundry list is not only overwhelming but marks you as a control freak, a micromanager that will only result in retaliation or passive-aggressiveness. Decide on the big items and focus on them.

2. Own your problem.

While you likely see your partner's behavior as obviously just plain stupid, wrong, or incomprehensible, the problem is truly yours and yours alone. You are the one feeling annoyed. Take responsibility and own it. This is your first step in talking with your partner. Talk about your problem, not his or hers. Talk about what is bothering you and why based not on him or her but on your own upbringing or habits. Say you are looking for help with your problem.

3. Be concrete.

Vague sounding comments result in vague, unsatisfying, not-quite results, even if the other guy feels they're doing their best. Put the toilet seat down is clear. Pick up your clothes, clean up in the bathroom before you leave, not so much. Define specific behaviors you'd like the other to do so they know what to do.

4. Don't micromanage.

That said, don't be the drill sergeant looking over their shoulders, demonstrating the proper way to clean the latrine, doing a while-glove inspection after. This feels micromanaging, condescending and it is. Allow for some wiggle room. 

5. Praise, praise, praise.

John Gottman's research on couples tells us that others need a 5:1 ratio of positive comments to negative comments for anyone to hear anything positive. Do 2:1 and the other guy thinks that all you do is complain. If your partner steps up and does what you want, make them know. This is what keeps the momentum going, this is what translates initially as "doing you a favor" into creating new habits. Stepping up and feeling like you are getting little or nothing positive back quickly leads to "why bother."

6. Keep it balanced.

This is not all about you. You want to know what your partner needs from you. The same guidelines apply: Don't give me a list of 30 things, but give me your top three. Be concrete so I know exactly what you are looking for. Don't micromanage me or take on that parenting role. Notice when I've done it, not when I haven't.

7. Tweak.

Everybody puts their heads down and do this for a couple of weeks and then re-evaluates. Working OK? Not enough praise? Need to fine-tune the behaviors? Try and have a sane, short conversation about this. Not a time to get defensive, but for both to simply make what's working better be even better. 

This first year is both exciting and challenging. Don't let these first-world problems derail you.