Gay Men Who Live Together Too Early
Over my long career (29 years in 2021) of providing couples therapy for gay men in California, as well as relationship coaching to guys all over the United States and other countries of the world, I’ve observed the same topics or challenges (“presenting issues” we therapists say) keep coming up, over and over. I like to address these topics here with the hopes that these discussions help gay male couples all over the world.
Challenges in gay couples can be about sex, money, career, age/income/cultural differences, time management, and how to share household responsibilities, especially when it’s a home you share, whether it’s an apartment/flat, condo, house, loft, or ranch. Challenges can emerge at any time in the relationship, and I’ve come to learn that some problems/challenges are associated with, or coincide, with different developmental points in the relationship, from the early, to middle, to longer-term stages. Gay male relationships tend to follow remarkably consistent and predictable stages from the time the partners meet.
Early Dating Phase
Early dating is mainly about “who is this guy?” and gathering “data” on each other, as well as responding to what you learn about the other person emotionally, physically, and socially. The longer you’re together, the more you get an idea of how that person balances their personal self versus their professional self, and about their personal habits and ways of living. Trust is cultivated between the partners, and behaviors and reactions get more predictable. Dating becomes less of an “event” each time, and more of a way of life of intermingling daily/weekly together. You learn about each other in terms of how you relate to your respective housing, work routines (schedule and commuting), personal care habits (gym, yoga, diet, medical care) and how that coordinates with your partner’s corresponding daily routines.
Eventually, the level of mutual commitment builds from “just dating” or “boyfriends” to living more like a domestic couple, and merging in your minds from a strictly “I” philosophy to a “we” philosophy, feeling like part of what I call a “two-person family unit,” which I believe gay men are, even without children (or even pets)!
Getting to the point where you see yourselves as a “two-person unit” just takes time. This can vary from a short time to a long time, but it’s feeling or a sense that you’re ready to start seeing each other this way, which takes the gradual building of trust, and the resolution of certain anxieties each partner might have about the growing sense of commitment.
The development of the relationship often leads to a break from a previous way of being (with parents, at college, single living) to cohabitation (living together). Living together (with or without marriage) can be seen as a sequential, developmental manifestation of increasing trust, intimacy, and bonding in a relationship, and in a sense, some “melding” of two lives into one comprehensive domestic/home life together, and yet for gay men especially, the bonding must also preserve some independence and autonomy, which is a very classic male characteristic, both straight and gay (and others).
However, when two gay men in a relatively new relationship find themselves moving in together before this trust has been allowed to be cultivated can feel like the developmental stages are taking place out of their naturally-occurring social order. It rushes the process in a way that can be jarring and then demands some kinds of backwards adjustment.
The reasons that gay men might combine their domiciles early in a relationship can be responding to pressures about having to make a decision about where to live when the terms of a rental lease come up, to leave an unsafe home, to leave an impractical home (such as for a new job that results in a longer commute), having a financial hardship that makes “pooling resources” with the new boyfriend seem to “make sense,” to escape conflict with roommates, and career developmental issues (going back to school for a graduate program or to finish college).
The guys can find themselves “falling into the circumstance,” where changes seem to be happening faster than they can really think about them, and risking that they behave reactively, impulsively, and suddenly, losing their conscious volition to control the natural unfolding of the relationship together. Moving in together before you each feel emotionally ready to take this step can make one, or the other, or both of you feel like life is something that is happening “to” you, rather than making the decision to cohabitate as a natural outgrowth of the emotional stage that you have reached together.
As I often say, it’s better to meld your households to create one when it is an emotional decision, not just an impulsive, “practical,” or “convenient” one.
Feeling the Pains of Early Cohabitation
The partners in the relationship can realize that they moved in together too early when several feelings come up for either one. Feeling “stifled” or like you miss a certain personal autonomy is probably the biggest one, and this doesn’t just mean that you’re living together and monogamous and you want sexual variety. These feelings can come up whether you’re monogamous or whether you’ve negotiated one of the many variations on Consensual Non-Monogamy, or an “open” relationship (my articles on those are here and here). It’s more about the emergence of feelings about ambivalence about the relationship (“is this the right guy for me after all?”) or almost grieving the loss of a sense of privacy and autonomy that you had before “this person was here all the time.” Your home is your personal sanctuary against the stressors of the world, and living together takes compromises, because the home has to meet the needs of both (or more) partners, not just you anymore. You might have to tolerate dirty dishes in the sink more often. You might have to compromise on what to eat for dinner. You might differ on how hot or cold you like the temperature. You might have to discuss or coordinate schedules more. This can feel like you’re having to “answer to” your partner in a way that you haven’t had to do since you lived with your parents.
While everyone who is newly-cohabitating can feel this way, it’s different when you move in together early. There’s a sense that you weren’t really ready for that, and yet here you are, finding yourself under one roof anyway. Feelings can be confusing about whether you’re ambivalent about your partner, or just ambivalent about living with this partner. That’s an important difference.
