What to Expect When You're Expecting to CohabitateS

Living with someone offers many of the same emotional benefits of marriage. It also offers most of the same headaches. So expect the worst! Expect the best! Those are the only two attitudes you can really count on when you move in with someone.

So I guess everyone is moving in together now. They are doing it in greater numbers, and for longer than previously. Some 48% of "first unions" for women aged 15 to 44 are cohabitating unions, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics, whose lead author called the whole deal a "ubiquitous phenomenon now." And on average, those unions are lasting about 22 months. Also, why-buy-the-cow spokespeople take note: Some 40% of those unions led to marriage within three years, which means people still buy the fuckin' cow all the time, even after being forced to look at the cow's face first thing in the morning every. single. day.

But whatever the purpose of you moving in with a romantic partner, its ubiquity doesn't make it any less of a big deal on the wild-ass ride-o-meter of life. It might seem like no big deal at all, but it's HUGE. The people you live with are your first exposure to "playing house," to testing compatibility in the almost-most-binding way you can: by combining all your stuff and trusting someone with your innermost thoughts, feelings, and your scrapbook from 9th grade. So please, you still need to be aware of some shit and not be so cavalier about this. For instance:

This is not a test

Regardless of whether you want to get married or not, living with someone is still actual, real commitment. It counts! It's not dress rehearsal. Think of it as an amped-up arena to try people on for size. It's not the hardest thing to extricate yourself from, but it's not a one-night stand either. Have you talked about that? About what you actually want from this, at least right now? You may not want marriage; you may only want to see if marriage is an option.

But a living-together relationship is still a huge investment of your time, your money, your energy, your life, your feelings, your STUFF. You should have some idea of the intent here. Or at least agree neither of you knows what you want and are agree to see where it goes, accepting what that risk looks like. What does it look like? Like this:

OK, it's a (real) test — for your relationship

Moving in can open up entirely new worlds of intimacy and self-awareness and good sex and personal growth. It can also push fast-forward on a perfectly amblingly pastoral scenario and turn it into a carnival fun house. The scary kind.

You had Sunday afternoon going and suddenly it's Monday morning, all the time. People reveal things at this speed that you couldn't have possibly seen with the convenient escape hatch of your own place. You risk overexposure, revealing truths, and the perils of familiarity.

Overexposure can be managed by having a life outside your lair. Revealing truths are good: they help you decide if this is a person to keep living with or not, AKA, you could find out that you're dating a drunk, or a crybaby, or someone who calls their mother five times a day, or thinks you should wash their clothes, or that you literally can't resolve any conflict with them.

And, well, familiarity doesn't always breed contempt, but it can still breed total fuckin' boredom. The person you are soooo excited to sleep with every night right now might become pretty meh after seeing them all the time in their same outfits, as nice as they may be.

Score the jackpot and you have mostly good times, solve problems, enjoy each other's company, keep the sex going, and endure all the ups and downs that happen to relationships, getting stronger every day. Bravo!

Regardless: At some point you will hear all their stories, and all their jokes, and you will be sitting there looking at them thinking, Aren't you going to go out there and get more stories/jokes? For us? For love? Hopefully the answer is YES.

You'll have to work harder to have a romantic relationship

This seems counterintuitive, but it's true. You're always together — shouldn't that make it easier to "date" and do goofy-cute things for each other that keep the fires burnin'? Sometimes, but not always. Upside: You can slip a sweet note into the lunchbox of your partner on their way to work, have a great dinner waiting when they get home, throw hilarious dance parties, do fun renovation projects, read out loud before bedtime. Downside: Lots of newbie shacker-uppers tend to think that because they live together, now everyone can just let the gut out, put their gross feet on the table and call it a day, 'cause you got this thing locked down.

Nope.

The more everyday mundane exposure you have to someone you're trying to have good sex and cute times and hearty laughs with, the harder it might be to have good sex/cute times/hearty laughs with them. Not helping is that our cultural depictions of sexiness and intrigue and cute times are based almost completely around mystery and novelty, to a misleading and unfair degree.

We rarely see the notion of sexiness or attraction or cuteness growing with time and exposure to someone. Novelty and mystery are great, but it's simply one aspect of attraction. Sweet times, thoughtfulness and homey comforts are always getting short shrift.

What I'm getting at is that you're going to have to work at this tension between these two things: between the keeping of the interest, but the keeping of being able to relax, let your gut out, and be yourself. Because both of these are essential to good living together.

You'll get a complimentary subscription to Irritation Porn

This aforementioned tension is very hard to maintain. Whole relationships survive on the brilliant straddling of this tension of TMI but not TMI between partners. It's all individualized based on the couple, of course — some partnerships thrive on telling all, revealing fantasies, sharing deep, dark fears and huddling under the covers during storms. Others require only seeing each other six months out of the year.

Get ready for this head-scratcher: People who live together often dislike each other for stretches of time, for some portion of every single day, for weeks on end! While also being in love! It's because when you have to live with someone, shit is gonna get on your nerves. Just because someone has already irritated you while you're dating — when you can much more easily escape — doesn't mean you're even remotely prepared for what it's like to see their habits up close and personal, every day, with only one bathroom to boot. The irritation goes both ways though, so, you know, glass houses.

