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Learning to love: A guide to successful cohabitation

By Chloé Rose Whitmore 

Featured in our fall 2019 issue

A few days after my 24th birthday, I moved in with my boyfriend. Having been together for over six years, navigating long-distances, financial turbulence, and accidentally seeing his mother naked, nobody was surprised to see us take the next step in our relationship. 

There was just one problem: I was petrified of commitment. 

To my engaged and married friends, this seemed inconceivable, and I can hardly blame them. For all the progress we’ve made, narratives still tend to depict women as craving love and security, while men are the ones typically terrified of commitment. Men are lauded for their sexual encounters, while women are puritanically branded ‘sluts’ for short hemlines or drinking alone in bars.

Although my starry-eyed teenage years had been punctuated by devastating crushes and bad poetry, I’d never thought of myself as someone in a rush to settle down. Raised by a mother who lived her life with one foot out the door, being a flight-risk was in my blood. It was as inevitable as my blue eyes or my crooked nose. 

Long-term love was something I would have to learn, like a second language. It didn’t come naturally, and it certainly wasn’t the path I’d envisioned for my twenties, a decade I assumed would be a low-budget, slightly more upbeat version of Skins. The plan was to move to Paris, have a string of exotic love affairs, and write strained, melancholic stories about this thing called l'amour. When I was done – possibly on the eve of my 30th birthday – I could slot seamlessly into a monogamous existence, knowing that I’d lived my young adulthood out ‘properly’. 

So, when it came to crossing the threshold of our new apartment, divvying up the keys and choosing a side of the bed, my excitement was tinged by a sickly, subtle current of something that wasn’t quite fear, but wasn’t far from it. It’s the feeling that all fiercely independent people have when they attach themselves to another person. When they have to make a choice between love – proper, fulfilling, bone-deep love – and all the other kinds of love. That type of  love you feel for some guy named Brian after you’ve drank an entire bottle of white wine and suddenly, you decide you’ve got a thing for moustaches. 

Moving in with someone is held up as a kind of romantic, glittering achievement. A baby step towards marriage and children and the rest of your life. It’s rewarded with cards and champagne like you’ve graduated from relationship college because your toothbrushes now inhabit the same peppermint-crusted holder. 

Less talked about is how arduous, exhausting and complex the process of moulding two separate lives together is. It’s not sexy to talk about the shit stains in the toilet or the cut-throat, bags-packed argument about the correct way to load a dishwasher. Nobody wants to hear ruminations about the fact that, what was once your once wine-stained Friday nights, are now spent binging Netflix with both of you in bed by 10:30 p.m. 

In an age where divorce and discontent are rife, I think it’s important not to gloss over the flaws in relationships – especially in our comparative culture.

A friend of mine recently spoke for hours about her new boyfriend, describing their nights of sex under the stars, only stopping the shag-fest to discuss philosophy and anthropology. Meanwhile, I was internally debating what to put in the casserole I’d make that night. I was fairly certain I’d seen a stick of celery languishing in the back of the fridge. 

Naturally, I spent that night fretting and chewing my fingernails and wondering whether my relationship lacked passion. 

Here I think lies the problem. Not only are many women not given the space to hesitate, but we’re sold on volatile, hair-pulling, fiercely passionate love that rarely exists outside of Taylor Swift songs. As if doubts don’t exist, and if they do, they’re reserved for men. I’m looking at you, Chandler Bing. 

If all you consume are stories of fire and intensity, it can be disillusioning to find yourself putting off sex to watch another episode of Queer Eye. Especially when you’re confronted with a mass of gushing Instagram posts depicting perfect, uncomplicated, devastatingly romantic couples. 

But as surprised as I was to find myself settling into a beige state of monogamy, I was even more surprised to see how our relationship shifted, warmed and grew. For every compromise, every argument, every fleck of piss on the toilet seat, there was some good, light, unexpected thing. Like a warm hug on a bad day, sex with full bellies pressed against each other after takeout, sour morning breaths, or thousands of tiny chores that stitched our lives together in a new, suffocating and wonderful way. Inside jokes that accumulate fast and irrevocably — our shared language — communicating in yawns and groans and finger-light touches. For every time I wanted him out of my space, there was a time I wanted him in it. 

Relationships, marriage, cohabitation — they’re often treated like the spectacular postcard view at the end of an uphill hike. But, I don’t think that’s accurate. I think relationships are the hike. It’s the long, winding, uneven walk to nowhere, where the destination is obscured by rain clouds and nobody bothered to draw you a map. But you’ll hold hands, share sips of water, pull each other up the steep, muddy slope. 

It’s painful, breath-stealing, sweaty and only sometimes worth it. It’s love.


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