Living with a romantic partner is never simple, but living with an S.O. in a small space is especially challenging. When you have miniscule square footage, everything feels magnified; tensions are higher, alone time is scarcer, and pet peeves are impossible to ignore. How do you balance being luvaahs and roommates at the same time? How do you avoid feeling claustrophobic, stuck together in a small place? How do you make your little apartment feel like a decently sized home? And how do you do it without killing each other?
When my husband and I moved into our one-bedroom apartment, I was worried about how we would deal with the space. It was our first time living together, and I wasn’t sure how we’d manage in an apartment that has one bedroom, one bathroom, and a not-particularly large open living/kitchen area — if one of us wants to get away from the other, the only real option is to go sit on the bed. (Or go outside, but, as I live in a place that turns into an icy dystopia in the winter, going for a long walk is really only an option for half the year.)
We’ve had a few hiccups along the way, but, for the most part, I’m surprised by how well we’ve been able to make it work. Do I wish we had more space to maneuver around the bathroom sink? Sure I do. Would it be great to have another room with a door? Of course. Would I be willing to sell a kidney in exchange for a closet that could actually accommodate the clothing of two people? I would seriously consider it.
OK, so maybe there are some things that are just always going to hurt when you share a small space with someone — you can’t magically make a space bigger, and you may always struggle to fit everything you want to keep in your apartment. But there are simple things you can do to make small-space living with a partner comfortable and happy. Of course, “small space” is a relative concept. My 650-square-foot home would probably seem palatial to many couples in cities like New York. Nevertheless, the following tips apply no matter how small your space is — and they certainly wouldn’t hurt in large spaces, either. The key to living with anyone, really, is to be considerate and patient and have a sense of humor. If you’ve both got that going for you, you’re most of the way there already.
1. Get organized.
The key to living in a small space, as a couple or on your own, is being very, very organized. There just isn’t room to have things spread all over the place; instead, every item has to have its designated spot. This is especially important when you have the stuff of two different people sharing the space. I tend to be clutter-prone myself, and when I lived alone, I knew where things were because they were organized according to my own (indecipherable) logic. When you’re living with a partner, you both have to understand what goes where, and why.
2. Storage is a bright, shining beacon of ecstasy.
It’s hard enough finding space for everything when you live alone; when you’re trying to fit in two people’s worth of stuff, finding extra storage space is like discovering the Holy Grail (only without anyone suddenly turning into a desiccated corpse). So it’s important to create storage wherever you can — find furniture that can serve multiple purposes, like a coffee table with cabinet built in, or an ottoman that can also hold blankets inside. Take advantage of the room under your bed, and use the vertical space in your home by putting up shelves.
3. Be clean.
Easier said than done, I know, but when you’re cohabitating in close quarters, the only way to avoid killing each other is to be as neat and clean as you can. That doesn’t mean you need to be constantly disinfecting every surface in you apartment, but it does mean that you clean up messes that you make, put your dishes in the dishwasher (if you have one), unpack suitcases when you get home from a trip, and don’t leave piles of unfolded laundry sitting around.
4. Create invisible walls
My husband and I often work from home at the same time. Unless one of us wants to go sit on the bed, we have to share the common room, and find ways to stay out of each other’s hair as we move throughout our (separate) work days. The solution is to create invisible walls — physical, auditory, and mental — that both of you do your best not to cross. Of course there will be some chatting here and there (and if, like me, you usually work at home alone, that’s actually really nice), but you both have to commit to respect each other’s work time, and make-believe that you’re in separate offices.
4. Create real(ish) walls.
If you live in a studio, a room divider can be an important way to create different zones in your apartment, enabling you and your partner to inhabit separate “rooms,” even if you’re only actually separated by a screen or bookshelf. Even that illusion of distance can do a lot to make you feel like you have space to breathe.
5. Get rid of crap.
When you move in together, be brutal about purging stuff that you don’t need or don’t really like. Now is not the time to think, “I know I haven’t worn these jeans since high school, but I really think low-rise bell bottoms are going to make a comeback.” Now is the time to throw out or donate things you never wear, kitchen tools you never use, random office supplies you don’t remember buying, and weird gifts your Aunt Ida gave you that you never liked but felt guilty about throwing away. At first, getting rid of things can be painful, but once you get going, it can be really liberating. Just be careful not to throw out anything truly essential, like your passport.
6. Don’t buy anything remotely large without consulting your S.O.
When you’re sharing limited space with someone, it’s not fair to suddenly occupy a big chunk of it without consulting your partner first. So before you buy that large, kick-ass object of unknown use and origin at the flea market, send a pic to your S.O. and see what he or she thinks.
7. Figure out what your no-compromise household issues are and try to be flexible about the rest of it.
Pick your battles wisely. If you find certain habits of your S.O. mildly irritating, but there’s one that drives you absolutely UP THE GODDAMN WALL, focus on the big one and let the other things go. If you nitpick at every little thing, you’re only going to alienate your partner and drive yourself crazy. Besides, if you’re constantly complaining about everything your partner does, (1) that’s not very nice and (2) that’s not going to encourage your partner to change anything — he or she will only get resentful. If you ask your partner to rethink only one or two simple behaviors — being better about cleaning up the kitchen, contributing more to grocery shopping, etc — he or she will be more likely to listen to you and try. (But, of course, you have to be open to change, too).
8. Give each other alone time, even when you’re in the same room.
Living together is great in a lot of ways, but even the most harmonious couple needs time apart once in a while. That can be hard to achieve when your home doesn’t have much to offer in the way of separate spaces. If you can’t actually go sit in separate rooms, give yourself alone time by doing separate tasks or watching separate things. My spouse and I have spent more than one evening sitting on our separate computers with headphones on, watching different shows on Netflix. It may sound (and probably look) weird, but it works, giving us each alone time without actually being alone.
9. When it comes to household chores, play to your strengths.
Not everything has to be evenly divided. You may find that you and your partner have different things you focus on when it comes to cleaning and other types of housework. He or she might be a compulsive kitchen cleaner who would never think to scrub the bathroom unless forced; you might be someone who will let dishes languish in the sink for a week, but who likes having a spotless place to shower. Instead of forcing yourselves to split all household chores down the middle, let yourselves each focus on the tasks you like the most. And the tasks that both of you hate with a fiery passion? Take turns. (Or just never do them. I don’t judge).
10. Be patient with each other.
There’s no magic bean that will make a small space larger, and though there are ways to optimize your home’s size and make it as comfortable as possible, you and your partner are still going to be on top of each other some of the time (and not always in the good way. Heh). When you find yourself feeling irritated and overcrowded, take a deep breath, go for a walk, count backwards from ten — whatever you need to do to smooth out your ruffled feathers. Try to be patient with your partner; after all, if you’re feeling claustrophobic, he or she probably feels the same way.
11. Talk it out.
As with most things, communication is everything. As tempting as it is sometimes to just scream, “OH MY GOD WHY DON’T YOU KNOW TO CHANGE OUT AN EMPTY TOILET PAPER ROLL WERE YOU RAISED BY RABID SQUIRRELS,” find time to talk to your S.O. about your living arrangements calmly and respectfully. You don’t need to limit these conversations to household chores and rules, either; let your partner know when you need to be alone or when you need your home to be quiet. Don’t expect him or her to be able to read your mind.