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Living with your partner while in university

IN THE NOT so distant past, living together outside of wedlock could damage a person’s reputation beyond repair. As time marches on and that stigma fades, more and more university-aged couples are choosing to move in together. The Fulcrum asked professors and students—those who are happily cohabiting and those who ended their relationship after signing a lease together—to weigh in on the common-law lifestyle.

Thinking about moving in together

Why do so many students choose to forgo living by themselves or with friends in favour of renting a home with their partners?

Diane Pacom, a sociology professor at the U of O, thinks the growing divorce rate in Canada may play a part in a student’s decision to live with his or her significant other.

“Many kids now are the product of divorce,” she said. “This generation has been through the traumas of divorce, so when they meet someone, they honestly think, ‘This is it.’ Cohabitation can be like a rehearsal for marriage.”

A marriage “trial run” is an attractive idea to many young people who feel too young for the commitment of marriage but are ready to take their relationship to the next level.

“People are marrying later and later as it is. They are deciding to postpone marriage and live together first,” said Pacom. “Living together is not binding, but it is binding enough. If you are postponing getting married for a long time, but you still want to be together, what else do you do?”

Pacom mentioned that cohabitation is also enticing for students economically.

“In today’s reality, tuition fees are very expensive, many people cannot find jobs, and one of the partners ends up supporting the other one,” she said. “If you love the person and you want to be with them, you decide to just live together instead of separately.”

Some couples debating whether or not to live together aren’t concerned with their ability to get along or share space, but fear disapproval from their families. Garett Brown*, a U of O business student, didn’t tell his religious family when he and his girlfriend moved in together.

“My grandma is a devout Catholic. I knew she wouldn’t approve of us ‘living in sin,’ so I let her think we were living separately,” he said. “She was really disappointed in me when she learned the truth.”


Accidental cohabitation

Sometimes the decision isn’t whether to move in with the person you’re dating, but whether to date the person you’re already living with. University of Ottawa students Emily Oswald and Kade Leslie decided to couple up after two years of living together as roommates, something Oswald believes enhanced the quality of their relationship.

“Living together helped us realize each other’s best qualities, as well as our worst faults,” she said. “Once we decided to make the leap into a relationship, we not only knew these things, but also how to deal with them.”

Dating someone you haven’t known for very long can feel adventurous, but there’s a chance you’ll discover a bad habit or tendency that is a deal breaker. When you date someone you’ve taken the time to get to know as a roommate, there aren’t likely to be any nasty surprises.

It’s always a risk when roommates become romantic partners. As Oswald points out, “Breaking up would be extremely awkward, and it would suck to lose a friend as well.”

These concerns initially kept Oswald and Leslie from pursuing a relationship, and though they’re still happily together after two years, Oswald cautions others against following the same path they did.

“I’m sure that for every situation that works out like ours, there are a million that end in an awkward division of DVD collections during midterms.”

Newly cohabitating

Moving in with your partner marks the beginning of your first time living like someone’s spouse.

The first weeks of living together can involve quite a bit of upheaval. Your relationship has to be practical, as well as emotional, which means a lot of negotiation and experimentation with how you share space and responsibilities.

Alex O’Driscoll*, a fourth-year U of O nursing student, suggests creating a shared calendar to help newly cohabitating couples to be conscientious of each other’s routines and schedules.

“If I know my boyfriend is going to have a lot of late classes in one day, I’ll try to have a snack ready for when he gets home,” she said. “He appreciates it, and I don’t have to deal with a hungry, cranky boyfriend.”

Working around each other isn’t all you’ll need to do. With a live-in partner, you’ll spend much more time together than you did when you lived separately.

“There’s no time apart when you live together, and based on mere proximity, you are likely to do things together,” explained Oswald.

Sharing activities and responsibilities may also mean you share a budget for some things. When Oswald and Leslie began dating, they started doing groceries together and buying things for the house.

“Things changed from being ‘my coffee maker’ to ‘our coffee maker,’” said Oswald.

When two people move in together, they have to define their respective domestic duties together.

“We made a big list of chores and then divided it together,” explained O’Driscoll. “Divvying it up was more about who hates each chore less than about who likes to do what. I don’t love vacuuming, but I don’t hate it with a passion either, so that became ne of my chores.”

