When my ex, Katie, and I graduated from college, there was no question that we'd move in together. We were both headed to New York to live our best Sex In The City lives, and we'd been dating for three years. The choice to move in together seemed so obvious that we never talked about it. We just started looking for studio apartments and shopping at HomeGoods. Six months after we moved into our shiny new home, we broke up.
I'm lucky (and maybe a little weird) because Katie is still my best friend and we actually still live together. But if we hadn't had the nicest breakup in the history of breakups, the fact that we lived together could have been a disaster. Imagine if one of us had to find another apartment on a $10/hour intern's salary? Or if we hated each other but were forced to live together until we could afford separate places? That's precisely why we should have talked before we moved in, says Susan Bartell, Psy.D, a psychologist who works with couples.
It's never a good idea to move in with a partner just because you can, she says, and definitely not without having a few major discussions first. "You want to have a conversation and make sure that moving in with the other person fits your personal needs versus just sort of hoping for the best," she says. If you and your partner don't feel the need to have a Big Talk™ before deciding to live together, that's a sign of emotional immaturity, not a rock-solid relationship. Healthy relationships are all about communication, Dr. Bartell says, and choosing not to talk before you move in together probably means that you're avoiding important conversations that could wreck you down the road.
That includes conversations like whether or not you see yourselves getting married or having kids. Maybe you're an early 20-something who's just getting their life together and hasn't had time to think about marriage or kids yet, but you still need to talk about your plans for the future. Your life plan is the most important pre-cohabiting conversation a couple should have, Dr. Bartell says. It's way more important than talking about who's going to take out the trash or do the dishes. Moving in implies that you and your S.O. plan to be together for a long time, and you need to make sure you're envisioning similar futures. "Some people tell me they move in together and they've never talked about the future," Dr. Bartell says. "And so suddenly their partner says, 'I don't want to get married.' And now you're 35 and you're like, 'Dude, that was not what I was thinking.'"
If important parts of your life vision — like getting married or having kids — don't match up, that could easily cause a breakup. And breakups are much harder when you live together. "It's so painful to extricate yourself from a living-together situation," Dr. Bartell says, "much more so than from a regular breakup where you just each go back to your own corners." So people often stay in unsatisfying or unhealthy relationships longer than they should, just because it's hard to fathom splitting up with someone who lives in your house. Then, once you do break up, you'll see each other again and again as one of you moves their stuff out, gives back keys, and does all the other little things it takes to leave a place for good. So have the dealbreaker conversations before you ever sign the lease, and you just might spare yourself that extra pain.
Of course, looking to the future can be scary, especially if you haven't talked about it yet. But it's essential to set you and your potential live-in partner up for success. So bite the bullet, and ask the hard questions. Dr. Bartell suggests saying something like, "Let's think about what the next step after living together is. Are we going to get married? Or have a baby? What are we going to do?" If that feels harsh, you could start by laying out your own plans. Tell your partner what you want for your future — whether it's marriage and babies by 35 or traveling the world until you drop dead — and then ask if their plans match up.
If your life plans do mesh, congrats! You'll likely be fine moving in together. But that doesn't mean the talking is done. Because maybe you and your partner also have mismatches in how you handle finances or household chores. Those are important things to discuss before you move in, too, even if arguments over the dishes wouldn't cause a breakup. "You have to say, 'I know even though we don't live together that you're a slob. Will you still be a slob when we live together? Because that's not going to work for me,'" Dr. Bartell says. And if your S.O. likes to spend $100 on drinks with friends every Tuesday, you'll need to talk about whether or not that's going to stop. Because now, you have collective groceries to buy. Even if you're not married, your finances and your responsibilities start to pool together when you live in the same house. So those little things that annoy you when you spend the night at your partner's house — that they keep their dirty socks laying around, or leave dishes piled in the sink, or can't cook to save their life — could turn into fights once you're dealing with them every day.
Bad habits are hard to break, so there's no guarantee that telling your partner you won't deal with their mess upfront will turn them into Mr. Clean. But, talking about it before you sign a lease at least sets precedent. And it will help you and your S.O. keep talking once you've moved in. Because as Dr. Bartell says, communication is the key to healthy relationships. And not having these talks, well, that's not a good sign. "If you really feel like if you can't or you're not ready to talk about the nitty gritty," she says, "that in of itself is a sign that you shouldn't be living together."