As this "CohabitateProbz" Twitter feed illustrates, he's going to accidentally dry and therefore ruin your new sweater, the one that's dry clean only. Also: You're going to throw away the bag that had the new iPhone charger in it and now what the fuck. Think of the most weird, obscure, pointless issue you could have with another human being, and just assume you'll be fighting about it now that you're sharing real estate.

You have no idea how it's going to turn out

Just like any kind of commitment, you might think you can see how this union will go — a happy merging of good vinyl, similar movie tastes and a desire to learn new cooking techniques — only to find out you moved in with someone who doesn’t really listen to their records, hates new things, doesn’t care about learning. But again, wouldn't you already know that from dating? No, not necessarily.

This HuffPo piece asks "Is Anyone Ever Truly 'Ready' for Cohabitating?" And the answer, of course, is no, because you can't predict the future (also, people can maintain a "dating" persona for YEARS that isn't necessarily their most relaxed true self). But mainly, people just go into these things not really knowing what can go wrong, or not even realizing what has to be negotiated. And the truth is, really anything can go wrong. Literally anything can be different than you thought it would be.

Included are revelations that happen to real cohabiters, like this one:

I assumed one of the main benefits to living with my boyfriend would be that I'd have a man on hand to build, fix and install stuff. But after a few months, our place was a graveyard for Ikea mishaps. I've learned to confiscate assembly instructions before Sam can even try to follow them. I'm kind of sad that I'm the one who has to fix and install things, but not sadder than I would be single.

—Michelle Scott, Reluctant Ikea Assemblywoman

And this one:

My fiancé doesn't think I clean well enough. I've gotten better since we've been together, but what it boils down to is that he's anal and I'm oblivious to the kind of miniscule dirt and grime that drives him of crazy. The funny thing is that my obliviousness works in his favor when it comes to chewing tobacco. The man falls asleep with chewing tobacco in his mouth all the time, and it gets all over our sheets. It looks like shit. But since I'm not anal, I think of it as cute and funny.

—Lauren Donnelly, Cleaning-Challenged Homemaker

As grody and fairly innocuous as that latter scenario is, it brings up a very important point central to living together successfully: talking about expectations.

Everything is negotiable, except what isn't

I'm not just talking about what stuff you both keep, where the stuff goes, whose stuff is nicer, and whether their stuff fits with your idea of you two as a couple, or it signifies their pre-you phase. Although all that matters. It's that so many fights — and fights will and should happen sometimes — are really just about un-communicated or unmet needs. People are really dumb/weird about their needs. NEVER FORGET THIS. They often think they have conveyed something — and maybe they have in some mutant body language or via super-secret subtext you were supposed to figure out with your Cracker Jack decoder ring — but they have not.

People are so bad at simply saying things honestly: I'd like to be alone tonight! I hate pesto! I don’t like it when you read in bed! I need to resolve fights before sleeping! I would prefer not to tell you about what I'm thinking while we're having sex! Etc.

Other people are great at communicating their needs, but then those needs might not get met and they are terrible people about it. Or some people are nice gentle people but just won't deal with conflict. Some people are chaos-moths who can't escape the bright burning light of dysfunction. You know sorta what you got, but now you're really going to find out if you can hash it out with them or not.

You have to figure out your dealbreakers, and you have to make them clear. These things might change; no doubt you didn't see yourself as tolerating tobacco-spit-flecked sheets at any point in your life so help you God, but here you are, loving that spit.

Living with someone creates the illusion of access and openness and understanding, but it is only an illusion and must be earned/worked at. Shit still has to be said with sentences. This applies not just with preferences, but also with stuff, money, big choices, major decisions, and privacy boundaries. You have to talk about all of it. You have no idea what someone's triggers are until you really jump into the trigger trench.

And finally:

If it doesn't work out, it's still gonna feel like a divorce

FYI: Just because you didn't put a ring on it doesn't mean you saved yourself any suffering, not really. Maybe you didn't risk your property (unless you bought unmarried property together or they turn into a raging dick) but believe you me, you still risked your heart (awww). You will experience all the same emotional suffering and generalized depression involved in splitting records, books, furniture, PETS, friends, and whatever was left of your goodwill toward them when things end. The only thing shittier than this is the kicker: Many people in your life won't treat these kinds of breakups with the same gravity simply because you weren't married.

Of course, these are not reasons to avoid shacking up. Cohabitating is just the way we do it now, and it offers invaluable insight into our commitment needs and desires, so much so that we should learn to both embrace the experience as a rite of passage on the way to marriage (or not), and play detective with our wants and needs so we can figure out what we think a suitable partner is. That's kind of the beauty part: shacking up, even if it doesn't work out, offers some mad takeaway in the self-awareness department.

The upside though, is that if it "works out," whatever that means, and it does just fine now more than ever, you get so many of the benefits, with at least somewhat less risk. Just make sure that this super big decision is still a well-considered one — or at least not soooo unconsidered that you didn't even talk about it. That would be really stupid.