There’s a list I received in one of my graduate school classes that denotes the most stressful things that can happen in a person’s life. The expected negative stressors are on the list—illness, death of a loved one—and the slightly less expected positive ones—planning a wedding (hey-yo!), having a newborn. Squarely in the middle of the list, meaning it could be triggered by a positive or negative event and could potentially happen at any life stage? Moving. I think that’s a pretty fair description of moving: Even if you’re making like the Jeffersons and moving on up, the actual process of packing and schlepping and unpacking and rearranging just sucks.
Julie and I had been dating for about a year when we decided to move in together. Far from U-Hauling, we’d given the decision some heavy consideration. Even so, I think if you asked either of us what the hardest point in our relationship has been so far, both of us would point to the first few months we lived together as our most strife-filled. While we can laugh about it now, the memories may be just one of the reasons we never moved again while we lived in Colorado. So, being the compulsive problem-solver I am, when we decided to relocate to California, I initiated a lot of conversations about what we felt like we’d learned from surviving that first move that we could apply to this next one. We’ve been in Los Angeles for three months now, and I am delighted to report that this move has been much less of an existential crisis than our first one was. As such, we wanted to point out a few things we learned between our first move and our most recent one that might make the process less terrible for you and your loved one.
1. Unpack your (metaphorical) baggage. When Jules and I moved in together for the first time, it wasn’t just her and me setting up our first home together. Nope—it was Julie and me, and the good and bad parts of the homes we’d grown up in, and the ways we were raised, and the people we’d dated before, and the things we thought we just had to put in place from the very beginning or we’d doom our whole relationship. For us, this came to a boiling point over our curtains. Our house in Denver had very high ceilings, and tall, gorgeous windows, and ugly, dingy mini-blinds. We decided together, amiably, curtains were the answer. What we didn’t come to an agreement on? When those suckers were going up and how that was going to happen. Cut to the first summer Saturday we spent in our new place, taking resentful turns standing on tiptoes on a kitchen chair, holding an electric drill in fully extended arms, trying to install curtain rods in brick and plaster walls, while the other person tried to boost some extra height and stability with the shoulder-under-butt-cheek maneuver. We were hot. We were cranky. We were uncomfortable. It was a tense, silent five hours. But it was never really about the curtains. It was the inevitable result of one person’s need to know the house would be finished eventually, and another’s desire to spend as little as possible on new house materials. This problem could have been solved with some better communication, or, you know, a ladder. A little self-awareness could have gone a long way here in circumventing the issue. Think about the things you really need to have happen before you can relax in a new place, consider why you need those, and then, if your partner calls you out for perceived unreasonableness, be prepared to explain. Consideration ahead of time will limit the places you feel like you have to take a stand (and give you stronger footing where you do need to).
2. Cut yourselves some slack. If you and your partner find yourselves bickering more than usual about whether to keep the old potholders or where to put the new bedroom lamp, it’s probably not the beginning of the end of your relationship. It’s because moving is really not much fun, and not taking another person’s crankiness personally will help enormously.
For this move, cutting ourselves some slack with getting the house together really helped us keep the peace as well. Our apartment in LA is much smaller than our house in Denver was, so we needed some new things in order to make all of our existing things work. We hit a point where we didn’t want to spend any more money at IKEA (because even when you’ve saved and budgeted, moving is really expensive and social workers rarely get relocation bonuses), so we decided we were okay with the whole house not being as done as we’d like just yet. The kitchen and living room look pretty great, and half of our bedroom is less awesome. It’s working for us right now, and we’ll keep chipping away at it as time, money, and my patience with Swedish instruction manuals allow. The best part? Our second move together wasn’t an entire restructuring of our relationship, so we were able to discuss things like prolonged unpacking without the emotional weight. Also, the money we’ve decided not to spend on flatpack bookcases has been put toward increased air conditioner usage and wine, both of which we’ve learned go a long way in keeping each of us agreeable.
3.EMBRACE THE ADVENTURE. One of the hard parts about moving is the loss of familiarity. We not only missed all of the people we left in Colorado, we left all of our places, and when everything is new, all of the time, it can be hard to ever feel comfortable anywhere. For instance, in Denver, we had five or six places we’d go for date night and we’d rotate through them based on food cravings or noise tolerance or cocktail desires. We loved them. They were ours. They were great places, and we got a little complacent and rarely deviated too far from our established path. So we decided to make discovering a new city together an unexpected bonding opportunity. We take turns picking happy hours from Yelp reviews in neighborhoods we haven’t been to yet. My mom gave Julie an amazing guidebook of urban walks and we usually spend one afternoon a weekend exploring on foot—which has the dual bonus of being free entertainment and helping us feel a sense of belonging that’s harder to achieve when we’re driving from point A to point B. And, we don’t feel guilty about being tourists—because, basically, we still are.
4. Take the help that’s given (and don’t be afraid to ask). My parents did so much for us right when we got here—from letting me move back home for a month, to helping us apartment hunt. I’d mention that I needed to pick up cleaner for the new fridge in passing, and come home from work to find that my mom had gotten it (plus sponges, and towels, and air freshener) for me while she was running her own errands. At first I felt guilty, and then I decided to shift it toward grateful—because I really couldn’t do it all myself. The same goes for our friends out here. Our move to LA was largely triggered by a desire to be closer to my family, but it meant leaving a community we’d spent seven years developing in Denver. While we are enjoying seeing my parents, sister, and nephew more often—we still feel lonely and rootless away from our Denver people who’ve been our friends and chosen family for so long. Having new and old friends out here go out of their way to invite us for barbecues and parades and margaritas has done so much to make us feel less lonely. We know it’s an extra effort to include new people in established social routines, and we feel grateful and humble that when we’ve mentioned missing our community, others have stepped right up to include us in theirs. We also gave ourselves permission to feel lonely sometimes too, and to not beat ourselves up when loneliness feels like a lack of gratitude for how kind everyone’s been. Finally, I had to get over feeling like I was annoying far-flung friends with notes and requests for FaceTime appointments. They’ve all been helping me maintain a semblance of sanity for years—why would they stop now just because I can’t see them in person as frequently?
Other than its sneaky insidiousness, something else sets moving apart from the transitions on my old Stress List: Moving, by definition, is temporary. Slowly—sometimes so slowly we don’t notice it—we start to develop routines again, and we find a community we can put some exploratory roots in. Maybe eventually we’ll have more space, or we’ll figure out how to use what we have more effectively. When we trip over boxes or sift through the pile of books on the floor in the corner of our living room, Julie and I are fond of summing up our contempt for the moving process by saying to each other, “Never again. We’re staying in this apartment until we die. And then someone else can move our stuff.” (Drama is our family’s most used coping skill.) But we know we’re lying. We’re already scheming how to save enough to buy a place here, because we think we’d like to stick around for a while. Which means we’ll have to pack up and do it all again. When I think about that, I feel light-headed. But I don’t dread it the way I used to, because just like a lot of things in our relationship/marriage/life, practice makes perfect. Or if not perfect, closer than we were before.