Cohabitation 101: Three Vital Skills for Moving in Together

A couples therapist shares three skills you both will need for this transition.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

The global pandemic has been a relationship accelerator for many couples who—for financial, emotional, practical, and relational reasons—have fast-forwarded their plans and moved in together.

My clients Andrea and JoAnn fall into this category. They had been dating for almost two years when they decided to seek therapy. Their goal? Strengthen the foundation of their relationship and ready themselves for their next step: moving in together. However, COVID-19 had other plans for them, and they quickly shifted from spending a few nights a week at each other's places to living together full time.

Dish Towel Drama

As we logged on to our computers for our weekly couples therapy session, JoAnn managed a chuckle as she said, “Well, this week we fought about dish towels. Dish towels!” As it turns out, Andrea likes to hang them over the handle of the oven, and JoAnn cannot for the life of her figure out why she can’t just drape them over the sink “like a normal person.” Despite their efforts to be planful about the transition—even enlisting the help of a therapist—they were hitting bumps in the road. We know that relationship conflict is inevitable, and we know that transitions tend to spike conflict. But here’s the deal: What matters less is if you and your partner experience friction. What matters more is how you handle it. How do you handle the smothered feeling that rises in you when you see the dish towel in the “wrong” place? How do you respond when your partner makes a snarky comment at the end of a long day? How do you repair after tempers have flared? 

Three Skills

I want to share three skills that will help you and your partner handle your cohabitation squabbles with grace and compassion. These skills will help you prevent tension from rising and help you address challenges when they arise. At the end of the post, you will find 10 questions for you and your partner to discuss together. These questions are designed to help you create a nest together that feels safe and connected to both of you.

1. Let Yourself Be Seen. I think the hardest thing about moving in together is that there’s nowhere to hide. 

  • You wake up feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world—your partner is there to see it. 
  • You receive negative feedback from your boss and you’re riding a shame spiral—your partner is there to see it. 
  • You decide to skip your workout and opt instead for an oversized scoop of ice cream—your partner is there to see it. 

It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be seen in all of our imperfections. And however hard that was before the pandemic, it is even harder as we are living with immense stress and uncertainty. Plus, most of us are home most of the time, which gives your partner a front-row seat to your peccadilloes. Your best and bravest path is to be honest and direct when you are struggling. Your partner can see it anyways, so if you deflect or deny because you feel shame, your partner will end up feeling invalidated and confused. Remind yourself that you don’t need to bring your A-game in order to be worthy of love. When you are able to accept your humanity and let your partner see you struggle, you end up deepening relational trust and intimacy (Johnson et. al., 2013). Andrea and JoAnn had spent years priding themselves on being strong and independent women. The transition to co-habitation stirred deep vulnerability in each of them, and bickering about dish towels was easier than talking about how hard it was to let themselves be seen.

2. Ask Yourself the Mirror Question. It tends to be far easier to identify what our partner is doing to create tension or difficulty in the relationship, so make it a practice to ask yourself this question, “What is it like to be with me right now?” This question invites you to hold up a mirror and look at the impact your words, behaviors, and moods have on the relational climate in your home. Look at your relationship as a system. Each of you keys off of the other, creating cycles of connection or conflict. The more you can “own” your part of the cycle, the more you invite your partner to own theirs (Davis, Lebow, & Sprenkle, 2012). From this place of accountability rather than blame, we make our relationship safe enough to apologize and forgive. JoAnn connected her tendency to criticize Andrea with the dynamics in her family growing up. She felt invisible when she was little, which puts her at risk of holding rigidly to her perspective for fear of being run over. Her willingness to connect with and share about this younger part of herself helped Andrea respond with empathy rather than defensiveness. Looking at the origin stories for our core wounds is enlightening, but also scary. Make sure you meet your insights with self-compassion and love.

3. Focus on the Good. Moving in together stirs up understandable fears: Will our relationship succeed? Am I going to lose myself? Is our sex life going to crash and burn? When fear is in the driver’s seat, it is easy to become hyper-focused on the bumps and miss out on the blessings. This can especially be the case if you grew up in a home where criticism flowed more easily than gratitude. Make it a practice to notice and savor what your partner is doing well—moments of thoughtfulness, generosity, and patience. Gratitude improves relationship quality (Kubacka, Finkenauer, Rusbult, & Keijsers, 2011). Let yourselves enjoy the inside jokes and silly nicknames. Create rituals. Even a simple walk around the block each morning is a meaningful way to let each other know that your relationship is a priority and a worthwhile investment. When you repair a moment of friction instead of escalating into yelling or icy silence, celebrate your relational savvy together. As Andrea, JoAnn, and I processed their flare-up, we focused on how quickly they moved from prickly to apologetic and remembered together how, in the past, a fight like this would have cost them days of tension. Cohabitation can bring with it new opportunities for intimacy and growth in your relationship and usher in an exciting time for exploration of yourselves and each other.

Healthy intimate relationships take practice. Remember to trust that you can be imperfect and lovable, practice relational self-awareness, and celebrate what’s good and bountiful in your relationship. 

10 Questions to Help You Create a Shared Vision

  • If you lived with someone prior, what went wrong the last time you lived with someone? What role did you play in that? What did you learn from it? What do you want to do differently this time? What do you know about yourself that does not make you the easiest person to live with?
  • What does moving in together mean to each of you? 
  • What are your hopes and your concerns about moving in together?
  • How do you want to handle differing needs for closeness and togetherness? How might living together affect your boundaries individually and as a couple?
  • What does the idea of being “alone together” mean to you? How do you feel about it?
  • Are you combining finances? If so, how and why? How do you plan on making financial decisions—groceries, utilities, mortgage/rent, etc.?
  • If you have feedback for each other, what is the best way to bring it up? How do you tend to react to receiving criticism/feedback?
  • How will you share responsibility for housework? If your division of labor feels imbalanced, how will you talk about it?
  • How do you want to handle changes in your sexual relationship? What can each of you do to make it easier to talk about sex with curiosity and compassion?
  • What are the short- and long-term goals of this relationship? What is your vision as a couple? What are your values? What do you stand for? What matters most to you?

Taking the time to explore these topics will help you navigate this new stage of your life together and create opportunities for even deeper levels of intimacy—and joy—in your partnership.

References

Davis, S. D., Lebow, J. L., & Sprenkle, D. H. (2012). Common factors of change in couple therapy. Behavior therapy, 43(1), 36–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2011.01.009

Johnson, S. M., Burgess Moser, M., Beckes, L., Smith, A., Dalgleish, T., Halchuk, R., Hasselmo, K., Greenman, P. S., Merali, Z., & Coan, J. A. (2013). Soothing the threatened brain: leveraging contact comfort with emotionally focused therapy. PloS one, 8(11), e79314. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0079314

Kubacka, K. E., Finkenauer, C., Rusbult, C. E., & Keijsers, L. (2011). Maintaining Close Relationships: Gratitude as a Motivator and a Detector of Maintenance Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(10), 1362–1375. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167211412196