Q: I moved into my boyfriend’s home about 8 months ago. He has lived by himself for 10 years. He works nights, and I’m alone. He has tons of books in our bedroom, formally his room. I’ve begun to read them at night before I go to bed. Evidently, some of the books were presents from past girlfriends because there are cards and notes in a few of them referring to their past; some of the notes are over 20 years old. I think he should have removed all that stuff before I moved in. When I spoke to him about it, his attitude was that we’ve both had relationships in the past, it was a long time ago, and I shouldn’t go through his things. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: In a perfect world, he probably would have removed that stuff before you moved in, but in his defense, if it’s from a long time ago, he probably forgot they were there. What’s more important is his reaction when you called it to his attention. It could be an indicator that he’s having trouble mentally converting “his” place to “our” place, otherwise he wouldn’t have reacted as if you were invading his privacy. This is the danger of moving into someone’s home rather than finding a new place together. It was his home. He had a way of doing things. He thought enough of you to ask you to share his home — but you also have a certain way you like to do things. Just being yourself may step on his toes.
When you’re in love and contemplating moving in together, rarely do people consider how the other loads the dishwasher or replaces the toilet paper, but those are the things that drive a wedge between couples. I’m sure right before you moved in he didn’t look around his bedroom and think, “What do I have to get out of here?” He probably looked for ways to make you comfortable, making space in the closet, etc. But, he has to make more than just the physical adjustment. Moving in with someone requires a mental shift, as well. It sounds as if it’s taking him a little more time to realize it’s not just his bed he needs to share. The answer may ultimately be as simple as starting fresh together in neutral territory.
For the record, a couple’s bedroom is their sanctuary. It’s where they go to relax, sleep and be intimate. If someone feels they must keep memorabilia from past relationships, that’s understandable, but the memorabilia should be stored out of view of the new partner, not in books in a bedroom they share. Now that it has been called to his attention, if he does nothing about it, that’s a red flag.
Many are affected by their partner’s desire to keep old pictures and keepsakes. I’m often asked about good ex-etiquette regarding wedding albums after a divorce. For example, while helping a new partner move, someone finds an old wedding album packed in a box, and all sorts of craziness ensues. In those cases, the memorabilia is packed away so if a new partner gets hurt or angry, they’re way out of line. Many keep those albums for their children — I know I did — but I also kept it in the bottom of a hope chest until my daughter announced her engagement, and then I passed it on.
Bottom line, sure everyone has a past, but it’s your past, not your partner’s. Being sensitive to that is good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.