I still remember how excited I felt the first time I decided to enter a live-in relationship. At one year out of college, my job paid next to nothing, and the only living situation I could afford involved cramming into a three-bedroom apartment with five roommates. Privacy flew out the window, and at night I’d unhappily crawl onto a twin mattress on my side of one of the bedrooms. At the same time, my then-partner alternated between roommate situations and living at home, and was similarly dissatisfied. It’s not surprising that both of us were dying to trade those living situations in to live together.
Between the two of us, we had one low-paying job and financially inadequate student loans, so we couldn’t afford much space. But a cozy one-bedroom sounded romantic to me, and much better than living with parents and roommates. And at first, it really was great.
But after a couple of months, the space-related arguments started. When we moved in, our stuff barely fit into the apartment, and I, as a minimalist at heart, naively thought we wouldn’t need any more. But as we inevitably did, we fought about where to put things. Our philosophies on extra stuff were as different as night and day: don’t buy it unless you get rid of something else vs. let’s just go to Target and get more storage shelves to fit it all! By the time we moved out of that apartment a year later, it was bursting at the seams. It turned out that living in a small space with a partner came with challenges as well as benefits.
At this point, I’ve lived with more than one partner in places that some might describe as being only big enough for one person. And I’m not the only one of my friends who’s lived in close quarters with significant others. For some of them, there’s been even less space – they’re sharing a bedroom in a house full of people, or living with Mom and Dad in one of their childhood bedrooms. With wages going down, rental costs going up, and city living increasing in popularity, it’s possible more of us than ever share limited space.
Here are some ways I’ve discovered to thrive in small spaces with a romantic partner.
Make a plan for your stuff before you move in together.
Ideally, you went apartment or house hunting with your partner, and selected a space that suited you both. Look at a floor plan, and take pictures of the space, and take an inventory of the stuff each of you have. Make a plan for how you’re going to divide up the storage space and how each of your things will fit in there.
If your space lacks closet space, or you simply have too many things between the two of you to fit in your new digs, decide what you’re going to do to make it fit. If you want to create extra storage space, you can get extra shelving to go under the bed, on the wall, or even inside an ottoman. Alternatively, one or both of you can get rid of extra items, or you can rent a storage unit. If you’re renting storage, make sure you make a plan upfront for how it will get paid for.
An honest dialogue and direct communication is key in this stage, so you don’t end up sniping at each other over closet space every single morning after moving in together. If you’re really motivated, you can even put your space and storage plan in writing.
Create individual designated spaces.
If you’re living in a bedroom or a tiny apartment, it’s easy to feel like you’re living on top of each other, and to let lack of private space instigate arguments that otherwise would’ve blown over. If you work different hours, this may not be a problem at all. But if you both work 9-5, or one or both of you works from home even some of the time, you’ll have to find other ways to carve out space.
A designated personal space doesn’t have to be large – if all you have is a small bedroom, it can be a corner of the room, or even your side of the bed. What it really becomes, regardless of size, is a place where you can relax and be yourself. I find a small private space can be great for doodling, writing, and meditation.
If you’re spending a lot of time together, both of you will also want to try to create designated time apart at least once a week. Instead of relying on plans with friends or exciting activities, empower each other to find a coffee shop, restaurant, or outdoor space where you can get work done or just relax. Through short-term separation, you’ll give each other the gift of space.
Have seasonal cleaning and donation parties.
When you’re spending a lot of time in an apartment that doesn’t really fit two people, you’ll find it getting dirty quickly. The good news is, small spaces don’t take long to clean, especially if you use teamwork. Clean your space regularly, of course, but quarterly is a great time to trim out the clutter.
Any place can get cluttered, but the danger increases when your place is really small. If your apartment looks ready to burst, now is a great time to decide what you’ll donate, or sell on Craigslist. Alternatively, take a look around your apartment and see what creative things you can do to expand or add to your storage space.
The quarterly purge is also a time to really communicate and assess how well the space is working for you. Is your partner hogging too much of the closet or the storage shelves? Now’s the time to convey that. If the space has gotten too small for the two of you, it may also be time to decide to move on, and start looking for a bigger place.
Remember: the small apartment isn’t always the root of your disagreements.
Sometimes, a fight about the apartment isn’t really about the apartment. Feeling like you don’t have enough space is a problem that’s external in nature, and often what’s happening is that you’re fighting because an internal need feels unsatisfied, like feeling like your partner doesn’t listen enough. Other times, there may be a fundamental clash of values being reflected in the apartment space.
In my first live-in relationship, the latter was the case. When we moved from a tiny apartment into a much larger one in the suburbs, I thought all of our problems with space would go away, but the challenges continued. We managed to get even more stuff, to fill up that larger apartment, and still never agreed on what and how many things to buy. I missed living minimally and in a city, and eventually I left the relationship to pursue those goals. It turned out that our early small apartment goals were the result of lifestyle differences as wide as the Pacific Ocean.
However, if your philosophies align, and if both of you are willing to compromise, living in a small space can be very workable. The important thing is to find common ground, and establish expectations from the start. With careful management, a cozy apartment can be the perfect place for you and your partner to thrive. You might even find that it brings you and your partner closer together.