They say it starts with a toothbrush. Then a single drawer to place your spare socks and underwear, and before you know it, you and your significant other are living together — and combining your lives into one confined space.
The decision to move in with a partner is often hailed as a relationship milestone, yet we actually understand very little about how the transition affects the relationship, not to mention our own psychology.
But researchers at the University of Texas have a hunch that the actual "homes" we make with our significant others — the ecosystems of possessions and consumption — provide clues to the changing nature of our relationships. From the number of pictures on the walls to the types of photos in the frames, how two people's personalities are melding together may be evident in our apartments.
The study: In order to better understand how couples combine their personalities in shared spaces, researchers Lindsay Graham and Sam Gosling put out an ad in 2012 asking couples to open their homes for photographing. In addition, they had the couples fill out surveys about themselves and each other. In exchange, the couples would get to know the researchers' take on their living space and the impression that it might be giving off to visitors.
The researchers only took note of the things that were visible, paying attention to book titles and "identity claims," like religious symbols, that might send a clear message about a person's values. The aesthetic and functional layout of a living space also provide clues to the psychology of cohabitation: An extrovert might set up a living space for entertaining while an introvert might be more interested in a space that is designed for cozying up alone.
The researchers are still analyzing the photos and surveys they collected from more than 100 couples, looking for insight into what might make a couple seamlessly share their space or signs that might indicate trouble down the road. Graham pointed out to Know that, even in the early stages, they can tell photographs are a big part of the equation.
"Couples seem to be all or nothing — meaning that they tend to either have no photos at all or lots of them," she told Know. And the presence or lack of photos might be a valuable clue about how couples "relate to each other," she said. While the final findings aren't out, the researchers are looking for clues of a relationship's health in the decor.
What a home can tell us: One's living space reflects one's personality, in that it reflects "an individual's unique pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that is consistent over time," Gosling said in the Guardian in 2008. And the things we do repeatedly are the ones captured by our environment.
Taking the time to alphabetize books once, for example, doesn't make you an "organized person," while trying something new on the menu doesn't make you "broad-minded." It's the consistent habits that reflect personality. He likened decorations like family photos and keepsakes (or a lack thereof) to "feeling regulators" that might serve to keep us in touch with happy moments. "People also use music to manipulate and maintain their feelings and thoughts, and their choices can be a useful clue to personality," Gosling added.
In this sense, decor is actually a pattern we build to reflect our psychology. "Much of the stuff we gather about us and the environments we create are there not to send messages about our identities but specifically to manage our emotions and thoughts," Gosling said.
Two personalities, one space: Gosling's findings on living space initially came from studying the arrangement of individual college students' dorm rooms. It's not fully clear how the clashing of decors in cohabitation influences the levels of self-expression, but studying couples' shared spaces may prove a fruitful way to gain more insight into the impact of cohabitation, a subject researchers have only begun to tackle.
In 2012, scientists at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, who were investigating the effect of living together before marriage found that serious premarital commitments like cohabitation and a formal engagement (and the implicit mixing of personal behaviors and possessions) were tied to lower hazards of instability among women, but not men.
On the other hand, newer research by Arielle Kuperberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, contradicted that idea: She found that unmarried couples who moved in together at a young age were no more likely to get divorced than couples who waited until they were married.
Why decor matters: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that up to 48% of women reported living with their partner before getting married between 2006-2010, a number that's been steadily increasing since 1995. With more couples cohabiting than ever, we need more insights on how living together impacts relationships. What happens when two distinct personalities come together in one space? How might it change a couple's relationship? Based on Graham and Gosling's approach, an investigation into self-expression is one way to shed some light on the pressing questions surrounding cohabitation.
The answers may be written on the walls.