Going Cohab? 8 survival tips for staying together

The Container Stores must be doing a brisk business. According to the latest statistics, more couples than ever are bypassing the altar in favor of blending their possessions and shacking up.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that in 2009, marriage plunged to an all-time low, accounting for only 52 percent of the adult population. Also, in the last year, the number of opposite-sex couples living together jumped by 13 percent. "As much as we're seeing an increase in prenups," adds Marlene Eskind Moses, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, "we've also seen a rise in cohabitation agreements." So it's not just Mel Gibson? "Absolutely not. These agreements are becoming much more common."

Sadly, this all may sound more "spreadsheet" than satin sheets, but apparently we live in unromantic times: Weddings are expensive, and everlasting love may not be not the first thing that comes to mind when you're slipping all over the job market. Meanwhile, "splitting the rent" has an increasingly nice ring.

But how do you make cohab love last? For all those couples suddenly bumping heads in the bathroom mirror, beyond screwing on the toothpaste cap, here are a few survival tips:

1. Bite the bullet and define the situation. There's a certain charm in making house and seeing where the wind blows. But that's a dead-on mistake, warns psychotherapist Tina Tessina, PhD, author of How To Be a Couple and Still Be Free. "When you move in together, it's essential to discuss what it means to both of you," she says. "What kind of commitment is this? Are you building toward a future together or simply trying to save money? And if the latter, are you going to be monogamous? How will you describe your arrangement to friends and family?"

2. Have the money talk. Leave two fine, gold-chain necklaces in a jewelry drawer and inevitably they'll become knotted. It's the same thing with separate finances-the minute you set foot in shared living quarters, they start to entangle. Money, of course, is the number one issue couples fight about, especially when things aren't spelled out. Sit down as soon as you can, and make a budget. Decide who pays for rent, groceries, entertainment-everything you can think of. Figure out if you'll open a joint account for household expenses, and how you'll accommodate for one person making more than the other. This is one of the best investments you can make in your relationship.

3. Consider a cohab agreement. A legal document can certainly make things easier if you do break up. For example, who gets the furniture? Who can decide whether to sell it? What if one person paid for a new car and the other covered groceries-how to get the food expenses back? You can also include provisions that say what happens if one person cheats or is abusive. "Each state has different laws concerning cohabitation," says Moses. "In some, for example, you can be married without knowing it just because you've lived together for a certain number of years-and suddenly you're responsible for your partner's debt." Perhaps most importantly, an agreement can clear up money fights before the words, "well, I do owe Visa $200,000," ever ruin a nice evening. "People will say, 'I'm in love, I don't want to talk about this,'" Moses acknowledges." But frankly I think it strengthens the relationship. It gives you the opportunity to discuss how you're going to work together."

4. Assign jobs. "The number one tip I tell all my couples is to write down every single thing that needs to be done-shopping, cooking, taking out the cat litter," says psychologist Alice Domar, PhD, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health. For each task, both of you should indicate whether you "like," "don't mind," or can't stand" doing it. Now compare your two lists and divvy up the chores. Factor in who's contributing more financially or working the most hours, and decide what's fair.

5. Practice the C word. That would be compromise. "When you start to live with someone," Domar says, "you have to accept that you're not going to get your way all of the time. And part of it's because you want the other person to be happy, too. Either compromise on the issues that you don't feel passionate about or give in to something big, knowing that you will win the next one."

6. Keep your space. It's easy to fall into a groove where you stop going out with your friends or doing things separately. "Try not to become your partner's shadow," advises therapist Gilda Carle, PhD, author of Don't Bet on the Prince! "When you first met, there was probably a mystery and magic in the unknown. Keep that going by continuing to enjoy your solo excursions so when you reconnect, you'll bring back new passion."

7. Plan for attack. Figure out in advance what you're going to do when you fight. Tessina teaches her clients this tactic to diffuse a heated argument: Whoever thinks of it first, make a "T" with your hands to signify that you must both stop talking (or yelling) for 20 minutes. Once you cool down, come back together, and reintroduce the topic.

8. Don't forget to flirt. After sharing colds and bedbugs, domestic life has a way of luring you back into the friendly old sweats you shuffled around when you were single. And it's great to feel as if you can let your hair down. "But getting too comfy sets you up to take each other for granted," says Carle. "Physical chemistry is important. Sex is one of the best ways to keep communication open-and to remind each other of why you decided to live together in the first place."

Are you living with your partner? What's working-and what's not?

[photo credit: Thinkstock]

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