Hillary Chang had been dating her boyfriend for three years when he asked her a question that would change their relationship forever: Do you want to move in together?
He’d been offered a new job in tech sales, which would require him to move from their current city of San Diego to Los Angeles. Their relationship had been going well, and he wanted her to join him.
At first, Chang, now 29, was hesitant: “In my head, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready to uproot my life for somebody else.’” She’d never lived with a partner, and she loved her life in San Diego, where she’d been living for more than half a decade.
When Chang brought her concerns to her boyfriend, he told her he’d find another job so they could stay in San Diego together. “In that moment, I kind of had an epiphany,” she says. “I was like, ‘OK, if he’s willing to sacrifice an opportunity for me, what’s the worst that can happen?’ As a partner, I need to be willing to make some sacrifices of my own.” In December 2021, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Marina del Rey with her boyfriend, who has since become her fiancé.
“Moving to L.A. has probably been one of the best decisions we’ve made, not only for us financially” — thanks to her partner’s pay increase — “but for us as a couple,” says Chang, who launched a TikTok series last year in which she shares the lessons she’s learned. “We’ve really grown in a way that I feel like you don’t until you live with your partner.”
As more U.S. adults delay marriage or forgo it altogether, according to a 2019 Pew Research study, more of them are also moving in together. Researchers found that the number of unwed partners living together had more than doubled since 1993, going from 3% to 7%. Meanwhile, 69% of people felt it was OK for unmarried couples to live together, even if they never planned to marry.
There are plenty of reasons a couple might consider moving in together: a new job in a new location, saving money on rent or being able to afford a nicer place, eliminating time spent commuting to see each other. Or maybe it’s simply time to take things to the next phase. No matter why you take the plunge, there are some important steps before you go there, say several L.A.-based experts, who all agree you should make the decision with intention, not out of convenience.
In some ways, living with your partner is like having a roommate. You have to split bills, household chores and a physical space. But the stakes are higher, says Traci Terrill, an associate marriage and family therapist based in Highland Park. “You’re building a life together.”
There’s also “a big difference between dating someone and running a household” together, says Paul Kindman, a marriage and family therapist also based in Highland Park. “All of a sudden, we’re moving into a completely different dynamic where we’re now sharing responsibilities. We’re sharing roles.”
Here’s what you should do before you rent the U-Haul and invest in a larger mattress.
Consider your timing
According to the experts, there’s no universal timeline for when a couple should take this step. “I think it’s about where you are as a couple,” says Terrill of Highland Park Holistic Therapy.
However, you should at least try to get past the infatuation or honeymoon phase of a relationship, which eventually fizzles out, before deciding to live together. “Have you seen the person and all their flaws? Have you figured out how to navigate bumps or adversity?” Terrill asks. “Whether that happens in a span of six months or four years doesn’t matter to me. It’s what you’ve experienced as a couple and how clearly you communicate with each other.”
And, if you’re going through a rough patch in your relationship, it may be best to hold off on moving in together or at least speak to a couples counselor who can help you iron out your communication mishaps, Terrill says. Moving in together is more likely to exacerbate issues than it is to fix them.
Get on the same page about what it means, short and long term
It’s critical for a couple to discuss their expectations about what cohabitation will look like for them before moving in together, says Terrill. “But what I see is that [some people] don’t really set aside time and space to consider the entirety of the arrangement.” And not discussing the potential issues you’ll face and how to deal with them can trigger problems down the line, or worse, a breakup.
Before combining your lives, it’s also important to ensure that you’re on the same page about what living together will mean for your future. Terrill says, “One of the biggest pain points I’ve come across with couples I’ve worked with is when one assumes moving in together is a step towards marriage, and the other does not.” She suggests asking your partner directly whether moving in together is a prelude to something serious such as marriage, or whether living together is the end game.
Determine the real reason you want to move in together (and whether it’s a good one)
Marriage and family therapist Ali Cortes, founder of Bienestar Counseling, Coaching and Consulting, says you should determine why you really want to live with your partner and create a pros and cons list.
