What’s mine, what’s ours: the fierce triumph of cohabitation

I thought I was two months behind on writing a blog post, but it turns out I’m three months behind. But I’m still here! Still writing. It’s just that most of the writing I’ve been doing has been elsewhere. Like over at The Walrus and an e-mail interview that wound up in this thoughtful article, but mostly in the giant, many-filed document that is my book manuscript. And now that manuscript is in editing purgatory and I am here, researching, reading, pizza-eating, and probing the depths of my own impatience. Waiting.

I have a lot of skills, but waiting for edits is not one of them.

So it’s a good time to write a blog post and the fact is that I have plenty to write about. Most significantly, the person I’ve been in a relationship with for the past year and a half now lives in my home. Our home. Ours. I’m working on that switch.

We first started talking about living together a year ago. My roommate was moving out and I was panicked. And he (my boyfriend) offered himself as a potential solution to the problem of the empty room. Then he wavered.

In the end he didn’t move in and, looking back, I’m glad about it. A year ago I had this incredible sense of intimacy. I had an idea of our closeness. But now I think: I barely knew him.

That process—the consideration of whether to live together and the decision not to, not right then at least—was the first real challenge of our relationship. I was anxious about finding a new roommate, and about whether or not I’d find someone to publish my book, but mostly about what it meant that my boyfriend wasn’t ready to live with me. We couldn’t commit to living together at the same time people were asking us for help making a tv show about using 36 questions to fall in love. The disparity between the idea of our relationship as a pop-science artifact and our own internal sense of doubt was strange, to say the least.

So this time around we gave the decision a lot of thought. I mean weeks and weeks of contemplation. There were late night conversations with long, uncomfortable pauses. Friends counseled that maybe we were taking our decision a little too seriously. Again and again we enumerated the pros and cons of cohabitation. Even after we’d made the decision to do it, we wanted to go into it will our best intentions, so we drew up a contract. This idea, which I borrowed from this smart book, turned out to be the thing that gave us a sense of control over the process of merging our lives. Our contract covers everything from cleaning to dog walking, expense-splitting and sex. It isn’t legally binding or particularly technical, but it’s intentional, it makes the nuances of sharing a life more explicit. 

It’s nice, this new domestic situation. And not just because I’m no longer doing the laundry. Our home feels bright and warm and spacious, despite being overfull with outdoor gear. All that worry and here we are: co-owners of a new walnut dining table.

batumiWe can’t quite remember what we were so worried about.

What wasn’t all that easy feels unquestionably good. I thought I knew him a year ago, that it might be an okay time to merge our lives. I thought I loved him. And I did. But now that love has a different tenor. It is deeper and rounder. It has accounted for the smell of his running shoes and the sharp edges of my impatience and the dog’s shifting loyalties, and all the demands of another body occupying spaces that used to be mine. I like this version of love better.

I keep thinking of Ann Patchett’s essay “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” in which she discovers that, despite living down the street from her partner Karl for years, their eventual marriage changed their relationship:

I discovered Karl had been holding out on me. He actually loved me more than he had previously led me to believe. This is not to say he hadn’t loved me for the past eleven years, he had, but there was a portion of himself he kept to himself, thinking that if I wouldn’t marry him, then chances were at some point I would go. It was like finding another wing in a house you had happily lived in for years. It was simply a bigger love than I had imagined.

I get this, this impulse to keep something of yourself for yourself. After the end of my last long-term relationship, my goal was not to love better, but to love more moderately. This is turning out to be difficult. And I know, I know, that’s probably a good thing.

What I find myself worrying about these days is how easy this relationship feels sometimes. How that ease feels like a pivot inward toward our little family in our little home. It’s so nice there. It worries me.

Some polyamorists talk about “getting off the relationship escalator,” which essentially means rethinking the conventional progression of a relationship from dating to exclusivity to cohabitation to marriage and family. (You can read a really clear breakdown of this idea here.) I like this idea. In fact I like a lot of ideas from non-monogamy and all the research I’ve been doing on the topic has proven useful as I contemplate the boundaries and expectations that come with merging our two lives. Consensual non-monogamy is a long way from gaining widespread cultural acceptance, but many of its explicit values strike me as good for anyone in any kind of close relationship: be respectful, be kind, be honest, acknowledge personal autonomy, define your boundaries, express your desires.

We are on the escalator and I don’t want to just sit back for the ride. But it’s hard. There’s a real sense of validation that comes with being on-escalator. It makes sense to people. When we told friends he was moving in, we got so many enthusiastic congratulations. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect that response. Had we accomplished something?

