Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
I’m 37 and moving in with my boyfriend. I’ve never lived with anyone and I’ve never dated anyone I could see a future with in this way. But, I’m. Freaking. Out. I feel like I’m saying goodbye to myself. That whole balance I created between different groups of friends, dating, calling my mom to talk about dating, and recharging by watching ’60s musicals while talking to my cat is gone. That life is over and I don’t know how to say goodbye to it.
I was excited about living with my BF. I believe that enthusiasm is still there but it’s buried under the fear of this “new person” I have to be. I, literally, do not sleep. I can’t bring myself to pack. I already miss my apartment and I still have a few weeks left. How, as a mature, funny, quirky, independent gal in her 30s, did you do this? How can I transition to a totally different life and still be me?
Too Terrified to Be Excited
There are so many adult “milestones” that we all assume are happy, super terrific occasions: getting a job, getting a promotion, getting a significant other, moving in with that significant other, getting married, having a child. But each of these moments is a transition, and transitions are stressful.
Our culture tends to denigrate singleness, even while 25% of Americans live alone.
In my 30s I found myself living alone for the first time in my life, and at first I honestly hated it. Coming home to an empty apartment freaked me out – I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I would call friends, a different one each night, to try to help myself feel less alone.
But then, rather quickly, I got used to it. I loved coming home at night and not having to interact with anyone else. I loved waking up when I wanted, how I wanted. I loved making exactly what I wanted for dinner, watching whatever I wanted to watch, going to bed whenever I wanted. I had so much free time now that I didn’t need to negotiate with anyone else about schedules or domestic duties. If there were gross dishes in the sink, the trash smelled, and I was out of clean socks, I had only myself to blame. The freedom was intoxicating. I would park on the street, walk up my block, maybe stop in the café on the corner and buy a fruit tart for dinner, enter my apartment in silence, change my clothes, and then settle onto my couch to watch TV and snuggle into my blankets.
And then I met my now-husband and, after a short six months of dating, we moved in together. Moving in together made perfect sense – we were spending every night together, which caused him to have 90-minute commutes to work when he left from my apartment and me to show up everywhere with a minimum of five bags when I spent the night as his apartment. Moving in together was going to save us time, and money, and since we were already talking about getting married it was a natural step. Which didn’t stop me at all from crying almost every day going up to the move.
We’re now married so everything obviously worked out, but my first reaction to moving in with him was excitement followed, quite closely, by blind terror. What was I afraid of? I had already undergone the wrenching experience of moving in with a boyfriend only to break up and have to move out, and I very much wanted to avoid ever doing that again. I also had, for the first time in my life, settled into life on my own. I wasn’t dependent upon anyone else for anything and my pride in that fact was causing me to cling to it – who am I if I’m not a kick ass single woman? Who am I if I let someone else take care of me?
We had so many duplicates – two couches, two tables, two coffee makers, two rice cookers, and I insisted on keeping all of my items, even if they were just taking up space in a closet. My now-husband caught me crying quietly in the pantry a few times and he tried not to take it personally. We both made dozens of tiny, silent concessions as we adjusted to co-habitation; he stopped watching The Godfather once a week, I stopped spending 30 minutes at a time carefully examining my pores in the bathroom mirror. It was exhausting because we had to renegotiate everything – which side of the bed do we each sleep on? Where do we put the bed? Where do we keep the towels? How do we fold those towels? Where do we keep the salt? Where do we keep the medicine? In the morning, do we make coffee using his 12-point system that guarantees a perfect cup or my 2-point system that takes 30 seconds and just fucking makes coffee?
It’s entirely normal to be acutely aware of what you’re giving up as you make this transition. You will give up things when you move in with your boyfriend, both physical objects and the complete sense of ease you currently feel in your own home. But you’ll be surprised to find how quickly your sense of ease will return. Because, like “The Real World” tells us, eventually people stop being polite and start getting real. I don’t know how long it takes, or when it starts, but I do know that, for me, the turning point was when I told my now-husband that I hated sleeping with the sheets tucked in. I want the sheets to swirl around my feet and I want to be able to crinkle them between my toes. I had never confessed this to anyone else I had shared a bed with and telling him felt both silly and incredibly important. And he understood completely.
Another moment to watch for is when you guys can be in the same house but not in the same room. Because you’re not visiting each other, you’re living with each other, and you can start doing separate things even while you’re together.
Now, we’ve lived together for years, and there isn’t a lot that we won’t do in front of each other. He watches the same movies again and again, I examine my pores, we both lie on the couch after dinner and fart, I hold living room dance parties, he spends hours reading political op-eds, and sometimes I eat tuna fish for dinner while watching “The Real Housewives” while he makes sure he’s not in the same room as me. It’s less romantic than early courtship, but that’s because now it’s home. Our home.
As you get used to living with a significant other, you’ll start to realize what you have gained. You have a partner, someone else who’s also running the small business of your home life. He can pick up your slack, he can do those chores that you hate, he can help you in those moments where you’re tired or weak and really don’t want to solve a problem all by yourself. I haven’t taken out the trash in years and when I think about that I want to fall to my knees in gratitude.
Today, I drive home and park in my driveway. I enter my house through the mudroom and even before I unlock the door I can hear my son screaming “MOMMY’S HOME!” I am met at the door by a running ball of a boy, all dirty arms and cereal breath. My husband stands in the kitchen, smiling, tired. I peel away from our child to kiss my husband hello. Our countertops are covered in fingerpaint and crumbs from last night’s dinner. There are dirty dishes in the sink. The cat is crying to be fed and the dishwasher needs to be unloaded and our son is yelling that he wants to watch Daniel Tiger. It’s messy and loud and, now, mine.
Moving in with your boyfriend signals the end of an era and you should acknowledge that, and mourn it. Living alone was good, it was really good, but there’s also a reason you’re stepping away from it. You lived alone, you did it, you got really good at it, but now it’s time to move on. Push yourself into this new, scary, exciting future. Move in with your boyfriend and create the space in which this new relationship, this new you, may flourish. Share your ’60s movies with him. Keep calling your mom every week. And know that you will still be you, you will always be you, but this relationship will bend itself around you until you can barely remember the time when you used to come home to silence.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.