The Ins and Outs of Cohabitation

You've been with your girlfriend/boyfriend so long your friends can't remember your swinger days. You feel like it's time to get a little more serious, but just hearing the word wedding is enough to put you off of cake for days.

Living together can seem like the perfect compromise. There aren't any rings involved, but you can still do cute couple things like shop for groceries together and share an underwear drawer. But before you start boxing up your compact discs and salivating at the thought of sex every night, take some time to think about what it means to live together.

"I moved in with my girlfriend after five months of going out," says James, 23. "We figured we were already at each others' houses anyway, so we might as well save on rent. It became a total nightmare. The closer she got to my personal life, the more jealous she became. It got so I couldn't even have a girl I was friends with call without getting yelled at," he remembers. "It totally ruined the relationship."

The real problem with living together is when it doesn't work out. James's situation can be all too common for couples who rush into living together. "A lot of people are very naive, and they get into living together without knowing all the facts," says Dr. Thomas Wise, director of research at the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "They move in with the rationalization that it's easier than getting married because if it doesn't work out, you don't have to get divorced. It ignores the idea that breaking up with someone you live with is tough to do."

Not all couples who start out sharing an address end up in Splitsville, USA. Lisa, a college senior, shares a big house in Colorado with her boyfriend. "I am so busy now, working on my thesis and working part time to save some cash, that it's nice to come home to my boyfriend. If nothing else, at least we have the time when we go to bed and wake up together."

The bottom line is, you can lessen the chances of ending up with a painful fight over custody of the cat and who bought the Boogie Nights video if you're smart about when and how you live together.

It's a family thing. First and foremost, how do your families feel about living together before marriage? You may be old enough to make decisions on your own, but do you really want to have to hide all your girlfriend's bras when mom comes for a visit? Being honest now about your plans with your family can make things a lot easier. And you won't have to jump when the phone rings over the holidays.

So how do you really feel when her guy friends call? As James so eloquently put it, jealousy and cohabitation do not mix. Are you still worried when your girlfriend goes out with her best (guy) friend from college? Are you steaming when your boyfriend calls his female coworkers to invite them for drinks? If so, it's probably not time to live together. Work out your confidence in your relationship first, before the ex comes by for a visit.

Money is an object. Love and money don't always mix. That's why it's a good idea to talk about money with your partner. Are you going to detail who buys what, pool your money on everything, or find some other way of keeping track of finances? Some couples open a special joint checking account to cover household expenses like rent and food. Others just go by what feels right to them ("You got the phone bill this month so I'll spring for the new vacuum cleaner."). Figure out early which type you are.

"If I have to tell you one more time to do the dishes . . ." Sometimes, it's the little things that suck all the romance out of living together. Did you hate it when your roommate paid the phone bill two months late? How about when she polished off all the leftover moo shu pork without asking if you wanted any? Just wait till that roommate is your significant other. Things that you don't notice when you're just spending a couple of nights a week together are magnified when you're shacking up. Make sure you know each other's feelings about the following potential peeves and you can avoid a big brawl later:

  • Housekeeping: Make sure you agree on the definition of "clean" before you sign the lease.

  • Overnight guests: Is it cool if her mom spends the weekend and ends up staying for a month? Are his bandmates encouraged to crash at your place?

  • Pets: If one of you is a pet owner, is the other one suddenly expected to share the litter-box-emptying responsibilities? How about Fido's food bill?

"Do you have any idea what time it is?" One last thing. Not to be parental, but it's common courtesy to call and let your girlfriend/boyfriend know if you won't be coming in from "going out to a movie" till 5 a.m. the next morning. There's a balance between paranoia and passive aggressiveness. Hint: it's called communication.

Joined at the hip syndrome a.k.a. "Attack of the Annoying Couple People." You hang out together, you sleep together, you wake up together, and you do everything together. Gross, isn't it? If you find that the two of you have suddenly become simply "the couple" and your friends have given up on you, ease off. Spend some time alone, for God's sake. Call your friends and make plans (the phone works both ways, you know). After all, you don't want to get sick of each other.