Live-in lovers

Live-in lovers

By Stephanie Moran

He was standing in the doorway of what he calls “his” bedroom (although his roommate girlfriend sleeps beside him almost every night). He was groggy, cranky and wearing nothing but yellow board shorts. Peering through dark-rimmed glasses he glared at his girlfriend, a woman with dark brown hair, smooth skin and red-framed glasses. His eyes were intense and his expression was hard.

And although he never muttered a word, he made his thoughts known: “Why are you making so much noise? Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

He left the room and slammed the door.

Merely 10 minutes prior, Ryan Thomas, a 24-year-old Berklee College of Music student, had been sleeping off a pounding headache. After enjoying a late night of partying, he was trying to catch a few extra hours of rest.

His girlfriend and roommate, Angela Duffy, a sophomore music major at Northeastern, was sitting on a red lounge chair shoveling spoonfuls of Au Bon Pain’s pumpkin soup into her mouth and scanning her notes from class. She was preparing for an upcoming record industry exam with a classmate.

Although Duffy and her classmate had been using their indoor voices, to a hung-over Thomas, they were being a bit too loud.

“That’s typical Ryan,” Duffy said motioning to the closed door. “See what I put up with?”

Duffy and Thomas have been dating for just over a year and have shared two living spaces. The first was his Berklee College of Music dorm room; their second and current residence is a two-bedroom apartment on Hemenway Street.

For the couple, learning to live together has been taxing. They still haven’t gotten it down, but they continue to try, Duffy said.

“I’ve never actually lived with anyone before and I’m a very particular person,” Thomas said. “I don’t like it when anyone, including Angela, touches my sheet music, my trumpet or my Mac; in fact, I get pretty angry if it happens. Luckily, we’re both musicians – she understands where I’m coming from and she’s really easy-going.”

Duffy and Thomas are not the only college couple attempting to master the art of compromise; there are plenty of student couples sharing closet space, combining DVD collections and discovering each other’s most intimate – and sometimes disgusting – habits.

Whether it’s in a residence hall room, a tiny studio apartment or even the second floor of a spacious duplex, live-in college couples are all around.

For some, living with a partner is the result of financial issues. Boston is an expensive city and it’s nearly impossible to afford an apartment alone.

For a select few, it’s permanent. These couples intend to spend their lives together.

For others, it’s a lapse in judgment. In foolhardy fashion, a couple dives head-first into living together without considering the consequences. And the result is a live-in nightmare.

The National Marriage Project, a study conducted at Rutgers University, aims to research and analyze the status of marital relationships in America. According to the project’s special report, “Sex without Strings, Relationships without Rings,” cohabitation is becoming more prominent than marriage among college students. In fact, most people believe a “24/7 relationship,” is the only way to truly know and understand their partner.

“In a lot of relationships you get quite intimate very early on, but you never really know too much about your partner’s other qualities and habits,” said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project. “There’s this idea that to have a good relationship you need a deeper knowledge of a person’s background – what they’re like, what their family’s like, and the only way to accomplish that is by cohabitating.”

At 2 p.m. Thomas emerged from his bedroom. He was wide-eyed and fully clothed, wearing a black Miles Davis T-shirt and jeans. He seemed to be a completely different person then he was earlier that morning. He asked Duffy to make him lunch. But when she refused, because she was studying, he began to throw a temper tantrum.

He tugged at her gray sweatpants and pawed at her bare arm for 10 minutes whining, “Salami, mustard and cheese on bread,” until she finally gave in.

“Fine, Ryan, here’s $3,” Duffy said. “Go get yourself a sandwich.”

A growing trend

According to the National Marriage Project’s study “The State of our Unions: 2006,” more than 4.8 million American unmarried couples cohabitate today.

Some live together as a prelude to marriage, others don’t want to be single or alone. But the most common reason is the sky-rocketing divorce rate, said Whitehead, author of “The Divorce Culture: Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family.”

“People are afraid they’ll get divorced,” she said.

According to the National Marriage Project’s study, present-day couples who marry for the first time face a 40 – 50 percent chance of ending the relationship.

