It seems like people are always looking for love, but single life can be pretty great. You're independent, you don't have to compromise and you get used to doing things 100 per cent your way. Of course, when you finally meet the right person, this can make it difficult to adjust to being in a relationship. Difficult but not impossible.
After living on my own for nearly my entire adult life, shacking up with my now-fiancé was challenging. I was used to doing whatever I wanted, which often involved walking around slathered in zit cream and raggedy, oversized pajamas. "You can still do those things," he'd say, but I didn't want to do those things in front of anyone else. I wanted to do them alone. There were quirks on his end, too. I'd want to hear about the mundane details of his day, which he wouldn't even think to bring up in conversation. "Sorry," he'd say. "I guess I'm not used to talking to someone about my day."
It was easy enough to get on the same page with small things like this. But there are more complicated issues that arise, and those take a little more work to transition from single to being in a relationship.
Start With "The Talk"
Sometimes two people can get along swimmingly, but they have very different ideas of what being in a relationship means. Hell, if you've been on your own for forever, you might not even know what your own relationship expectations are.
Maybe your new partner wants to talk on the phone every day, and you've never been a phone talker. Maybe they think being in a relationship means you hang out every single weekend (or every day!), and you're used to spending Sundays alone.
There comes a time when you'll want to lay these expectations out, commonly known as "The Talk." Most people think of this as defining the relationship: are we dating? Are we exclusive? Where is this going long-term? That's great, but you also want to get specific about what you both want from the relationship, and what you'll both bring to the relationship. Specifics like:
- How often you'll see each other and communicate
- Issues that might bring on jealously (are you still friends with an ex? You should probably let them know)
- Your expectations for the future
Just being aware of these expectations can make the transition a lot easier.
Create Boundaries for Sharing Time and Space
Even though I love spending time with my fiancé, I also love spending time alone. Brian is the same way, so when we started getting serious, it was easy enough to agree that we'd both allow each other our "alone time".
But everyone has a busy schedule, and things don't always work out so perfectly. For example, I love being alone in the mornings so I can get my work done in peace. He loves to have coffee and chat before he leaves for work. For a long time, I felt like I couldn't get anything done living with someone, and he felt I was a workaholic who ignored him. This is why setting boundaries is important. I simply agreed to get up earlier, so I could have my time and space in the morning, and then I allocated 20 minutes or so to having coffee with him before work.
In bringing up boundaries, Psych Central editor Margarita Tartakovsky suggests the tried and true "Sandwich Approach", which involves "compliment, criticism, compliment". For example:
"I love having sex with you, it's an incredible part of our relationship. I find that I'm usually in the mood in the morning before work, and at night I just want to sleep. Can we keep having the best sex ever in the mornings?"
In addition, take time to understand each other's priorities, as clinical psychologist Randi Gunther suggests. Make a mental list of your priorities for being alone vs doing things as a couple. When exactly do each of you prefer alone time vs couple time? And what does that time entail? It also helps to know why that time is important to you, so you can prioritise accordingly.
Drafting these priorities can make it easier to find a compromise.
Get Used to Communicating Everything
Communication is a big deal in pretty much every relationship, but when you're used to being on your own, regular relationship communication can be hard on so many levels. Beyond just talking about your day with someone, there's a lot of other relationship stuff that requires communication, from making plans together to talking about your feelings. You get used to checking in with your partner about this stuff over time, but when you're just starting out, it's easy to neglect.
If you're not used to communicating regularly with a partner, start with these three questions, via Relationships Australia:
- What things cause upsets between you and your partner? Are they because you are not listening to each other?
- What things cause you disappointment and pain? What things don't you talk about and what stops you talking about them?
- How would you like your communication with your partner to be different?
Again, it's also important to talk about your day, ask your partner about his or her day, ask your partner's opinion on stuff and so on. These things are glaringly obvious to relationship people, but usually-single people who find themselves in a relationship might not understand this right away.
After the basics, you want to learn each other's communication style. Psychologist Claire Newton outlines five basic communication styles:
Do you speak up readily when you hear something you disagree with, or do you prefer to listen to all sides and either remain quiet or speak up only if the conversation is going in a direction that you can't live with?
Do you prefer to give directions and make decisions without a lot of input from others? Or do you prefer a more collaborative approach?
Are you comfortable sharing power? Or do you prefer relationships where there is a hierarchical power structure in place?
Consider each of your "love languages" too. This is just how you express love: through words, actions, gifting, spending time together or physical touch. Realising your communication differences allows you to bridge any gaps, making it a lot easier to get on the same page. Once you have a grasp of how to communicate with your partner, you'll want to watch out for some common communication pitfalls. For example:
- Expecting your partner to read your mind
- Holding back and not saying what you really think or feel
- Not considering the other person's point of view
If your relationship gets to a point where you need to discuss finances, that can be a hurdle too. You'll want to learn how to have productive money conversations. Consider holding weekly money meetings. No, it doesn't sound exciting, but having a scheduled time to discuss money keeps it from becoming a spontaneous topic you fight about only when you're stressed.
These are typical issues couples deal with, and if you're new to a relationship you might not see them coming. Simply being aware of them can make all the difference.
Maintain Your Independence
When you start dating someone, there are certain single habits you may understandably change. Putting the toilet seat down is a classic example. Psychology Today points out that, when you give up stuff like this, it's important to make sure you understand you're doing it for the right reasons:
The choices made to give up the autonomy of a single life in exchange for the blessings of a committed relationship are willingly given. There cannot be resentment or martyrdom, or the relationship will eventually erode. Those givens are seen as gifts to the other, not as losses of individuality.
If you're not willing to give up certain things that mean a lot to your partner, that's another story and something that's usually addressed at the beginning of a relationship as a compatibility issue. But the bottom line here is: there are some things you willingly give up for the relationship, and you shouldn't consider these losses to your individuality. At the same time, this is why it's important to maintain your individuality in other ways, ways that matter to you.
Research tells us that, in the most successful relationships, couples maintain friendships outside of the relationship. Through all of the compromise and learning to coexist with another person, you also don't want to be completely defined by your relationship; that can lead to codependence or resentment. You want to have some sense of independence, so maintain the friendships you had before you got together, and make time for the activities you enjoyed as a single person.
Part of the fun of being single is learning to enjoy your independence. You don't have to give that up when you find someone you want to spend your life with. It takes some understanding, communication and ground rules, but it's possible to have the best of both worlds.