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Can a Spreadsheet Help You Decide Whether to Move In Together?

If you’re an adult between ages 25 and 34, you’re either already shacking up with someone or thinking about it. This age group represents the biggest demographic of people most likely to be cohabiting. But it also represents the demographic more likely to divorce, so it’s not surprising that some couples thinking about moving in together want to run the numbers before doing so. Recently, a journalist shared a spreadsheet she devised to weigh the pros and cons of moving in with her boyfriend after six months of dating.

Writing at relationship site PS I Love You, journalist Melody Grace explains that, as a fan of spreadsheets and data analysis in general, she was happy to whip up a Google doc and start “plugging in risks, considerations and action items.” She broke her spreadsheet down into 13 categories that each partner would then rank their own “concern level” about on a trusty scale from 1 to 10, and then also explain the reasoning behind the concern level:

  • Emotional
  • Financial
  • Relationship stability
  • Rental market
  • Communication styles
  • Community (friendship)
  • Future
  • Decorating preferences
  • Employment
  • Household responsibilities
  • Family of origin
  • Breakup scenario
  • Pets

After reading her concerns, which mainly centered around the long-distance move, the expensive Bay Area rental market, and the fact that they hadn’t passed a few relationship tests like Ikea and international travel, her boyfriend actually decided they weren’t ready to move in until they road-tested the relationship a little more. The success led her to share the spreadsheet, which friends and strangers now use to evaluate their own relationships.

Of course, all relationships are a total crapshoot, and what looks good on paper has no bearing on what plays out well in real life. Live long enough, and you will soon learn that what goes on between two people is a complete, utter, bewildering mystery of attraction, dysfunction and inside jokes. Why two certain people can stand each other at all, much less for years, is beyond true human understanding. Terrible relationships endure a lifetime, while the best relationships can go sour. It defies logic.

What’s more, being with someone over the long haul usually means putting up with a few core problems that may never get solved. Multiple therapists have told me that every couple typically has two to three big issues that will remain unresolvable for the duration of the relationship. It could be wet towels on the floor, figuring out you’re with a serial cheater or just realizing you despise the person’s particular way of breathing. Surviving that, and maintaining a good relationship, is far more about your threshold for their bullshit than it is about how things are when you’re having fun.

So as cynical as it sounds, being willing to make a spreadsheet of your bullshit at all is actually a tremendously good sign for this couple’s future success. That’s because of something called “sliding, not deciding.” Past research on cohabiting long established that couples who move in together before getting married — which is two thirds of couples — have a 33 percent greater chance of divorce. Researchers used to think this was because people who are okay with “living in sin” are also more okay with divorce, so they are just more likely to split rather than stick it out.

But researchers have since realized the success of a relationship once you move in has more to do with a few other things. One is how old you are when you take the cohabiting plunge. Waiting as long as you can after age 23 is now known to be the single biggest determining factor in the success of the relationship.

But the second big thing is deliberateness, or how intentional you are in making the decision. In other words, you’re more likely to succeed if you wait to move in together because you’ve “decided” you are actually ready, as opposed to just “sliding” in because it’s convenient, cheaper or your lease is up.

The question is, what does it mean to be ready? Can a spreadsheet help you figure it out? To some extent, yes. It’s very pragmatic to figure out how bills and chores will be divided, how you’ll spend time together or apart or what major purchases you’ll embark on. It’s also a great idea to take stock of the quality of the relationship overall. If, by talking through these issues, you realize you’re largely on the same page, or could be with some more time, counseling or tweaking, you’re probably in good shape. All that’s covered in Grace’s spreadsheet, and ranking concerns algorithmically is a great way to take a snapshot of where you stand.

That said, her most important category is “communication styles,” which should take up all 13 slots. Relationships succeed or fail more often not because of what you face, but rather, how you face it. In other words, it might be better to figure out how long your relationship will last by focusing on how and why it’s most likely to end, and what you do every time things start to go off the rails.

That’s what the psychologist John Gottman did by isolating the biggest predictors of divorce. He determined that it’s not four issues but four behaviors that most likely lead to splitting. Those are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. He calls them the four horseman of the apocalypse for relationships.

In other words, it’s not disagreeing on who does or doesn’t do the dishes that will end you — even if it makes the short list of the most common subjects couples fight about — it’s being a raving lunatic about the way that you disagree on the dishes.

Gottman’s research also led him to group couples into two categories: masters and disasters. The masters are couples who, in spite of their disagreements, have a habit of turning toward each other and meeting emotional needs in a trusting climate. The disasters are basically assholes to each other who come unglued anytime something doesn’t go right. Imagine how much time we’d save if Tinder profiles listed fighting style in relationships instead of height.

This isn’t just Gottman’s theory — it’s widely shared by psychologists. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who wrote a New York Times piece about the “cohabitation effect” said as much. “Living together doesn’t charm or doom you,” she told The Atlantic. “It is not whether you live with your partner as much as how you live with your partner.”

For Grace, who made the spreadsheet, a big problem with her boyfriend was that six months in they still never fought, which might mean they are masters, but could also mean they are disasters. Only time — and their first big, stupid fight — will tell. They rightly realized they needed to test their ability to resolve conflict by actually having some conflict. Again, it’s not really the what, it’s the how.

It’s worth noting that not all cohabiting relationships end in a breakup or the altar and for all this stuff to apply, you don’t ever have to want to be married at all. But marriage is a useful example of how long-term commitment plays out in terms of relationship quality. And if the point in moving in together is to have a good, lasting relationship regardless of whether you involve the government, one of the best examples of happiness in long-term commitment that demonstrates all of the above comes from arranged marriages, which typically report greater happiness. Not at first, but years later.

It’s easy to assume that being stuck will make anyone with a will to live try to make the best of it, but researchers attribute it to the desire of both people to make it work leading to — wait for it — the relationship working.

You don’t need a spreadsheet for that. Just some years under your belt, some relationship experience, and the ability to evaluate how good you are at fighting. It’s not romantic, but neither is breaking up.