Dan Pollets, a Boston psychologist who specializes in relationship therapy, said a “high, exploding divorce rate,” has made cohabitation more appealing than marriage to many.

For students, however, he feels the most enticing factor of living together is discovering how their partner truly acts and lives.

“Most young people are so eager to learn if they are compatible with one another,” and so they decide to live together, he said. But there are often times when couples move in too quickly – they haven’t allowed the relationship to fully develop and this can be a huge mistake, Pollets said.

“You’re supposed to let a good bottle of wine breathe and that’s how it should be in a relationship,” he said. “You should allow time for both partners to get to know each other [before moving in]. It’s a huge commitment and it shouldn’t be done without a lot of thought.”

A consultation with Pollets could have saved 20-year-old James Wetzel a lot of time and energy. Wetzel, a sophomore history major at Northeastern, has already had a live-in partner come and go.

In mid-October of his freshman year, Wetzel met Chad Bradford, 26, at Au Bon Pain where they exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. After several weeks of talking over the phone and chatting online, the two went out on their first date.

“He intimidated me because I had never had any serious relationships and he had,” Wetzel said. “He was jocky, athletic and kind of preppy, completely different from anyone I had ever been attracted to. We had completely different interests, but we spent a lot of time together. By December things were intense. I was in love.”

Upon returning from winter break, Wetzel moved the majority of his belongings from his residence hall room to Bradford’s apartment, and did not return to the residence hall until it was time to move home to Harrisburg, Pa. for the summer.

For Wetzel, the relationship was comfortable. Every night he and Bradford would return home together, eat dinner, talk about their days and watch some late-night television.

“[Just hanging out and watching TV] may sound boring, but at the time we were both so content with it,” Wetzel said. “We used to have this running joke about it, we’d say, ‘God, we’re so lazy, all we do is sit around and watch ‘Roseanne.'”

Throughout the duration of the eight-month relationship, the couple rarely fought. If they did quarrel, Wetzel said he was usually at fault and the arguments didn’t last long. Since they were living together in such a small place, it was hard to stay mad, Wetzel said.

In Wetzel’s mind the relationship was perfect. But as he was preparing to return to Pennsylvania, Bradford broke the news: in September he’d be moving to San Francisco, Calif., to live with an ex-boyfriend.

Unlike Wetzel, most couples who live together do not experience an almost perfect relationship. Instead they have their fair share of ups and downs.

“When people first start cohabitating, they probably don’t know each other that well and therefore they don’t know what issues they may encounter when they live together,” said Winifred Breines, a sociology professor at Northeastern University. “For example, money, housework may be habitual issues.”

It’s a learning experience that causes people to compromise and adjust their lifestyles, Breines said. Some, however, are more reluctant than others to do so.

For less than a month, Heather Pol, a Massachusetts College of Pharmacy sophomore, enjoyed living alone in her tiny studio apartment on Queensbury Street in Fenway. It was quiet, peaceful and just the right size for one person. But in late September her boyfriend, Travis Chester, 26, moved in with her and her attitude toward the apartment changed.

Originally, Chester, a manager of H’M in Braintree, was temporarily staying with Pol until he found his own apartment. However, a short stay soon turned into four months with no sign of him leaving anytime soon, Pol said.

Her apartment had double the furniture, double the clothes and double the personalities it was supposed to – resulting in problems when they started cohabitating.

“At first, living with Travis was really frustrating,” Pol said. “I think it may have been because of the size of the apartment. When he moved in it just became so cluttered with stuff that it was hard getting used to only being able to move around in small areas.”

But crawling across her 6-foot bean bag to answer the door wasn’t the only challenge Pol faced when first living with Chester. She was also witness to his hygienic habits.

For the most part, Chester’s ideas of good hygiene are on par with most men: he may not clip his toenails regularly or scrub behind his ears with extra elbow grease, but he does shower daily, Pol said.

In general, Chester’s concept of clean was vastly different from Pol’s.

“It’s not that he’s messy,” Pol said. “He just lets dirty dishes and dirty clothes sit around for a lot longer than I would. For example, he’ll leave a cup of juice on the bed stand overnight. Sometimes I just need to remind him the apartment is mine and he remembers to respect it.”

