Volume 94, Issue 82

Tuesday, February 27, 2001


Living Together - Think twice before committing

Living Together - Think twice before committing

By Jowita Bydlowska
Gazette Staff

There comes a time in most relationships when your significant other has borrowed yet another T-shirt and is again asking you to please turn the music down because he or she is trying to study.

A time when you find him/her comfortably located somewhere in your apartment with your textbook, on your couch and drinking your tea. A time when you find yourself assessing the situation and asking: "Why don't we just move in together?"

Although she has not seen a lot of student couples coming to counselling, Lisa Dustin, a counsellor at Western's Student Development Centre, explained there has been an increase in the number of people who move in together before getting married.

"In the last 20 years, that number has doubled," she said, adding there are more couples living together outside of the university population.

Making the living arrangement work involves a lot of communication and perseverance. Once together, a couple may discover things they had no idea existed in their lives: culture, different musical preference, even what type of living situation suits them best, said Susan Stern, a relationship expert and author of Living Skills for the 21st Century. The danger lies in the fact that if these things are not communicated, there will be a conflict in a relationship, Stern said.

"As long as you can tell your partner in a non-threatening way what your expectations are, you should be able to tell them anything. Don't assume they know what you are thinking. Your perspective is different than your partner's.

"People are brought up differently. For example, they open Christmas presents at different times because they have different perceptions about holidays or traditions. Unless you are communicating, you are going to assume things are done the usual way – your way – and none of us are mind readers."

Dustin agreed, saying communication in a relationship should exist before making a decision to move in together, as well as when a couple is already in the situation. "Before moving in together, it is important to ask: Are we on the same wavelength and what does this mean to one another? Practical things should be considered, such as financial decisions: Are we splitting everything 50/50 Are we even suited to live with another person?"

Andrew Leboutilier, a first-year psychology student at Western, said living with his girlfriend turned out to be something different than what he first imagined. "We thought it would be a great idea to try this before we get married, but now I am spending a lot of time at the library studying because she wants to watch TV or listen to music, and I have to concentrate on my studies."

Dustin explained how steady dialogue between partners living together should work. "Once living together it is important to still have that communication. You should ask yourself, is it working for you now? Are we still committed as a couple? You can't just say, 'I'm going home', if you are the type of a person who leaves when there is a conflict. This is your home now, living together is an ongoing thing."

Graphic by Jowita Bydlowska

If it's not working, the decision was likely made without considering future outcomes, Dustin added.

Leboutilier agreed, and said he and his girlfriend made the decision too spontaneously, and now are considering taking a break from living together in the next school year.

Cheryl Forchuk, a London therapist who deals with relationships, explained people have certain expectations and conceptions. "They move in with an idealized vision, idealized value of a person. Then they move past that vision and find out who this person is for real. The task is to pass the imaginary person and get to know the real one."

And like Stern, Forchuk stressed the exchange of values and beliefs as essential. "Understanding yourself and your own values, realizing that you are separate and knowing the differences are important – such as what your family values are, partner roles, outlooks, and personal space. Expect differences even though surfaces may look similar."

Dean Hander, who along with his wife of 37 years has been counselling couples in London, said the problems of people who live together are based on expectations they may have formed in the initial stages of the relationship.

"Very early on they meet and have a romance, they move in and then they start to anticipate things the other person was not aware of before living together. Nothing prepares one for living together. What people have to realize is that they're going to have struggles and that they need commitment."

He added once a couple lives together, they usually become what can be considered married. However, the Family Law Act of Ontario defines a spouse as a man or woman who have been cohabiting for three years or are in a relationship of some permanence as natural or adopted parents.

"A couple living together needs some kind of commitment to a relationship whether they go through formalities of marriage or have an agreement to co-habitate during a school year – a certain degree of commitment has to be there," Hander said.

Like everything else, moving in together works for some and for others it does not, Hander said, adding there is no way to say for whom it will work the best.

The success of living together depends on the people involved, Stern explained. "When the relationship is supportive, whether it is an academic or social support it can work out. Even living together for financial reasons or simply to get away from parents is OK and it depends on players' individual struggle and how it may affect relationship and studies. For some couples living together and studying together can help partners develop academically while at university."

For others, it makes a relationship much more intense, creating pressure that affects one's studies. "All of the sudden, besides pressures at school you may have this stressful situation at home, which is unnecessary and where you have to work through these things and concentrate on school," Dustin said.

Leboutilier agreed. "I sometimes lose sense of what is more important; our fight that we had, or the fact that I am late with an essay. It is hard sometimes."

People may decide to live together for practical and financial reasons. However, there is usually a lot more involved in the decision, Dustin said. Reasons are very unique – for most couples living together means that they are taking the relationship to the next level.

"There is an increase of commitment and exclusivity. Living together is a sign of being serious, it is a sign of commitment. For same sex couples who can't marry, this is usually the case."

When is the right time to move in together then? According to Dustin, a certain maturity level has to be reached.

"A person who makes that decision has to be able to look into the future and see the ramifications. They have to be able to see themselves as a person in this situation and understand what they are capable of, what their level of experience [is]. The more mature you are, the more experience you have," she said, adding this maturity is measured in terms of how good of a communicator one is.

And what about the cliché of dying romance? "What do you mean romance? A success in a relationship is a question of, again, communication. Both partners will have a romance if they know what makes each other happy," Stern said.

Dustin said the important thing to remember is that romance does not just happen on its own. "Sure, at the beginning of a relationship it is spontaneously occurring, but you can not expect it to appear on its own here and there, it is something that has to be worked on. One has to take an active role in bringing it into a relationship, in creating this romance and surprise for a partner."

There are benefits to cohabitating. Dustin said couples who are in a same sex relationship have a lot of advantages because they can still make a commitment even though they do not legally marry. Some couples get a sense of what their partner is like in a day-to-day situation.

"Living together does not necessarily mean a couple will have a marital contract. For some couples this is it – it gives them the potential to increase commitment and intimacy. For others it is precursor to marriage, a trial to run."

For many couples living together is not a bad experience, even if there are conflicts, it is all a learning process, Forchuk said. "Exploring the differences is a positive experience. Getting to know what these differences are, how to become more comfortable with each other, going through the process of discovery and learning how to deal with preconceptions are all positive things," she said.

Graphic by Jowita Bydlowska

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