It took me one month to tell my then girlfriend, now wife, that I love her. I’d been out and dating for two years by the time we got together but it was the first time I’d said it, or felt it, for anyone. While it was as true then as it is now, over six years later, the speed with which I aired my feelings has become a running joke. Set-up: "Why did I say 'I love you' so fast?" Punchline: "Because I’m a lesbian."
The stereotype that women in same-sex relationships commit at the speed of light is one of the most pervasive, alongside a reluctance to shave and a shared longing for Leonardo DiCaprio’s hair in Romeo + Juliet. It’s known as 'U-Haul syndrome' or the brilliantly named 'urge to merge'. It was established in the 1990s in a joke attributed to Lea DeLaria, and rests on the idea that women who love women move in with each other by the second date, forgoing a long, more cautious period of dating. This is something I can anecdotally vouch for, but it’s a much bigger question if it’s actually true.
While the phrase came to pass in the '90s, an article by Shauna Miller for The Atlantic in 2013 describes how the popular stereotype has roots much earlier in the 20th century – based on safety. In the 1950s and 1960s, she notes, same-sex female couples who were forced to "remain in the shadows" often moved in for practical reasons. Living together made it easier to be a couple without others questioning the relationship.
But what does it mean now? In 2019, theoretically at least, we have freedom of expression and the questions surrounding living together are like those of our cis straight counterparts – questions of convenience and shared rent rather than safety per se (though that’s not always true, especially for younger queer women who may not be safe at home).
There is even research to disprove the idea entirely. According to an American study done by Stanford University in 2018, lesbian couples did not shack up any faster than heterosexual pairs. They surveyed 3,000 couples (including 220 female couples) and came to the conclusion that "contrary to popular conceptions of lesbians as eager to commit, our results indicate that after controlling for couple age there are no significant differences in relative rates of cohabitation among couple types." However, almost everyone I spoke to said that, at least anecdotally, the stereotype holds up.
"I think there’s definitely truth in it!" says Rosie, a 26-year-old lesbian. "Even if not officially moved in with a partner, I have experienced the urge to spend every waking hour with someone I feel strongly about."
Lu, a 25-year-old queer woman, agrees, telling me: "I LOVE joking about the stereotype of lesbians and queer women buying a house together on their second date, especially with one friend who decided to go away with her girlfriend for a week on her second date." However she doesn’t think it’s necessarily exclusive to women dating women or non-binary people. "I know a hell of a lotta heteros who have done the same thing, and I also know a lot of queer women who have run a mile at commitment and broken a lotta hearts along the way."
The reasons are a bit trickier to pin down. There are several theories. According to an article by Bustle, it can be rooted in the combined forces of heterosexism and internalised lesphobia. Dr Lauren Costine says: "We live in a society that tells all women being in a relationship is one of the, if not the most important life goal. Combine those two factors with low self-esteem caused by internalised lesbianphobia, and you’ve got the U-Haul recipe." Another theory is that two women will automatically produce double the amount of oxytocin – referred to colloquially as the 'love hormone' – allegedly encouraging us to attach far quicker. These claims are dubious at best, not least because they rely on a cis-centric view of relationships but also because claims about oxytocin, more broadly, come from studies done on voles, not humans, and have been used to further pro-life, abstinence-based conservative views.
It’s worth mentioning here that not everyone agrees with U-Hauling. Ruby, a 23-year-old lesbian, tells me that it took her over a year to move in with her current girlfriend and though it’s true for some people, "most of the lesbians I know aren’t like that". It’s not a universal experience by any means, but when it does happen, it seems to come from a combination of isolation and emotional openness. Aless, a 21-year-old lesbian, tells me: "The closet is isolating, not being able to relate to friends is isolating, not being able to relate to the majority of the world around you is isolating. When you meet someone who understands and who loves you back, the relief and euphoria of that can make you throw caution to the wind."
The closet is isolating. When you meet someone who understands and who loves you back, the relief and euphoria can make you throw caution to the wind.
That emotional openness can result in hasty decisions but it can also be positive. Lu theorises that, for her at least, "the quick commitment comes from the openness and emotional maturity of the women I’ve been with. Women generally are more socialised to actually feel and be open with their emotions, so when that beautiful honeymoon phase happens they’re happy to run with it rather than freak out about closeness and commitment meaning they could get hurt. Or if they do freak out, maybe they're more likely to have an honest conversation about it."
This also seems to be true for the bisexual women I spoke to. Miriam, 25, tells me: "In my relationships with women and non-binary people things have moved much, much faster... I don't think I've ever been in a relationship with a non-man where it's taken more than a month to say 'I love you' (usually less with women I've dated) but in my last relationship, which was with a cis straight man, we were together for nearly a year and he point-blank refused to say it... I think that evasion of commitment is pretty normal for men, particularly heterosexual men. My current partner is bisexual as well and actually with him it has been different, and I do think his sexuality is part of that."
Critics suggest that the urge to merge is based on a desire to avoid the difficulties of dating. But it seems to be more endemic of how isolated queer women can be during puberty, unable to date who they want to or even understand why they want to date them. Finding your community, people like you and people who love the way you love can be an incredible, overwhelming thing after years of feeling isolated, and finding That Person can feel like the world is shifting into focus for the first time.
But for the relationship to really have legs, you probably need to meet in the middle. It’s always worth being cautious and asking yourself, as Ruby says: "Do I want to grow with this person? Or do I just want to be with them because they’re the only lesbian I’ve met/dated in three years?" But that shouldn't mean you shy away from something for fear of being a stereotype. As norms about dating, monogamy and LGBTQ+ representation mean more acceptance of queer love and relationships from an earlier age, perhaps the U-Haul may one day drive off into the distance. Or perhaps not. There will probably always be those like Noora, a 26-year-old lesbian who put it this way: "Taking big steps does not scare me and never has. I have never felt trapped in a relationship. I know that if I want out, I can get out. I await the U-Haul with open arms."