Just by reminding him to neatly fold his clothes in a pile and to wash the dishes, Pol said she has become content with her living situation. She and Chester still discuss him moving out, but she’s no longer pushing the issue.

Cohabitation will certainly affect one’s relationships, Pollets said. Besides being compatible, a couple must have the capacity and willingness to overcome issues when living together. If a couple cannot do this, the consequences can be grave: arguments may increase, partners may steadily drift apart and one’s sex life may plummet, he said.

To keep a relationship alive, Pollets said he recommends couples find ways to continue to thrill and romance one another.

“Couples struggle with the idea of living day-to-day and becoming sexual with one another,” he said. “[Even though you’re living together you should still] put your game face on and go out on dates. It’s much easier to have sex when it’s a Friday night and you’ve been wined and dined, than when your girlfriend is in the bathroom taking a dump.”

The Next Step

As more and more Americans continue to cohabitate, the rate of marriage steadily declines.

In the study “The State of our Unions: 2006,” David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project, wrote that since the 1970s the likelihood of marriage has decreased by nearly 50 percent. He attributes much of it to unmarried cohabitation.

A lot of couples will live together for several years to figure out whether or not the relationship suits both partners, Breines said. After they’ve discovered their answer, some may proceed with marriage.

“Today more and more people live together before they are married,” she said. “Eventually they will get married.”

Living with her significant other may have made Pol uneasy at first, but today she is sure living with Chester is what she wants, Pol said. Over the past four months, she feels they’ve matured greatly as a couple and progressed from fighting every night to laughing every night, she said.

In a few years, Pol said she hopes Chester will “pop the question.” For now though, she is more than content to come home and not be alone, she said.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I came home by myself every night,” Pol said. “I love knowing he’ll be there and I hope he doesn’t decide to move out anytime soon.”

Unlike Pol, Duffy, who has been living with her boyfriend since April, is not sure Thomas is “the one” for her. She already knows she wants to pursue other relationships before officially settling down, she said.

Thomas is Duffy’s first boyfriend, and although they enjoy being roommates and love each other, she said the thought of marrying him has her questioning whether there are other options.

“Ryan’s my first everything – my first boyfriend, my first love, he took my virginity and he’s the first person I’ve lived with,” she said. “I know that if we were ever to get married the living situation would be OK, but I haven’t dated anyone else. I would really want to meet other people.”

Thomas, who at age 24 is beginning to contemplate marriage, said he understands Duffy’s concerns, and that if he had to wait for her, he would.

Break-up Dilemmas

Contrary to what some people believe, it is not necessarily easier to end a relationship when a couple is cohabitating than after having exchanged vows, Pollets said.

Even though neither party is battling over who gains custody of the kids or who keeps the “Jaguar,” each partner must be wondering, “Where will I live? What will happen to the furniture we purchased together?” he said.

These thoughts and questions place ending a live-in relationship and terminating a marriage on similar levels.

“Breaking up with someone when you’re living with them is an intense conflict,” Pollets said. “[After all,] you’ve been living day-in and day-out with that someone.”

Wetzel said he experienced this pain and difficulty when ending his relationship with Bradford. Within one hour, he lost his first love and his first home in Boston.

As he spent the summer in Pennsylvania, he grew bitter toward Bradford – he would ignore his phone calls and delete his e-mails. But as the grieving process ended, Wetzel said he felt no regrets.

“Being with Chad helped me to mature a lot, maybe even a little too much, especially with how I am in relationships,” he said. “I’m 20, I should just be able to go out and date random people, but I can’t because if after a week or two into it I see it isn’t going down the same path as my previous relationship, I just end it.”

Today, whether it’s a quick phone call or a friendly e-mail, Wetzel and Bradford speak at least once a week. When Bradford returns home to visit his family, they’ve made plans to get together and Wetzel said he believes they will. But until he has another serious relationship, Wetzel said he will always wonder if Bradford was “it.”

“The hardest aspect of it all is that I can probably count on my hands the number of times I’ll ever see him again,” he said, staring at his palms while he extended his hands in the air.

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