Living Together

Issue 69

Originally appeared in issue 69 of BCN

Well I’ve done it. I am, once more, a co-habitee, house-mate with benefits, live-in-lover, call it what you will. After a year and a half of having a room or flat of my own I’m now sharing with a partner again. I’ve spent the last few weeks amalgamating and alphabetising videos, books and CDs, whilst G has been covering frightening seventies décor with something more tasteful (and I won’t even go into the signed photo of a young Robert Kilroy-Silk that we found lurking on the kitchen sideboard). We’ve done the big Ikea trip (mostly painless), we’ve cleaned the gaps between the kitchen tiles (‘bleach is best’ being the main finding of our experiment), and I’ve mown the lawn (in big boots and denim hot-pants for those who need a visual). I never realised how enjoyable such activities could be. Looks like I’m becoming all domesticated. So, a month on from taking the plunge, I have to ask myself: how am I doing with this thing called living together?

I admit I had a lot of concerns about living with a partner again despite the fact I’ve spent most of my adult life doing so (or perhaps because of that). I was much relieved when our first disagreement was easily resolved. We had different views about the best position for the bed in the main bedroom and presented them passionately to the poor guy who was helping us move in. He swiftly disappeared and we were left alone. Tired from a day of hauling furniture, this could have been the spark that ignited our first big row, but instead we ended up joking about wagon-wheel coffee tables (remember the moving-in scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally’?) and came to an amicable compromise (er… we put the bed where G wanted it to go, but I figure the brownie point accrued from my backing down will stand me in good stead for months right?)

I was particularly worried about living with someone again because my last experience ended rather badly. I shared a one-bedroom flat with D for five years and most of our time together was pretty calm. However, when things started to go wrong between us, we both blamed each other of being bad at living with somebody else. Ironically, when D and I started out, he’d told me he liked the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow model of a couple living in separate houses. I wrote him a long letter explaining that, if I were to be in a serious relationship with somebody, living together would have to be on the cards some day. How things change. Five years on from that D was keen to continue living with me, whilst I was the one desperate for space and looking for a place of my own.

So what went wrong? Well, I found spending virtually all our time together suffocating but, at the same time, I worried that I was becoming too dependent on him because I found it difficult to ask for space and it was easier just to be with each other. He was upset that I took my irritations out on him and found it hard to cope with me when I got depressed. And of course we both got pissed off about the housework. So as I embarked on the adventure once more I determined to nip any such problems in the bud. G and I have written a long list of resolutions, which will hopefully keep things relatively harmonious. We plan to take some time each week to look over them and see how we’re doing and if any need amending. I’ve also asked my live-journal friends for any advice they have, since many of them have more experience than me. In this article I want to share some of the suggestions we’ve come up with. I guess they’re just a starting point to help us consider what might be useful in our own situations, because it soon became apparent from discussions that different things work for different people.

One person pointed out that it’s important, when moving in with somebody, not to assume that you have to do all the things that people in our society generally associate with co-habiting. She said you don’t have to: share finances, buy food together, cook together, share storage space, share a bed all the time, expect everyone to address you as a couple and send you joint Xmas cards, or combine your book/CD/video collection (although some of us with an unhealthy passion for alphabetising might prefer they did do the latter). I agree that these areas are all ones it’d be worth openly discussing with your partner rather than just taking them for granted because most people do things that way.

Money is definitely something to talk about if you’re going to share a house or flat. People I asked varied from those who kept their finances entirely separately to those who used a joint account for everything. G and I decided to each put around half of our salaries into a joint account and to use this for rent, bills and food, but to keep the rest of our money separate. One LJ correspondent said her rule for the separate money was: ‘never criticise your partner’s spending habits or purchases, unless it’s affecting their ability to pay their share of the bills’. Certainly it’s important to remember that people have different things they deem worthy of money. I spend a ludicrous amount on books I never read because having them makes me happy, but I would never dream of paying out the sums G does on lingerie, however much I enjoy her purchases.

I suppose my biggest problems living with people have been around space: how to manage time together and ensure enough time apart? I think my irritability with D resulted from my having too little space. Because I commuted to work he regularly had time alone in the flat whereas I was always either staying over with people at work or spending time with him. I used to crave an evening alone in front of the TV with a pizza. Too little time apart also made me quite dependent on him. I would find it scary to have a night by myself when it did finally happen, and I fell into the habit of going to him when I was down rather than taking time alone to sort myself out, which is generally what works better for me. My LJ friends emphasise the importance of each person having their own space within the house if at all possible. Many in poly relationships subscribe to the rule that there should be at least as many bedrooms as people. G and I couldn’t really have a bedroom each, but we’ve made a ‘quiet room’ that either of us can use if we want time out. We’re also trying to ensure that we don’t always book to do social things on the same nights so that sometimes one of us will get an evening in alone when the other is out with people. I try and take a little time alone each morning by walking the dog. These kinds of ideas can be even more important if you can’t afford a big enough place to have separate spaces. There are also ways of dividing up space within rooms. G has her small study area screened off from the rest of our living room which gives her some privacy even when I’m around too.