Fighting it out

What do you do if your partner is consistently forgetting basic tasks, like emptying the dishwasher or vacuuming under the couch? The important thing, really, is not to sweat the small stuff.

“I don’t like to nag,” said O’Driscoll. “Because I know that he’s going to respond with the same bad attitude that I show him when I harp on stuff not being done. Usually an offhand remark like, ‘The dishes are still in the sink,’ is enough to remind him without putting him on the defensive.”

When you and your significant other live separately, it is easy to let disagreements go on for days. Cold-shouldering is as simple as choosing not to return text messages or answer the phone, but it’s a whole new ball game when you share an apartment and bed with your partner.

“It’s a bit like high-school debate team,” said Brown. “We keep going through reasons for or against whatever we’re arguing about, and eventually we come to a compromise. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice, to bring up those uncomfortable topics, and you absolutely have to be willing to laugh.”

Not every cohabitating couple will enjoy a lasting relationship, but breaking up while living together doesn’t necessarily have to be messy.

Fourth-year U of O students Jason Beckett* and Amanda Meyers* decided to split after four years, shortly after they renewed the lease on their apartment. They were faced with the difficult decision of who would move out and who would stay. The solution came down to who could afford to rent the apartment alone.

“It worked out better because we broke up in the summer, when we were both living and working back in our hometowns,” explained Meyers. “We weren’t in each other’s faces while trying to deal with the break up, and it was easier to pack my things and move out when I knew he wouldn’t be hanging around the apartment too.”

Living together for a while

After sharing a home with your partner for a few months, you’ll know that romance and intimacy are not synonymous. It can be hard to keep the attraction alive after watching your significant other clip toenails or scrub the toilet, and keeping the spark in a relationship begins to require some extra effort.

“Sometimes she and I recreate things we did when we were first dating,” said Megan McKnight, a fourth-year U of O visual arts student, who lives with her partner. “Visiting the same places or doing the same activities reminds us why we fell for each other in the first place. And it’s like an inside joke that only we find one specific park bench romantic.”

New life experiences are essential no matter what your relationship status, but for cohabitors, there needs to be a mix of individual and couple activity. Having your partner around at home means that you don’t have to go out to see each other like you did when you were first dating. Two people living together often have to make time to see their friends, as it’s easy for cohabitors to fall into the unhealthy pattern of spending every waking minute together.

“After we moved in together, I felt awkward about going out without [my boyfriend],” said O’Driscoll. “I had a hard time going out for drinks with friends without feeling guilty for not inviting him along. My friends felt it too. Like they couldn’t just invite me someplace, it had to be me and him together.”

“It helps that she and I don’t share all the same friends or hobbies,” said Brown. “I can go out with my friends and do something that she’d never be interested in, and she can do the same with her friends. Maybe in some ways that compartmentalizes the way we explore our hobbies or interests, but it gives us independence within the relationship.”

“We’re both very independent people, and keeping our own identities is important to us,” said Brown. “Our relationship is special, but it doesn’t define our entire existence. We need our own lives—friends, careers, interests—because it just can’t be all about our relationship all the time. We’d burn out and et sick of each other.”


Legally speaking

For couples that stay together and continue cohabiting, there are advantages to be had. Living together for three years entitles you to the benefits of being common-law spouses.

“Family law is catching up with social reality,” said professor Peggy Malpass of the University of Ottawa law department. “People who are not married have almost all the same rights as people who are.”

After one year of cohabitation, you and your partner can file income taxes together. Couples who live together continuously for three years, or have a child together, have the same rights as married couples, including the right to spousal support in case of breakup.

The biggest difference between married and common-law status is right to share property. Common-law spouses never attain the right to share in each other’s property, regardless of how long they cohabitate, which is why creating an inventory of assets and a cohabitation agreement is important.

Final call

Whether you’re thinking of moving in together, newly cohabiting, or have been sharing space for a while, there’s a great need to be savvy and forward thinking. Cohabitation during university can be as challenging as it can be rewarding. Protect yourself, respect your partner, and make a point to appreciate every day in each other’s company.

—Written by Abria Mattina, with files from Kristyn Filip

*Names have been changed

The information provided in this article should not be used as legal advice. For legal advice regarding landlord and tenant agreements or spousal abuse, contact the University of Ottawa Community Legal Clinic at 17 Copernicus St. For advice on family law, visit the Family Law Information Centre at the 161 Elgin St. courthouse.