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How to make cohabitation work in a New York apartment

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Moving in with a partner? These tips will help you maintain your sanity

The first time I moved in with a partner, I was 18 years old. We’d only been dating for four months, but my youthful naivete and enthusiasm, combined with a desire to move off Columbia’s campus and get myself a grown-up apartment, convinced me that signing a lease so early into a relationship was an excellent idea.

It ended very badly. By the end of our three-year relationship, we hated each other so much we were willing to break a recently renewed lease just to get away from one another. Battered from the experience, I spent my 20s convinced cohabitation wasn’t for me.

And then, at 30, I started dating someone I really, really liked; someone I felt connected to enough to reconsider my stance on shacking up. A year into our relationship—and just under a decade after my last cohabitation situation had imploded—we moved in together on the Lower East Side. Three and a half years later, we’re still doing well: No one’s threatened to dump the other over the garbage not getting taken out, I haven’t had to drain my bank account in order to break a lease, and the only one breaking dishes is our adorable, if badly behaved, cat.

What was the difference between my first stab at cohabitation and my current living situation? There’s certainly the fact that my taste in partners dramatically improved between the ages of 18 and 30, and the gains I made in emotional maturity in that intervening decade certainly didn’t hurt either.

But mostly, it was that I’d developed the ability to differentiate between sexual attraction and domestic compatibility—and figured out some important conflict-resolution strategies to smooth over areas where my partner and I aren’t 100 percent compatible. All of which I’m all too happy to share with you.

Really think about what moving in together means. A years-old op-ed from the New York Times examines the claim that couples who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to divorce; according to therapist Meg Jay, it’s not the cohabitation that’s the issue, but the way many couples thoughtlessly enter into a shared domestic environment. If you’re spending all your time together anyway, moving in together can seem like a logical next step. But moving into a shared living environment is a lot easier than moving out of one, and if you sign a lease at the height of infatuation, you may find yourself locked into a living situation with someone you don’t like once the passion in your relationship starts to cool.

If I hadn’t cohabitated with my ex, there’s a good chance we would have broken up way sooner than we actually did. It was a pretty unhealthy relationship from the start, but our domestic situation gave me added incentive to overlook shitty behavior—especially since I really loved our apartment and didn’t want to leave (a refrain I’ve heard from other regretful cohabitators as well). Had I taken the time to truly think through what a serious commitment moving in with my partner was—and whether I really wanted to make that commitment to someone I’d only just met—I might have avoided years of heartache and hurt.

True, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to live in an elevator building across from the Strand all by myself, but the sweet apartment, and financial savings, weren’t worth the happiness I sacrificed by staying in a toxic relationship.

Plan an exit strategy before you move in together. It’s not romantic to talk about breaking up right when you’re about to embark on a serious commitment with someone, but it is essential. The more logistics you work out in advance, the easier a potential breakup will be—which you’ll be grateful for if you end up having to scour Craigslist and hire movers while still reeling from heartbreak.

The second time I moved in with a partner, it was more for love than it was for financial savings (something I recognize puts me in a pretty privileged position). We opted to get a two-bedroom for a number of reasons (more on that in a sec), but for me, one of the side benefits was knowing that, should it all end badly, there’d be no need to break a lease: I’d be able to hold on to the apartment and get a roommate to split the rent.

Your situation may be different, but it’s worth having a conversation about how things might go down if you decide to call it quits. Can one of you afford to pay the full rent all by yourself if the other moves out? Do you have a friend who can take over your lease? Worst-case scenario, I strongly advise setting up an emergency fund just in case you have to cover the cost of breaking a lease—an experience that can be especially difficult (and traumatizing!) in New York.

Make sure you each have your own space. Assuming those first two tips didn’t put you off cohabitation completely, here’s one that’ll actually make living together easier: Figure out a way for each of you to have alone time within the apartment. This may seem like an impossible task if you’ve crammed two people into one tiny space (if you don’t even have a coat closet, how are you going to have space of your own?), but there are some aspects of New York living that make it easier than it might be in a smaller, more affordable city.

In my case, the second bedroom/home office offers a way for my partner and I to get away from each other even when we’re in the same space; if you’re sharing a smaller apartment, blocking out regular time for each of you to have the place to yourselves (while the other one hits up a coffee shop, bar, or takes advantage of the many cultural opportunities afforded by this great city) can be a great way to maintain your sanity. Even if you’re convinced you love your partner enough to want to be around them 24/7, absence always makes the heart grow fonder (and we all deserve some time to partake in some of our secret gross alone time habits).

Divide domestic duties with an eye towards minimizing fights. One great tip I got before moving in with my current partner came from my best friend. A long time cohabitator herself, she advised against sharing chores or doing a chore wheel; instead, she said, the safest bet was for each partner to claim a couple of chores as their own and take full responsibility for them. In my home, I do the cooking while my partner does the laundry. I handle dishes, my partner takes out the trash. If something hasn’t been done, we know whose job it is to do it—and we avoid petty fights about who did what chore most recently, and whose turn it is to do it now.

That exact system might not quite fit your needs, but the more friction you can remove from those daily domesticities, the more fights you’ll be able to avoid. (Also, if it’s in your budget, I strongly endorse occasionally bringing in a housecleaner.)

Openly, and honestly, talk about your problems. The best cohabitation advice I have is also my best relationship advice: If something’s bugging you, figure out a way to bring it up and hash it out with your partner in a respectful, honest way. Moving in with someone can be a rewarding, fulfilling experience, but it also amps up all your problems—especially when you’re crammed together in a 400-square-foot space. The longer you suppress something that’s bugging you, the worse the ultimate fight will be. The faster you’re able to address it, the easier it’ll be to resolve—and the sooner you’ll be able to go from uncomfortable conflict resolution to hot and heavy makeup sex.