Another issue most people raised was that of making the time you do spend together ‘quality’. It becomes very easy to get into the routine of slobbing in front of the TV with partners night after night rather than talking to each other or whatever other things people can get up to when they’re sharing a house. Conversations can become limited to the latest do-it-yourself project rather than what you might do with each other. Several people agreed that it was easy to take the people they lived with for granted: taking out problems on them and not doing nice things together the way you do with other friends (or partners if you’re poly). There was a feeling that a bit of this was inevitable and it would be too much pressure to say that taking partners for granted was Just Plain Wrong. However, many people tried to ensure that they did make an uninterruptable date night with their live-in-partner at least once each week and/or that they had meals round the table rather than in front of the TV. G and I are also trying to build in things we know we enjoy doing together but which can easily slide, like reading to each other or giving each other massages. A good conflict avoiding strategy one person suggested was to ask before inviting anybody else round. Several of my friends also have a joint calendar up so that everybody knows what everyone else is doing each night.

Housework is another major contentious issue. In fact, when I ran a research discussion group about relationships I was astonished by the length of time we spent discussing what to do if one partner’s ‘untidiness threshold’ was lower than the other’s. One friend said ‘if you’re still arguing about housework after a year, get a cleaner.’ But if this isn’t an option, others suggested the strategy of dividing chores into the ones each of you least mind doing. I quite enjoy running the hoover round with some music blasting in the background and G has a strange fetish for washing clothes, so that works well for us. Chores we both hate are alternated. Another BCN contributor says ‘it can be as unreasonable to be too tidy as too messy’ and ‘rigid rules on this are an appallingly bad plan’. I definitely think there needs to be some flexibility and room for rules to change.

The final issue many people mentioned was conflict. Some have learnt to make a specific time to sit together and discuss any conflicts that may come up. Other people warned against starting to discuss a conflict issue when one person was concentrating on something else or after eleven at night. Since this is a pretty general issue, although perhaps one that comes up more often when you’re sharing space, I’m going to tackle it in depth another time. For now I’ll leave you with the useful key phrases for living-with-others suggested by one LJ friend ‘this is a foible of mine – could you humour me on this one?’, ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’.

In the next issue I’ll focus specifically on handling conflict in relationships. Feel free to e-mail me with any suggestions, questions or thoughts you have on this topic.

VoxBiPop: Living Together?

Develop a strategy for dealing with disagreements. We go and sit at our dining room table and stay there until we have sorted out whatever we disagree about… Eat at least one meal together at the table per day – no matter how busy your lives are… – Helen

Sort out the finances in advance, especially if one of you earns more than the other or grew up in a wealthier household. I recommend having a joint account as well as a personal account each. – Katy

Separate bedrooms. This is absolutely non-negotiable in a poly relationship, and can also be helpful in monogamous relationships, particularly if there are sleeping difficulties involved.The toilet seat belongs DOWN. Ask before inviting anyone home, even platonically.If you can afford it, have more than one TV – Karen

Don’t make any sudden decisions on how cohabiting/living together is going. It takes a while to get used to / may be much more of a change than you expect, *give it time*. Even if you’ve been ‘practically living together’ / spending all your time together, it’s a major shift. Treat it as such, expect it to be odd for a while and don’t make this an instant judgement on how it’s going. – Camel

We also have a house IRC network (geeks!) which we use for reminders, and talking on. This allows us to communicate without interrupting the other person who is on the other side of the room. We sometimes use IRC as a method of communication for conflict resolution. We have used email / letter style formats to get thoughts into some semblance of order, which can be helpful when feeling inarticulate. – Natalya

I read something about housework which I think applies more generally as well – always do a bit more than you think is ‘your share’, & *choose* to do so willingly (rather than being all martyred about it). If everyone involved does this, things are much more likely to run smoothly. I think this also applies to other things – go slightly above & beyond. Be a bit more tolerant of the other’s faults, for example. The generosity will help make life happier for everyone (because of its effects, & because being generous, within reasonable limits, tends to make *you* happier, as well).If you start getting irritable about something, stop & think whether this is something you’ve previously discussed, or something you think the other person should Just Know. If the latter: your partner is not a mindreader. Tell them about it & decide how to deal with it. Or, sometimes, conclude that you should just cut them some slack & deal with it yourself. – Juliet

Bi Community News, BM Ribbit, London WC1N 3XX