Relationships are always tricky. Often it seems that there’s no right or obvious choice on how to proceed when a relationship takes a turn toward something more serious. You’ve met the family, done vacations together, and you’re together all the time. You’re not ready for a lifetime commitment, but you want to demonstrate forward progress in the relationship.
For many people, the next logical step is cohabitation. Cohabitation is an increasingly popular form of relationship; in fact, According to Gallagher and Waite in The Case for Marriage, up to two-thirds of current American households could have initially been classified as cohabiting relationships.
Cohabitation is an excellent middle ground option for those ready to “test-drive” a more serious relationship, but do not be fooled by the fact that you’re not really as committed as you would be in marriage. The situation is different for every couple, but you should wait to merge assets and living space until you’ve been together at least 6 months, otherwise you’re just asking for trouble. Living with someone is a huge step not to be taken lightly, but if done wisely, compatibility can be confirmed, and you can get real life practice at combining finances and property. The keys to successfully cohabiting are similar to any roommate relationship, with a few extra layers.
Find a new apartment or house together. You’re starting a new chapter of your life; you should have a fresh start. Additionally, this prevents arguments based on turf. Neither of you has more claim over the new place than the other, and this equity will help you avoid major issues.
Define the budget and fiscal responsibilities clearly. If one person is writing the rent check every month while the other is paying for all the couples’ food and entertainment, confusion and frustration will occur. The clearly defined contribution of the rent payer versus the significant but nonspecific contribution of the other person can cause arguments and headaches.
Have a contingency plan. Breakups happen, sadly, and continuing to live together after a split is stressful at best. If you feel like your relationship is heading down a bad road, talk to some friends and have them on standby so you’ll have a sofa to sleep on and a place to take a shower. Additionally, know what items belong to whom. Whether you purchase an item together or come into your new home with it, if your relationship goes sideways, life is difficult enough to handle without having to go ten rounds over a futon.
Finally, have a long term plan. Know whether or not you would like to get married one day or simply be in a committed relationship. Know the path each person’s career is likely to be taking. Know any of each other’s financial goals, like home ownership or retirement plans. Know when, or even if, you’re planning to start a family. Knowledge is vital to the success of any relationship, but without open conversation and clearly defined relationship roles, you’ll never know whether your relationship can go the distance.