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Why you should go to couples therapy before moving in together

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

A couple sits on the ground surrounded by packed boxes having a disagreement

No one felt better prepared for pre-cohabitation (aka “pre-move-in”) counseling than Kristyn and Marc. They met in college and had been a couple for four years before deciding to take the leap and move in together.

“We were so excited for our first session,” says Kristyn. “We got all dressed up and went in there holding hands with big smiles on our faces. We even sat really close together on the therapist’s couch.”

Then the reality of this major life transition set in. “Fast-forward a few weeks, and we roll in with sweatpants on and sit miles apart on that couch,” Kristyn says. “We had no idea how much we had to talk about and work out. It was eye-opening, but I’m so glad we did it.” She and Marc have now been together for 12 years and married for six.

Traditionally used by married people working through a problem, couples therapy has evolved into a tool for any stage of a relationship. As more couples choose to live together before long-term commitment or marriage, experts are starting to see an uptick in partners who decide to see a therapist before taking that big step.1

Why is pre-move-in counseling catching on?

Therapist and author Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, CGT, counsels couples of all ages. Lately a lot of younger people have been coming to her for support, and she has theories as to why.

“I see a lot of what I call ‘right-steppers,’” Earnshaw says. “Those are couples who know they should go to therapy and who want to take all the right steps to ensure success.” Other couples use their sessions as a sort of workshop where they decide if they should get engaged or married. “Then, of course, we have couples who want me to help them resolve a particular issue they’re struggling with,” she says.

Another reason is what’s come to be known as “therapy speak.” Therapeutic concepts and language have permeated our lives, and Earnshaw sees this play out in her office. “I have couples come in, and one person will say, ‘We have different attachment styles, and I read that our attachment styles shouldn’t live together,’” she says. “It’s almost like they’re overthinking their relationship instead of tapping into their feelings.”

The couples Earnshaw has seen for pre-move-in counseling are mostly younger, but cohabitation can happen anytime—the number of unmarried couples over 50 living together has increased dramatically since 2000.2 Earnshaw encourages partners of all ages to consider therapy to improve communication, develop shared goals, and stay on the same page.

Common roadblocks in relationships

In pre-cohabitation counseling, couples work together to remove roadblocks before they become stumbling blocks. Earnshaw says these obstacles can take a range of forms, but here are the ones she sees most often:

Financial gap between partners

One of the larger issues Kristyn and Marc faced was the difference in their financial situations. “Marc was an accomplished engineer, and I was working my way through law school,” says Kristyn. “It was causing all sorts of issues because he made so much more money than I did. It was his condo and he was paying most of the bills, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that.”

There are a number of ways to approach financial disparities, so it’s important to find a plan that works for your relationship. At the advice of their therapist, Kristyn and Marc sat down and drew up a budget with realistic contributions for both of them. This helped Kristyn feel that she was an equal partner. Today, she works in mediation with couples who are ready to get engaged or make other big moves toward merging their lives and finances.

Different habits and lifestyles

Before COVID-19, the biggest stressors in most couples’ lives were work or kids, but that has changed. “Since the pandemic, couples often come in already filled to the brim with stress,” Earnshaw says. “So every little thing is magnified, and suddenly little problems feel much larger than they did before.”

After they got a place together, Kristyn remembers, she was annoyed by Marc’s delivery boxes. “He would let them just gather in the entranceway, and I was always struggling to get in the door,” she says. Through therapy, she and Marc examined how they could collaborate to negotiate a compromise if Kristyn ever felt boxed in again.

Division of labor

This is a very common issue for couples of all genders when they join lives, Earnshaw says. Who will handle the bills? Do laundry? Make dinner?

Depending on your background, you may enter a relationship with preconceived notions of gender roles, especially if you’re in a heterosexual couple. Earnshaw has seen partners determined not to reenact the gender stereotypes they witnessed growing up—but it’s a very hard pattern to break.

“They believe in their heart of hearts that they want an equitable partnership, but that was not modeled for them,” she says. “Chances are an inequity is already happening in their dating relationship. They just don’t know it, and they don’t address it.” When a couple is in this situation, Earnshaw takes care to address the imbalance as social conditioning and not as a moral failure for anyone involved.

The benefits of getting support in advance

Pre-move-in counseling can make living together a smoother process and help your relationship thrive for years to come. The biggest benefit may be learning productive communication skills, which can act as a protective factor for a long-lasting, healthy relationship.3

“Couples come in expecting me to give them a checklist of things to figure out before they move in or get married,” says Earnshaw. “They think that once they resolve those specific issues, they’re good—but that’s not how it works.”

The goal of couples therapy is to learn how to work through issues, not predict them, Earnshaw explains. Your relationship will change as your careers and health evolve, and if you decide to get married or become parents. Having a foundation of healthy communication can help make those transitions easier.

Kristyn says pre-cohabitation counseling helped her and Marc set realistic expectations. “Through our work together in therapy, I learned how he reacts to conflict and how I react,” she says. “I tend to jump in and want to solve an issue, whereas Marc is avoidant and needs time. Because we figured that out, we understand one another better in those moments.”

Setting the stage for success

Another benefit of going to therapy earlier in a relationship is that it destigmatizes couples counseling, so people are more likely to get help down the road if they need it. “I’ve seen many couples come back in times of trouble or times of change,” says Earnshaw. “They’re comfortable with me, and they know what to expect.”

Kristyn credits her and Marc’s proactive stance on couples counseling with the long-term success of their marriage. The tools they learned in the therapy room—communication, compromise, and active listening—have helped carry them through more than a dozen years of rough patches, joyful moments, and everything in between.

If you’d like support for your partnership as you move in together, search our directory for a couples therapist near you.

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.

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