Who Wears Which Pants When?

Step 3: Decide Who Wears Which Pants When
Among the myriad assumptions that make cohabiting problematic, there's a category so confusing and volatile that it deserves special attention. I'm talking about gender roles, the expectations about the respective responsibilities of each partner in any given relationship. In our culture, traditional divisions between "what men should do" and "what women should do" have been destabilized by massive ideological and economic trends, creating domestic conflicts in the process.

These days there's no rule book for divvying up labor at work and at home. Modern women, as well as men, may wear the pants in the family—but no one's really sure who wears which pants when. Unless your assumptions are a perfect match for your partner's (not likely), they can create serious rifts when you begin living together.

You and your partner need to talk about the division of labor in your prospective household. Domestic and professional responsibilities often conflict, which means you both might be overburdened. Can you decide now who wears the required pants for virtually every task involved in managing your household: cooking, cleaning, calling the plumber, working overtime to pay for a new fridge? Figuring out who tackles which role may take a lot of start-up time, but believe me, it can save you enormous long-term conflict. To do it right, though, you'll need some training in negotiation.

Needs, Not Positions

Step 4: Negotiate Needs, Not Positions
In the rosy glow of fairy-tale romance, it seems impossible that you and your true love will ever have serious differences. Moving in together will dissolve that little illusion as fast as you can say "What the hell are you doing with my CD collection?" You can avoid ruining a relationship if you have one negotiation skill: addressing needs rather than positions.

This simple strategy has helped many of my clients smooth out relationship wrinkles. For example, Scott loved to eat out; his girlfriend, Peggy, always wanted to stay home. They argued a lot about this issue. I asked Scott why he wanted to go out. "I like ethnic food," he said. Peggy's concern was that they couldn't afford restaurant meals. Once they identified their objectives, it took Peggy and Scott only minutes to dream up a weekly date, when they'd pick a menu from an ethnic cookbook, then shop, cook, and eat together. Working from why—rather than repeating what you want—is one of the quickest ways I know to short-circuit arguments like this.

Avoid Tunnel (of Love) Vision

Step 5: Avoid tunnel (of love) vision
It takes time and effort to establish a workable live-in love. But don't let the exciting, tumultuous process of setting up a house distract you from your nonromantic relationships. Couples who focus too completely on each other may become enmeshed, develop what I've taken to calling tunnel-of-love vision, and abandon friends, family, and private time. No matter how engrossing your new living situation may be, this is a bad idea.

Sustaining a happy domestic life requires a resilient support system. And maintaining that network is imperative, by either spending a few minutes every day in peaceful solitude or having coffee with friends. You'll be in a much better position to handle a career crisis, the death of your goldfish, or a near-lethal PMS attack without stressing your new roomie beyond all human endurance.

It's true that territory beyond moving in together, beyond The End, is less like a fairy tale than early courtship. The sequel tends to sound less exciting and more mundane, its themes increasingly subtle and complex. It requires attention to our intuition, careful expression of confusing emotions, skillful communication, and a good deal of consistent daily work. The story of a contented life together is frankly less fun to tell than the uncertain adventure of finding love. On the other hand, it's much more fun to live.

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