Step 1: Pledge Allegiance to Red Flags
No, I'm not suggesting you turn communist. By red flags I mean the uneasy feeling that there's something fundamentally wrong with your relationship. I know several clients who've moved in with partners in order to silence just such hunches. Two, ten, 30 years later, as I'm helping them process the inevitable breakup, I ask, "When did you see the problems?" Almost invariably, they respond, "On our second date" or "The week we met" or some other astonishingly early moment in their relationship.
Research suggests that we can sense red flags in someone else's marriage after watching a troubled couple interact for just a few minutes. Turning this intuition to ourselves, we can scout for scarlet banners in our love lives—before, not after, moving in together. Pay particular attention to what psychologist John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of relationship apocalypse: withdrawal, criticism, defensiveness, and, above all, contempt. If these elements characterize your relationship, you might want to hang on to that loft-for-one. Thinking you can solve basic interpersonal problems by moving in together is like trying to transform a rabid pit bull into a love pup by stapling its tail to the parlor floor. You'll still have a big angry mess on your hands—only now you'll be living with it.
Your Way, His Way, Our Way, or Both Ways
Step 2: Articulate Your Assumptions
Most of us outgrow such prejudices as we gain experience, but even tolerant people retain a surprising number of untested assumptions shaped by life experience. All couples have slight-to-serious differences in their beliefs about what is "normal." From doing laundry to dealing with stress, we tend to think that our way is the way. It isn't possible to resolve all these clashing assumptions (or even anticipate them) before shacking up. But you and your mate can discuss the fact that undiscovered prejudices will emerge, and have a system in place for dealing with them.
Agree to discuss at least four options whenever styles conflict: my way, your way, our way, or both ways. For instance, suppose your impoverished childhood taught you to reuse aluminum foil, while your mate's family just threw it away. If you and your partner are pinching pennies, you may decide that reusing is a fabulous idea (your way). If you become prosperous, you may decide to pitch your used foil (his way). If this feels wasteful, you could adopt a new custom by recycling (our way). Or you can simply agree to disagree, giving him permission to toss used bits of foil while you treasure them like the Dead Sea Scrolls (both ways).
If you decide to adopt a practice that is different from your past experience, remember that it takes about 21 days of performing a new behavior before it becomes a habit. You or your mate may feel grumpy during this time, but by sticking to your agreement, you'll find things should smooth out in three weeks or so.