Q&A with couples’ therapist, Brian O’Neill.
Many people planning to live in a tiny house are planning to do it as a couple. It’s a big lifestyle change and we often hear prospective tiny home owners worry about how it will affect their relationship. Will they thrive in the small space together, or will they get on each other’s nerves? Would a tiny house exasperate conflict or bring them closer together?
We decided to speak to an expert in couples’ therapy to get you the answers you need!
Couple and family therapist Brian O’Neill runs a practice, in-person and virtually, called Into The Heart Family Therapy. He counsels couples that face the typical breakdowns in relationship, communication, and intimacy.
Many people across Canada are thinking about living in a tiny home, but we hear some uncertainty about doing it with their partner. It’s a different lifestyle that involves being very close together most of the time. Famously, there are no doors in tiny homes, except in the bathroom. What are your thoughts on how switching to tiny living might affect a relationship?
“In most conventional homes in Canada, we have the luxury of lots of space and options of distraction, distance, taking space, going somewhere independently, etc. The upshot of all this space is that we can take a break from conflict to simmer down before we come back to it. But too often, if we avoid the issue, it drags on and creates more distance in the relationship and the issue occupies more, not less, of our life. Avoidance is very costly in time, emotional energy, and (inter)personal strain.”
“When under a tiny roof, there isn’t enough room to share a roof without sharing a life.”
“In a tiny house, there will be less options for “taking space”. Tiny living implies sharing lots more. We need to figure out life together. This is an opportunity to build a closer relationship, a better relationship. It’s fuel for a relationship of trust and intimacy, which is really what you want.”
So living in a tiny house can improve the quality of a relationship?
“Yes, it may be a bit of a pressure cooker situation, but if you’re ready to be intentional about your relationship and practice being a better partner, the tiny living situation will benefit the relationship in the long run.”
“The comfortable and spacious lives of the wealthy are often stereotyped with emptiness in relationships. By contrast, “families that touch elbows at the table are happy families.” Couples living in tighter physical spaces can enjoy knowing each other and being known, connection, doing things together, closeness… Not to be too idealistic about it, but if we are intentional about our relationships the way a tiny house requires intentionality about everything else, our relationship may actually flourish in this environment.”
“If we are intentional about our relationships the way a tiny house requires intentionality about everything else, our relationship may actually flourish in this environment.”
For a couple that is considering moving to a tiny house now or in the future, what are some things they can do to prepare?
“There are definitely things you can start doing now with your partner to prepare yourself for life in a tiny home. As you’re looking at the practical aspects of location, floorplan, and downsizing your belongings, you can be just as purposeful about preparing your relationship for tiny living.”
1. Develop a common vision.
Having that common vision of why you want to live tiny and what exactly that looks like for you – we often hear that’s the big starting point to making sure this succeeds as a lifestyle. But how should a couple go about getting to that common vision?
“Just start with a conversation. Newly-dating couples often do this a bit better, where they sit down and they talk about things like, “Do you see yourself having kids? Where do you see yourself living? What’s important to you?” They spend hours like this, just discovering each other.”
“And the beautiful thing about this kind of conversation is when someone is intentional about getting to know you, getting to know what’s in your heart, you feel heard and valued. When we align on at least some of those points, we feel connected and we have this shared meaning and purpose. Suddenly, instead of being kind of focused on each other, turned in on each other, we are building something together. We’re working towards a common goal.”
So, pretend you’re on one of your first dates with your partner and have that conversation of where do you want to be going?
“Exactly. Make it an ongoing habit in your relationship. Ask each other, “What’s your vision for our life? What’s at the heart of this tiny house thing for you? When people’s dreams, values, or other fundamental yearnings get swept under a rug, you’ll end up tripping over it. In a tiny home, that lump won’t take long to become a proper tripping hazard in the relationship. It’s best to hear, know, and honour each other’s hearts to begin with and stay up to date because these things change as well.”
“Try to draw each other out and you can even try writing down what your partner is sharing from their heart, so you can take your time to really absorb it and remember it. That makes it easier as well to come back and compare notes. For example, you can have ABCDE in common and then F and G are not. And you can negotiate and find the common ground of how you can do this together.”
2. Problem-solve together.
Many of the couples we talk to that are living happily in a tiny house are approaching it all as an adventure. Because, in so many ways, it is. There are just so many things that can be surprising, that can go wrong unexpectedly and need fixing. And there are issues in the relationship as well that just creep up.
“Tiny living will afford lots of problem solving opportunities, so you want to get in the habit of doing so as a team. As such, “issues” may even become a source of intimacy rather than stress.”
