Appreciate your own space while you've got it

"If we're not going to move in together, maybe we should just move on," I told Owen one Sunday night during our second year together, after one too many vodka tonics.

For weeks, my feelings of frustration and sadness mounted each time we wrapped up yet another weekend of 24-7 togetherness and began the awkward where-shall-we-stay-tonight or maybe-we-should-each-spend-a-night-at-home discussion. Owen (now my husband) and I had been butting heads on the topic of cohabitation for months and our conflicting feelings were tearing us apart.

From my point of view, our friends and plans were already tightly intertwined, and we were well past big conversations about exclusivity and the desire for a life partner. It seemed to me that Owen was, on some level, keeping his options open, enjoying the status quo of spending the bulk of his week with me while maintaining the possibility of retreating to his bachelor pad, complete with college-friend roommate.

In his opinion, there was something unhealthy about my inability to savor the good times we were having and the urgency of my desire to share a home address.

We couldn't see it at the time, but the truth is both our perspectives about the to-cohabitate-or-not-to-cohabitate question were valid. Loving someone without living together may feel like shaky ground, but it's also a precious moment in a couple's history, a detente between the anxieties of early dating and the inherent stresses of cohabitation and marriage.

"This type of arrangement allows both individuals to develop their own sense of self and figure out how to take care of themselves, which will make them better partners down the road," observes Howard Markman, codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "But particularly for women, cohabitation is a sign of commitment, so not living together can stir up insecurities."

This relationship stage is unique in the mundane frustrations it creates, namely the challenge of fostering a serious relationship while straddling two households.

Commuting, even in the name of love, inevitably becomes a grind.

"I feel like I am always carrying around a giant bag of stuff," says Jessie, a 32-year-old photo producer who has been with her boyfriend for two and a half years. "The constant lugging gets old."

Shuttling back and forth is inconvenient, can limit time together, and necessitates constant planning (Did I pack enough underwear? Will I need my razor?). Still, experts caution that practical considerations -- including the popular "it seems silly to be paying two rents" -- are not good reasons to cohabitate.

"Too many people slide into living together, rather than making a conscious decision," says Markman. "Research shows that should those couples marry, their risk of divorce goes up anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent compared with couples who move in together after getting engaged."

According to Markman, studies have shown that couples who clearly view cohabitation as a step towards marriage have a much better shot at lasting happiness than those who move in while still in the "testing" phase.

In an ideal world, a couple who has yet to move in together would switch effortlessly between their two spaces, feeling equally at home in both places. But it rarely works that way. Many successful couples who live separately circumvent conflicts by identifying one place as home base.

"Chris knows I don't like his apartment as much as mine, because my dog isn't there, he has a roommate, and the bathroom is not that clean," says my friend Jessica. "As a result, we tend to spend more time at my place. But to make him feel at home, I stock the fridge with cheese and beer he likes."

All healthy relationships rely on showing your affection and appreciation for each other in significant ways; for partners who live apart, this means taking steps to make the other person feel welcome in your home.

People who have weathered a failed cohabitation seem better able to appreciate the perks of separate abodes. Although they had broken up two months earlier, Alex, 36, continued to live with his ex.

"When we moved in, we were young and unconcerned about the future," he recalls. "Splitting up was the worst, because we had to break up a home, too. I would never move in with someone again unless I had grander plans."

Alex chose to do it a bit differently this time around: His current girlfriend lives a few blocks away -- and he loves that he can retreat to his own apartment if he's in a foul mood or needs to have a private phone call with his folks. "You can present a slightly polished version of yourself," he says. He also appreciates that he and his girlfriend can indulge their respective decorating whims, including a cardboard cutout of a pro athlete (for him) and Viggo Mortensen photos (for her).

"When you share a space, you share an identity. For now, the objects in our apartments are a part of our personal histories and create an environment where we can get to know each other for real."

Jessie, who also lived with an ex unsuccessfully prior to her current relationship, echoes that sentiment. She believes she has found The One, but still relishes having her own place. "I'm not married yet, so why not enjoy the little pleasures of living alone -- like doing exactly what I want to do after work and making exactly what I want for dinner?" she asks. "There will be plenty of shared space in the future."