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Moving in Together: Combining Lives, Lifestyles and Living Spaces

by Mary Leigh Howell

In the film, “When Harry Met Sally,” characters played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher are moving in together. Combining household items goes smoothly until a decision must be made about Kirby’s beloved wagon wheel coffee table.

"It says 'home' to me," Kirby's character says.

"Honey," Fisher's character responds, "it's so awful there's no way to begin to explain what's so awful about it."

FFor anyone who’s ever shared a living space, the scene, funny as it may be, is deadly serious. Merging households is a tough business, because it's not so much about getting rid of excess "stuff," as it is about navigating between emotional attachments and the realities of square feet.

Rules of the Road

Like everything else in life, planning is key to a smooth transition, says Life Transitions Expert Carri Garelick, MPH, of In Good Space. “Merging yours, mine and ours can be more easily navigated with proper planning.”  Remember, blending homes is a process, not an event.

“Focus on the relationship,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology and licensed clinical psychologist, “and let go of the ‘stuff.’” Consider the real reason you’re joining households.  It’s not because of possessions, it’s because of your love for each other and a desire to share more time together.

Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage,,, says it’s important to be forthcoming from the outset. “In initial discussions never hold back; explore all possibilities.” Sometimes couples come to regret decisions and realize they should've been more honest about their needs up front.  

Merging Furnishings

Usually both parties bring furniture and decor into a relationship.  Garelick reminds us that just like children, adults have attachments to comfort furnishings.  Be sensitive to these attachments and try to incorporate some parts of each individual’s history into the new space. Enjoy the process and make decisions together.

““Allow some veto power,” says Durvasula, “like no velvet Elvis paintings, but find compromise.”  To the degree possible, communicate your vision ahead of time. “And while honoring the individuals in the relationship, make sure the décor in the new space also tells your story together.”

Consolidating Electronics

“List everything you both have and determine where there are redundancies,” says O’Neill.  Do the duplications make sense, such as a computer, phone and mp3 player for each person? What about things that could be sold?  Surely four televisions in a two-bedroom apartment is overkill.

Then there's the issue of joint use. “It is important to acknowledge that certain things, whether they were previous gifts, necessary for school or work, or just valued possessions, are not always best shared,” says Garelick.  “At a minimum, guidelines need to be set up about requesting permission to use items that have already been established as 'private property.' “

Media Services Usage and Sharing

Say one of you can’t survive without seeing Showtime’s “Homeland,” and the other is fixated on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” you’ll need to sit down and figure out your joint priorities and budget. One option could be to call your cable company and investigate bundling the channels together in a new agreement. In addition, one of the partners may require more Internet bandwidth because they enjoy online gaming, while the other may work from home. For the remote, or home-based professional, you’ll want to think about landline plans that can accommodate reaching clients nationally and internationally depending upon the scope of the business.

O'Neill suggests you share the work of researching info on costs, options and providers, and then sit down to discuss pros and cons of the different plans.

"Service fees for Internet, cable and phone raise the issue of finances," says Durvasula. Communicate with each other about how you'll divvy up the bills and set a plan that spells out who pays for what. Will you split everything down the middle?  Or perhaps you'll pay for your own cellphones and divide the remainder of the services equally.

Some No Nos for Combining Households

While disagreements will occur during household negotiations, Dr. urvasula reminds us there are behaviors and decisions it’s best to avoid altogether.

No “All or none.” It’s a dangerous proposition. If it is all her furniture, all her stuff, it becomes a reproduction of one home without integrating the other.

No bullying. It can't be, "I pay 75 percent of the rent, I get 75 percent of the space.” A relationship is not a balance sheet. Communicate and be respectful of each other.

No marginalization.  You may have 500 pairs of shoes, but that shouldn't mean your husband has to put his clothes in the garage. Find a way to use the spaces in the home in a fair and complementary way.

No ghosts. Don't hang pictures of your ex-girlfriend or ex-husband in your new home. This is your new life – leave the past in the past!

Mary Leigh Howell specializes in communications for the home, furnishings and garden industries