If your motive for moving in together is financially driven, Cortes recommends asking yourself a few questions: “How do you know you’re going to save money? What if that person has a lot of loans and they can’t commit to paying the full rent, or they commit for the first three months but then after that, something happens” — or vice versa. “Then what? How are you going to preserve that relationship?”
The key is being honest with yourself first, without the influence of your partner or others.
Get specific about your expectations surrounding four crucial things
According to Kindman, co-founder of Kindman & Co., the biggest conflicts that commonly arise when couples move in together involve time, money, sex and mess. Here’s how you should tackle each of them.
“Dating and seeing each other maybe a couple times a week is not the same as being in each other’s space all the time,” says Sherman Oaks-based therapist Gayane Aramyan. She adds that a common fear people have when transitioning from dating to living with their partner is losing their independence.
To start things off on the right path, talk to your partner to define expectations for how much time you’ll be spending together, how much alone time you both anticipate you’ll need (and how you’ll communicate that to each other) and how much time you’ll spend with family and friends, together and separately.
Experts say that couples should have thoughtful discussions about their current spending habits, whether they have any debt, how they expect to divide and share living expenses and what would happen if one person couldn’t pay their share of the rent.
Kindman adds that it’s essential to get real about your experiences with money (a.k.a. your money stories), which influence the way you handle and think about finances. For example, if one person was financially insecure growing up, they might have a scarcity mindset about their funds as an adult. To understand your partner’s money story, try asking questions like: Why is money important to you? What does it represent for you?
Also, take note of whether there’s a financial imbalance between you and your partner and how that could affect your relationship while living together, like if one person makes less money and can afford less of the rent.
“I think that each partner has to feel respected for what they’re taking on,” Terrill says, adding that there could also be an imbalance when it comes to household chores. “The couple has to be in agreement about who is doing what and keep each other accountable for what they decided is fair.”
“Some people are very comfortable in a home that looks a lot more lived in or maybe even messy, whereas others need a lot of order and cleanliness to feel comfortable,” says Kindman. “It’s really important to get on the same page about moving from what I do and what’s good for me to what do we do, which may be different.”
Aramyan recommends creating a chores list with your partner to avoid guessing games about who is assigned to each task. Be sure to consider each other’s preferences when it comes to assigning chores, she adds, like if one person hates doing the dishes but doesn’t mind handling the laundry.
If there’s an off day when one partner doesn’t do their chores, Terrill says to avoid score-keeping and getting angry about it. Instead, she suggests discussing your game plan ahead of time: “What’s your communication strategy if [your plan] goes awry? Because it’s going to.”
And, if it’s financially feasible, hiring a cleaning person can be an invaluable solution, Aramyan says.
Ev’Yan Whitney, an L.A.-based sexuality educator, says couples should have an open dialogue about how they envision their sex life before they start sharing a bed every day. “I just invite people to think about ways to make this conversation playful. Make it chill, make it open and try as much as possible to hear the other person, and then collaborate,” Whitney says.
Whitney suggests asking your partner: “If you could have it your way, how many times a week, a day, a month, a year would you want to have sex with me if we were living together? And what kind of quality of sex life would you want to have?”
It’s also important to discuss how each partner would feel if there’s a time they’re in the mood but their partner isn’t. “In what ways can we communicate our ‘no’ that is honoring where we’re both individually, and what are the ways we can make compromises?” says Whitney, who is also the author of “Sensual Self” and hosts a podcast of the same name. “Maybe I don’t feel like doing the whole enchilada of a full sex, orgasmic experience, but maybe we can make out … or take a shower together and explore each other’s bodies without any commitment or expectation for it to go anywhere else.”
It’s normal for a couple’s sex life to go through ebbs and flows. Whitney recommends having regular check-ins even after you’ve moved in together.
Expect challenges — and get ready to talk about them
“Once you move in, it’s going to be bumpier for a while. It just is,” says Terrill. “Acknowledging that and demystifying this fantasy of moving in together and realizing that it’s a process like anything else — there’s going to be disagreements, and you’re going to get through it — is really the most important part.”
When the inevitable disagreements and conflicts arise, don’t turn them into a wedge in your relationship; instead, talk them out. Communication is essential because “there is nowhere for us to run,” says Chang. “There is no just going our separate ways. You have to work through it.”