“The more you experience building and troubleshooting together, the more likely to be able to tackle relationship issues in the same way, with the same habits of first hearing each other’s hearts, perspectives, priorities etc. and then put it all together to build a solution.”
“A couple that has not forgotten how to have fun and how to admire each other may also be in a better position. In cramped quarters, criticism could creep in. Couples who stay in the habit of assuming the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, and thinking about each other’s good qualities, appreciable habits, loving intentions etc. will do better at staying out of critical thinking.”
Does that mean criticism is a no?
“I believe there’s really no such thing as constructive criticism. If we can share how something impacts us, then this gives our partner motivation to look for other ways. Whereas, if I just give what I think is constructive criticism, that might push them to justify or defend, or dismiss what I’m saying.”
“Rather than resorting to criticism, learn to problem-solve together. But you have to understand each other first. When someone feels understood and heard, valued and validated, they will be able to problem-solve. It’s not about trying to convince the other person. You need to be able to talk together, talk with each other. It’s about getting in the habit of hearing each other thoroughly.”
“If you regularly hear each other out about things external to the relationship (like the daily, “how was your day?”), you’ll be better able to hear each other out when tackling something in the relationship.
“Orient your problem-solving genius towards something that’s not your partner.”
3. Consciously find your quiet time.
The introverts in the room want to know, how do you find that personal Zen in a small space that you share constantly with your partner? How do you recharge?
“Maybe capitalize on the moments where there isn’t anybody else around or even set aside a “quiet time” like we do with kids. A quiet time where each of you can be in your own space, perhaps one on the bed and one on the sofa. Have a good spot outside the house to go to be alone. It might be a matter, also, of taking advantage of times in the house, maybe because you get up earlier than your partner or you go to bed later. It’s important to be finding those moments of quiet and then sort of locking those into your schedule consciously.”
I like that. Consciously grabbing those moments instead of letting them slip by.
“In a tiny house, you’re probably going to be forced into having a more conscious relationship in general. Meaning a relationship where you don’t just expect the other person to read your mind. And so the quiet time thing might be more of a need for one partner than the other. And the same goes for everything that happens in the tiny house – how it looks, where you put your things, how you organize the flow of the day. The more you can be explicit about what you need and the more you can listen to each other, the better you can find a way to make space for it together, both physically and emotionally. And the more each of you will feel valued.”
The small space intensifies that.
“It’s kind of like you’re tethered to your partner in some ways. So you have to communicate about where you’re going. You can’t do it unilaterally. In a tiny house you’ve got less wiggle room. So you’re either going to drive each other nuts quicker, or you’re going to learn to communicate more effectively.”
“It’s kind of like you’re tethered to your partner in some ways. So you have to communicate about where you’re going. You can’t do it unilaterally.”
4. Find fuel outside your home and your relationship.
Something that is kind of a saying in the tiny home community is, “You can’t own everything.” Usually this applies to things – things that can be borrowed, shared, or rented rather than owned. But, it also applies to having that kind of open outlook.
“Definitely, you should consider what else you have going on outside of the tiny home. If the home and the relationship consumes every inch of your lives, it could start to feel claustrophobic. Living tiny doesn’t mean being isolated. In fact, try doing the opposite and open up to having more places to go for activities. Invest in more friendships. Few relationships can survive isolation – as attachment creatures, we do better as part of a village of relationships.”
5. Practice calming and soothing techniques.
One thing many people are concerned about is conflict. Nobody wants their tiny home to be filled with anger and frustration. What would you recommend to address this?
“Conflict can arise from many different sources and I’ve addressed a few above. But no matter how well you communicate and how aligned you are, frustration will still happen once in a while. In a small space, it’s important to not let that get out of hand.”
“One of the things I do with couples is have each person write down, privately, five simple things their partner can do to help calm or soothe them. They then share their lists with their partner. Their homework is to find three to five times a week to practice these co-soothing activities with each other. The more you can get good at doing this when you’re not in a fight, the more natural and easy and effective it will be when tension or conflict creep into the room.”
What would be the biggest question that couples should ask themselves about their tiny home plans?
“I would make sure you both want this and both get to share what you envision and dream about in it. Simplifying can be great, but make sure nothing essential to either of your hearts is being left out.”
“Simplifying can be great, but make sure nothing essential to either of your hearts is being left out.”
“It is not about, “How many of my wants do I need to give up to satisfy the other person?” When working on your common vision, this is an exercise ideally not in give-and-take or compromise. It’s about dreaming collaboratively, together. Seeing how you can add to each other’s vision to enrich it and make it even better. Discovering what’s possible.”
To learn more about Brian’s work or to book a session, visit his website at https://intotheheart.ca