Negotiating How to Live Together
I educate gay male couples often on the idea that couples come to “live” on a point on a spectrum from Enmeshment to Estrangement, in what experts call a “dance” of the Distancer versus the Pursuer, where one partner (in general) has a Fear of Engulfment, and the other has a Fear of Abandonment. If you look at any relationship, you will find these dynamics, and it’s OK because it can contribute to a sense of balance and harmony in the dynamics.
Enmeshment in a relationship can have the feeling that you’re “on top of one another, and not in the good way!” It can feel like you’re conjoined twins, with no latitude for room for individuality, independence, and autonomy in terms of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, friends, interests, activities, etc. The couple is always perceived as together, as one unit, without an individualized personality for each partner.
Estrangement, on the other hand, is a couple who doesn’t spend enough time together; they function like “roommates” or like platonic buddies who live under the same roof, but they’re never seen together often enough for many people in their lives to even realize they are together. They have to really work at having “date night” or scheduled sex because otherwise their respective individual pursuits (including work) would keep them apart most of the time.
Enmeshment makes a person want to have some healthy time away from their partner; Estrangement makes a person yearn for some quality time with their partner. Each person tends to have a very innate, natural preference for where they would like their relationship to fall on a point on that spectrum, and the best relationships have a pretty strong agreement on where that point is.
But resolving any differences there includes, first, recognizing where your feelings fall on that spectrum, and perhaps why, informed by experiences in your Family of Origin, what you observed in other relationships that you either admired or didn’t, and experiences from your own previous relationships. Then you ask each other, where are you, on that spectrum, and why, and then where you would like to be.
If you find discrepancies, you discuss what a compromise might look like. The one who has the Fear of Engulfment needs to increase their ability to tolerate the anxiety of close-ness, and the one who has the Fear of Abandonment needs to increase their ability to tolerate the anxiety of separation, without it being traumatic, such as it probably was for that partner at some in point in his past, probably in his Family of Origin, but also in the case of prior relationships (especially where there was non-consensual non-monogamy, or “breaking a monogamy agreement,” or “cheating.”). Traumatic separation that might cause a Fear of Abandonment can be in his Family of Origin by way of an absent parent or a sibling rivalry, but it could also be from past domestic violence, death (such as becoming a widower), or even just being with a “workaholic” partner.
More Coping with Early Cohabitation
They say identifying a problem is the first step toward resolving it. This applies to many things, but in this case, sometimes the partners just have to sit down and discuss that, hey, I think we moved in together before we were really ready to.
That takes some “scrambling” to adjust to. It doesn’t mean you have to break up, although I’ve seen this outcome sometimes. In order to avoid just saying, “hey, we screwed up, we moved in together too early, this isn’t working, bye,” you need support for just recognizing that the practicality of the timing of moving in didn’t coincide with a natural, developmental unfolding of the relationship stages. It’s like taking a cake out of the oven before it’s done: just putting it back in doesn’t give you the same cake as if you hadn’t taken it out to begin with. The chemistry has to be dealt with.
Options for Adaptive Coping
If you and your partner identify and recognize this situation/feeling, one way of coping with it is consciously reviewing and re-asserting the circumstances under which you and your partner live, and discussing the reasons why some changes might be needed.
Your options include just separating again, with one or both partners moving back out to difference residences, so that the relationship can be given the opportunity to unfold, this time at its natural pace. Or, you could discuss what was lost in the sense of individual autonomy that needs to be 1) recognized; and 2) restored, and why that’s important for each of you.
Options to re-assert individuality in the face of this “living together too early” syndrome can mean assessing what Space you each have in the shared home, physically, and how it is currently allocated, used, decorated, and “viewed” by each partner (“my desk” vs. “the desk” or “our desk,” etc.).
It’s also about assessing what Time you have, for each partner alone and then together alone, versus together with others, including individual friends, shared friends, and your respective Families of Origin, beyond commuting to separate offices, or different in-home work spaces if you both work from home, which the COVID pandemic has fostered.
Each partner takes a turn at expressing their feelings to the other about these topics of Space and Time, and what you’re asking your partner for. Then, use “experiment joining language,” such as, “How about if we….” or “I suggest we each….” and then try those things out, living a new way, day by day, and see if you can set a new groove in the same house.
Set a time frame to try the new ways of doing things, say 30 days, and then schedule a specific discussion at the end of that “experimental period” to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and how you each felt about the changes, and what you learned. This will help inform any behavioral changes that you each or both need to make for it to work better still as you refine the “groove.”
Together, you’re working collaboratively to hold a vision of what you each want your life together to “look like,” which might be different from what you observed in your parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, siblings, or even your own past relationships. It’s not only “what works for you,” but “what works for you now,” in the present day, which might be different because you’re older, more experienced, have learned preferences from prior relationships, cultural changes, or developmental/phase-of-life changes. The way a middle-aged gay male couple approaches living together might look very different (often in the form of more comfort with increased autonomy), from a young gay male couple (who often want a more idealized, romantic, “can’t-get-enough-of-each-other” lifestyle (see Nick and Pierre on TikTok).
If you want help with “fixing” some dynamics in your relationship that don’t “fit” for you or your partner, or even help in dating and finding a partner to begin with, consider therapy or coaching. I’d be happy to help! Email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or text 310-339-5778.