he first time I went apartment hunting with a partner, I was sick with indecision. I’d been excited by the prospect when we first discussed it, so the nervous welling in my eyes between viewings was confusing and annoying. I confessed my nervousness, thereby infecting him with it too. I’m embarrassed to admit we both forgot all about it when we saw the apartment of our dreams, all French doors and shiny wood floors. We moved in two weeks later and embarked on a journey that kept us together for another three fun years.
I don’t regret the decision, but I do wonder how things might have turned out had I been more critical of that swirly feeling in my gut — had I just paused to give myself a second to observe it, poke it and question whether we ought to spend one more year living apart, just to see. But I was young, 23, and wasn’t yet comfortable voicing that kind of thing honestly. I was too afraid of hurting him or our relationship.
I remember him picking up a book half a year after we moved into that first apartment called The Defining Decade by Dr. Meg Jay. He told me about the chapter on cohabitating and how couples often fail to make the decision thoughtfully and face difficult situations as a result. I’m not sure whether I saw myself in those words at the time, but looking back, I certainly do. So now that I’m a little older and more of my peers (including myself) are approaching this decision, I decided to reach out to Jay directly and ask her for the highlights: What do most couples not think enough about, and what questions should they really ask before moving in together?
Jay is a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia. After The Defining Decade sold 250,000 copies, she gave a TED Talk called “Why 30 is not the new 20,” which has been viewed almost 10 million times. She also has a new book out called SUPERNORMAL: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience. Here’s what she has to say about moving in.
Three common mistakes:
Making the decision based on convenience
Jay says one of the most frequent missteps couples make is deciding to move in for reasons of convenience, like the opportunity to split rent or see each other more easily. “I suggest making moving in with someone a highly intentional choice,” says Jay, “one in which you are honest with your partner — and with yourself — about what you are hoping to gain or learn. Moving in tends to end poorly when it is driven by convenience or budgeting rather than by shared intentions.”
Doing it as a litmus test for relationship longevity
Jay says some people use moving in as a way to test their relationship before getting married, but that’s not necessarily a fail-safe approach. For one, “if moving in [before marriage] protected all couples from marrying poorly, this would be an easy thing to prove…and divorce could just become a thing of the past. But research shows that much of it depends on how and why people move in together, and then how and why they proceed to marriage or partnership.”
She cites a term used by psychologist Dr. Scott Stanley called “sliding versus deciding.” In other words, says Jay: “Will you and your partner decide to live together or will you slide into it? Because, hey, you’re sleeping over there most nights anyway, and it is cheaper and easier.” In the same way it’d be unwise to “slide” into marriage rather than make the commitment thoughtfully and with purpose, Jay says the same intentionality should be applied to moving in together.
Assuming moving in isn’t a big commitment
Jay says people often make mistake #2 because they’ve already made mistake #3 by assuming moving in isn’t a big deal, so why not try it out? You can always break the lease! But Jay points out a principle in behavior economics called “lock-in,” which explains why pivoting isn’t as easy as people might think. “Lock-in basically means that once you commit to someone or something, it is easier to stay together than to incur the ‘switching costs’ of breaking up,” explains Jay. “I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone say that their not-so-great relationship lasted years longer than it should have because they lived together.”
Questions to help you avoid them:
So: How can we better protect ourselves from making these mistakes? “If we are intentional about how we approach life and love…we usually experience more happiness and fewer regrets,” says Jay. Below are three ways you can do that. That said, says Jay, “it is important to remember that no set of questions can protect us from the uncertainties of life or from the challenges of long-term relationships.”
“What are five ways this decision benefits me or the relationship and five ways this decision worries me?”
“Couples should make one version of this list they will share with their partner and one version of this list they won’t need to share,” says Jay. “Pay attention to whether your lists match up, whether you’re being honest with your partner and with yourself about your real hopes and fears.”
“What is our timeline for regular check-ins about whether this is really working or whether we are staying together due to ‘lock-in.’ Once a month? Twice a year?”
Jay says these kinds of check-ins are important “so couples can be intentional not only about their decision to get together but about their decision to stay together.” In other words: How can they continually decide instead of slide?
“If I did not live with this person, would I want to stay together or would I want to look elsewhere?”
This is one that both of you should regularly and privately ask yourselves, recommends Jay. “This is a gut check you are better off doing before marriage or a commitment ceremony.”
Finally, and more broadly, Jay suggests trying your best to be realistic about what cohabitation means and stay clued in to how things are going if and when you’ve taken the plunge. This kind of intentionality and thoughtfulness can make moving in a worthwhile decision. “Figure out how you’re going to share the cooking and cleaning, pay attention to what happens to your sex life, see how the weekends and vacations go. What you see is what you get (and it is what you’re going to keep getting for years to come).”
Are you thinking of moving in with a partner? Did you already? Curious to know if you’ve asked these questions or wish you did.
Collages by Adriana Gallo.