Relationships often fail because, though the couple may love one another, they find that they cannot live together. Sometimes, this comes down to a clash of personalities. More often, both just need to be more thoughtful, sensitive, or willing to compromise. If not, those petty faults you ignored when dating will assume epic proportions.
The Basic Problem
Falling in love with someone, adoring their smile, their laugh, their kindness, and so on, is natural – as is craving their touch, their smell, and their body. But sharing a small apartment with that person, not to mention a toilet, a shower, and a kitchen, for years on end, isn’t natural. And this is the essence of the problem. Human beings evolved to survive and reproduce; in other words, to feel intensely attracted to those with whom they can have children, and then to bond with them for long enough to raise those children. Evolution did not prepare us for 50 years together in a small brick box, however, never flirting or sleeping with anyone else, eating together, watching TV together, seeing them every morning when we wake up and every night before we go to sleep, year after year, decade after decade!
To put it bluntly, living together is hard. If it is to be a success, you must be prepared to work at it. In a sense, this other person is a stranger. And in some cases, they remain a stranger even after 30 or 40 years of marriage. Most people do not know someone until they live with them – and they don’t always like what they find. As the thrill and passion wear off, people can even wonder who on earth this stranger is. You may bicker with your father or your sister, but the genetic bond is always there, binding you together and overriding any irritations or difficulties. That genetic bond does not exist with a romantic partner.
Of course, this does not mean that those who live together always end up bored and disillusioned. Many couples enjoy long, happy relationships and find living together relatively easy. Indeed, for some the experience is wonderful and only deepens their bond. But it cannot be over emphasized that for most couples it demands patience, determination, and hard work. Understandably, those in the so-called “honeymoon” stage of a relationship do not want to hear this. What could be less romantic than the phrase “hard work”? Plowing a field or doing your accounts is hard work! Relationships are meant to be exciting and joyful.
Hygiene and Personal Habits
Ask an ageing couple for advice and you can be sure that they will urge you to “keep it romantic.” This isn’t as easy as it sounds, however. One of the reasons children put such a strain on relationships, for example, is that stress, exhaustion, and the smell of dirty diapers break the romantic spell. But children aren’t the only thing to have this effect – so will bad personal habits.
When you move in with someone, you need to be hyper self-aware. Always be conscious of how you appear in your partner’s eyes. Do not, for example, pick your nose or break wind when they are in the room. If you shave your legs in the bath, wash all the hair away. Ideally, each would have a bathroom of their own, though of course for many this is unrealistic. If you are a man, for example, do not leave hair embedded in the soap after you take a shower. Even trivial acts like flossing your teeth or cutting your toe nails are best done out of sight. This does not mean you must live in some kind of sterilized fantasy world, never acknowledging the realities of the body; it just means being sensitive and wary.
When you move in with a new partner, you also move into their personal space, theoretically forever. For an introvert, or someone who has spent years living alone, this can be difficult. Remember, you are moving in with a separate individual, someone whose basic assumptions may differ from yours. You each need to work out how much space and time the other needs. If your partner is an introvert and takes him or herself up to bed or into the garden to read or listen to music, respect this. And do not assume that they’ve done so to get away from you. Constantly asking what you’ve done wrong just because your partner needs some alone time will make you seem childish and self-obsessed.
More generally, if your partner is making coffee or cooking themselves dinner, get out of their way. Having to duck and swerve around you and the open cupboard doors is irritating. Or, to take another example, let’s say your girlfriend’s best friend just phoned her with some gossip. Don’t sit there listening, and certainly don’t follow her if she leaves the room. To take one final example (though they could be multiplied endlessly), if you hate your partner’s favorite TV show, do not sit there rolling your eyes and making sarcastic remarks; take the dog for a walk or go and have a shower instead. Most people want both company and space, both intimacy and alone time. And these are what the ideal relationship provides.
Friends, Family, and Socializing
When you share a living space with someone, you also share their friends and loved ones. If both of you are extroverts who get along with one another’s family and friends, there shouldn’t be any problem. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. For example, an introvert just arrived home from a hectic day at the office may be horrified to discover her extrovert boyfriend has invited the neighbors round for a drink. Instead of soaking in a hot bath with her book, she must now make conversation, something she probably finds exhausting and unpleasant.
When people move in together, they often forget that their partner is going to want his or her friends to visit. And, unless you are very lucky, there is bound to be at least one among them whom you cannot stand, just as your partner is sure to dislike some of yours. Be careful how you handle this. Under no circumstances blurt out something crude and tactless like “I knew John before I knew you!” Even if they are being unreasonable, you must respect their feelings. The very things you like about your friend may be the very thing your partner hates. They may also worry about a certain friend’s influence. A girlfriend, for example, may hate the way her boyfriend’s High School buddy seems to turn him back into a sniggering, obnoxious teenager. Or a boyfriend may fear that his girlfriend’s work colleague is jealous and will do all she can to split them up.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, is family. If you find your mother-in-law intrusive, or your brother-in-law creepy, and they live nearby, you are going to have to get used to them – either that or put your foot down. But if friends can be a sensitive subject, family are even more of an issue. You will need to think carefully about how you handle this. Try too hard, or bury your feelings too deep, and your partner may assume you want to see more of them! But stating clearly how much you loathe her sister or cousin could be taken as insult, not just to your partner’s family but to your partner herself. After all, we share many traits with our family.
One way to deal with this is through a sort of compromise. Think of the individuals among their friends and family whom you most like, or at least find bearable. Make an extra special effort when they come over: be pleased to see them, remember little details about their lives, offer them a drink, ask how they’ve been, etc. That way, when you confront your partner over their obnoxious cousin, or their bitchy friend, they cannot accuse you of being unfriendly or snobbish. You can reply that though you dislike X, you do like Y, and have made an effort with them.
Kindness, Manners and Respect
Passion and romance matter, but when it comes to actually living with someone, kindness, manners and respect are even more important. Without them, the love and romance will alternate with anger and contempt. As the years pass, and the passion fades, that anger and contempt will dominate. Again, things like simple good manners seem so dull and unromantic that people tend to ignore or belittle them.
Obviously, a balance must be struck. No one finds an eagerness to please attractive. But do not underestimate the difference a simple “please” or “thank you” can make. Neither should you underestimate the impact that pettiness, greed, or spite can make to your partner’s view of you. When you live with someone, they see you at your worst as well your best. So be very conscious of these failings and do what you can to address them.
Above all, do not say one thing behind closed doors and then do the opposite when in company. If you constantly rant about how obnoxious and rude a certain neighbor or work colleague is, your partner will certainly despise you if they then see you laughing at that person’s jokes and chatting away with them like old friends. Once you lose someone’s respect, it can be very hard to win it back.
Respect, like trust, is absolutely crucial when you live with someone, no matter what the circumstances. Again, be conscious of the small things. If your partner is struggling home through the rain and the rush hour, have a hot meal ready for them. And do not take someone’s possessions without asking. Books and records are a good example of this. Many people have a lifelong relationship with their books, some of which may have been presents from deceased loved ones, or remind them of particularly sad or happy periods of their life. To just take a book, and then leave it laying on the kitchen worktop or bedroom floor, is not only intrusive but disrespectful.
As with so many things in life, knowledge is power. The more aware you are of the potential pitfalls of living with someone, and the better prepared, the more chance there is of success. If this person previously lived with someone else, they are likely to compare you to him or her. The relationship may well have failed because of precisely the kind of problems set out above. If their previous partner gave them no space or had disgusting personal habits, your effort will be noted and appreciated all the more.