Most couples I know wouldn’t consider sharing a studio apartment. When my partner and I decided to move in together, we weighed the options of my centrally located studio versus his slightly distant one-bedroom. We ultimately decided on the latter, thinking that the lack of walls and personal space would be a dealbreaker.
Other cohabiting city couples have similar concerns. “What if we’re in a fight? What if you get food poisoning?!” They find comfort in having a wall.
But then, Instagram and Pinterest are full of the dreamy depictions of happy couples who — by choice! — live in quirky dwellings gone miniature: house boats, #vanlife and tiny houses. In particular, the tiny-house movement has stretched its legs since its initial boom. Not just for HGTV-happy hipsters anymore, couples and families who have made these tight quarters work.
So what can the intimacy-fearing and space-obsessed learn from couples who embrace a tiny-house lifestyle? I wasn’t sure. So I asked some.
You lose private space, material possessions, separate bathrooms and full-size appliances. But what do you gain?
For the most part, the tiny-house owners I spoke to found that the financial freedom they found from moving into smaller quarters directly benefited their relationships. And for the lack of sectioned space and stairways, they seemed pretty happy.
“I really think the biggest thing is that we’ve found that we’ve been able to have a balance, of that time of alone and together,” said Emily Gerde, 32, who lives in a 325-square-foot home with her husband, Justin, 32, and their 3-year-old son Ryan, a dog and four cats. About a year ago, the family traded a four-bedroom home for their tiny house in southern Minnesota. In return, they now have more time to spend with each other rather than spending it on cleaning and maintaining their larger home.
“In the big house, [we were] frantically trying to get by. I never had alone time, because there always was something to do,” Emily said. “The tiny house has given us freedom and has helped our relationship get closer. [Justin’s] commute was 45 minutes one way. You double that, times it by five days, four weeks a month, and you get a couple days back. It’s been a huge blessing. We have both self-care and together time now.”
In the past year, they’ve moved their tiny house twice to plots of land closer to Justin’s workplace. “To follow our dream jobs, it would take us literally a day to move,” Gerde explained. “You don’t even have to pack up.”
Okay, but what if you need alone time? Everyone needs alone time, even happy healthy couples.
“I think there have been those occasions where I’m so angry that it frustrates for me to hear him doing stuff in the house,” admitted Alexis Stephens, 33, who lives in a 130-square-foot tiny house with her romantic and filmmaking partner, 41-year-old Christian Parsons. “Some sulking has happened, but it’s a good time to encourage going outside the house for a walk. The outdoors is the biggest room available.”
Stephens and Parsons traveled with their tiny house across 27 states working on their documentary, “Tiny House Expedition,” adding a constant change of scenery to the mix, which has also aided in conflict resolution. That kind of anger “doesn’t happen a ton,” Parsons added. “But it feels like we talk it out more because you can’t hide in this house.”
“Quicker conflict resolution through less stewing,” Stephens agreed. In the tiny house “you can get away from each other a little bit — you could go in a loft or outside — but for me, it affects the energy of the whole house. We’ve gotten to a point where we know something is up and it’s better for us to talk about it to resolve quickly.”
How do you make the small space conducive to you as a couple?
Gerde is currently working on a book about minimalist living and home-schools their son, so custom workspace and storage were built-in to tuck their school supplies away after-hours. A length-spanning bench was also custom-made to inspire family time. “Lots of tiny houses have a love seat, but we can’t fit all four of us on there.”
The couple’s tiny house is designed based on their life plans — a factor that she said is very telling. “A lot of couples have trouble [with tiny-house living] because they didn’t think about the future. But we designed ours with a family in mind,” Gerde explained. “We wanted it to accommodate pets and another kid, and meet our needs specifically.”
For AJ Zamora, 43, who lives in a Napa, Calif., tiny house with her wife, China Rose, 38, keeping their spare time rituals alive was imperative to their design. Rather than lofting their European queen-size bed, they built a mechanical bed that lowers down from the ceiling and rests on top of kitchen counters so they could enjoy weekend lounging.
“We knew we loved relaxing together and we felt [a loft bed] could mean feeling cramped in your own space and not wanting to spend time in it,” China Rose explained.
What about not-so-alone time? You know what I mean.
“We always get the question, and we just giggle,” Gerde laughed. “You just find space like any other house. The lofts we have use blackout shades. It’s not just to [block] light [from getting] in, but it also provides privacy.”
But what if the relationship doesn’t work out?
Tiny houses aren’t exempt from breakups. Filmmakers Merete Mueller and Christopher Carson Smith decided to build a 124-square-foot house in Colorado in 2011 and made a documentary about it called, “Tiny: A Story About Living Small.” The film and tiny house were both relative successes — the documentary hit the indie circuit, the house still stands strong today — but Mueller moved to New York after a month, and the couple broke up a year later.
“We started working on the film, and we both were super invested in and it occupied both of our lives,” said Mueller, now 32. “ And for me, I was just excited by the prospect of seeing a house come together from scratch. I was curious about his process: his figuring out where he wanted to be, settling down in a home for both of us, talking about our relationship. It wasn’t until the house was almost done that I was like: I don’t know if I can live in this space with another person. I wasn’t one of the people who was drawn to it because I was so excited about the lifestyle. It was something I fell into through him.”
After Mueller moved to New York, Smith moved his tiny house to a more permanent plot of land in Boulder, Colo., as the couple attempted to make the distance work. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he pursued a full-time career in film. But after it all, Mueller still said the unique tiny-house experience helped the pair to maintain a friendship after the moves.
“Even though Christopher and I didn’t stay together, it was going through those challenges that informed our friendship,” she explained. “I can’t imagine not having him as part of my life after those experiences. Even if you’re ultimately not the right people, those [experiences] are really important to draw on. No one else can really relate to those things often.”