“They’re just happy because we’re happy about it,” my partner assured me. I know he’s right. I know I am the only one who feels so compelled to critique romantic conventions, even as I participate in them. But being coupled is different and not everything about it is good. For example, my social life has changed. We are usually invited to events together as a couple. This is good. My friends like him. My mom likes him. I am glad about this. But I miss the one-on-one relationships that I worked hard to cultivate when I was single. And I miss my singleness, which I also worked hard to cultivate.

I accidentally burst into tears the other day when I was complaining to him about how infrequently I see my closest girlfriends. I am busy writing a book and they are busy with babies and toddlers and babies on the way—we are at different points on the escalator. “I love you and Roscoe,” I said, embarrassed by my wavering voice, “but I don’t want to spend all my time with you.” He pulled me in for a hug—the right thing to do in that moment, I think, though it only embarrassed me more.

A few days ago I found this beautifully-written article by Helena Fitzgerald, “The Fierce Triumph of Loneliness,” which matches my own mix of feelings about all these changes. “A paired life,” she writes, “is not an aspirational state, but a compromised one.”  (So good–go read it!) And there’s this part:

When I looked directly at our relationship, I had to admit that I wanted to come home to this person every day. But I also wanted to come home to myself.

Living with a partner, when it’s truly good, is easier in almost every aspect, from the lessons in forgiveness, to the heap of congratulations society offers traditional couples, to the very literal benefit of combining resources and splitting bills.

Living alone as a woman takes on outsize significance because it offers the right to a full self obligated neither to family nor to love. Because we are often denied this fully-formed and selfish reckoning, it is difficult to give it up after finding a way into it.

The right to a full self. What a simple thing. I’m still not sure about the extent to which you can cohabitate, marry, start a family—stay on the escalator—while maintaining that full self—as a man or a woman, but especially as a woman. I know I didn’t have a fully-determined self in my last relationship. My self was largely defined by the relationship and the person I felt so strongly tethered to. It was exciting (if also unbearably scary) to figure out how to be alone, who to be alone. And now it’s exciting to return to shared domesticity, to establish the rituals that define our life together: he makes the coffee, I pour the cereal, Roscoe waits in a patch of sun for someone to come over and rub his belly. None of us wear pants. It’s good, great even. But it’s still a compromise. And I’m still figuring out how to make it thoughtfully.

 

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10 thoughts on “What’s mine, what’s ours: the fierce triumph of cohabitation

  1. Wow, I relate to this so much I feel I could have written it myself! But, you do sound happy with the decision and that’s all that matters in the end.

    • Thanks! I am totally happy. It’s nice. And it’s great to hear that people can relate. I think it’s nice to know that the experiences that we are told will make us happy can come with other, more complex emotions.

  2. Thank you for sharing the catapult article, it is indeed beautiful. I needed to be reminded of how I love and miss my loneliness.
    My Partner is currently travelling to another city, and I couldn’t help but feeling relieved to be on my own for a few days. And feeling guilty about it because I am supposed to be sad and miss him. Well, I do miss him, but I am not sad to be alone.
    To read that this fact does not make me a monster is a relief.
    I do feel relationships are about sacrifices and doubts, and I am very happy to read a few lines in this article and in yours where I find an echo to my own feelings.
    Can’t wait to see your book! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Hi Pidiaime: It’s funny how much we feel like we’re supposed to feel a certain way in a given situation. I think a lot of our relationship anxiety stems from that gap between how we think we should feel and how we actually feel. I struggle with this a lot myself but I’m always trying to question those normative expectations and just feel how I feel without judgment. It also means being less judgmental of other people and their experiences with love, which is particularly difficult in the face of powerful cultural norms.

      Thanks for reading. And taking the time to comment!

      • To be less judgmental, of ourselves and others, here is what we should be taught as kids. this is really a problem I encounter every day. I think it’s nice to be aware of this gap, and learning to step out of it 🙂

  3. My husband and I have been together for seven years (married for five). It is a second marriage for both of us. We are both in late middle age/early senior years. He is retired and I am not. What I love about this stage of life is the lack of relationship angst. We give each other as much solitary time as each of us wants; for example, I take a painting class, and fly off to meetings in distant cities, and he spends hours and days in his workshop building things, or goes off in his truck to visit friends or his kids for a week at a time. But mostly, we just love being together and doing things together – we’re each other’s best buddy. We take care of each other, each finding little ways to make the other feel cherished. I don’t know if it is because of the long time we each spent solo after our first marriages ended, or whether it has to do with this older stage of life, but I am very content with our loving and fret-free relationship.

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