The other day, I was cooking in the galley of our sailboat, most likely making a terrific mess. I am a recovering (sort-of) slob, and Tom is a neat-freak, which makes our lives…let’s say….interesting….doing this small space living thing together on the sailboat.
I noticed Tom staring at me while I stirred.
“What?” I asked.
“Did you know you just spilled on the floor when you tasted that dish?”
I looked down around my foot zone, and sure enough, there were a couple globs of food stuck to the teak boards. Oops. The stove had also fallen victim to my cooking spree, with little pieces of diced onion littered across the stainless steel, and another globule stuck to the railing nearby. Shoot. I’d been trying so hard to be a neater person, but sometimes, I failed.
This has been our biggest challenge living on a sailboat together. Tom has learned not to freak out quite as much about messes, and I’ve learned to dial it in. It helps that I hardly own any stuff, and keep what I do have on the boat neatly stored away in a locker. Small space living together tests your relationship, finds the weaknesses and forces you to ferret them out.
Luckily, Tom and I do really well living small, having first lived in a Toyota Prius and a tent together when we’d only known each other for six months. That alone could make or break a relationship.
So, I started to wonder, how do other couples live in a tiny space with their partner? What are their tips and techniques to staying sane and getting along? Here is what they told me.
Communication is essential in a small space
All the couples I talked to said communication is key to getting along in a living space that’s the size of some people’s master bedroom.
“I feel like we jumped into a twenty-year marriage,” said Macy Miller, who first lived with her partner James in a tiny home before they moved into a 12×7 travel trailer with their two children. “I’ve dated people for years and didn’t know as much about them as I did about James after just a month of living tiny together. I feel like it will make or break a couple. You get personal really fast and you either still like them or you don’t! For us, it led to deep conversations right from the get-go. We talked about money, kids, future plans right at the beginning stages.”
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘Living tiny will make or break a couple,’ Macy Miller, lives in 12×7 trailer. #tinyhome” quote=”‘Living tiny will make or break a couple,’ Macy Miller, lives in 12×7 trailer.”]
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“Arguments in a small space suck,” she said. “You can’t really go in another room and count to 10 to cool down, and if you’re really pissed, you have to awkwardly dodge each other when moving throughout the boat. We laugh about it sometimes, because it’s almost comical how awkward and annoying it is when you’re in that state of mind and can’t get away from each other. So we learn not to sweat the small stuff, and when it comes to bigger issues, we try to sit down and resolve them as quickly as possible so we can both get back to enjoying the day.”
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Alexis Stephens of Tiny House Expedition and her partner, Christian, have been small space living in a tiny home on wheels for 2.5 years, and said it made them realize their communication styles are different.
“Our increased communication has made us more intimately aware of each other’s quirks and preferences. I can often identify what his different sighs mean. Basically, we have fine-tuned our perception of each other’s signal and needs,” she said.
Getting alone time when small space living
In the travel trailer, Macy and her husband take time to themselves every day.
“I think we would both like more space but that has everything to do with having a 2 and 3-year-old and nothing to do with how well we work it out together,” she said. “We love the kids’ bedtime because its the only time we just get to be a couple together, which is so needed!”
Melody is an introvert and said she didn’t have a separate room on the sailboat where she could go for alone time. She often took time to herself after her husband went to sleep. It was then when she would blog, read and decompress.
“The most important thing is to communicate your need for space/alone time with your partner and set up those needs and expectations in the beginning,” she said. “When Chris and I decided to move onto a boat, we had a very frank discussion about this so that when the time came where one of us needed some space, the other didn’t take it personally or get hurt feelings. We even made a game of it and came up with code phrases. If he needed space, he’d say something like, ‘Hey babe – why don’t you go have lunch with so and so?’ or I’d say, ‘Oh – it’s such a beautiful day – why don’t you go for a run?’ Rather than saying, ‘You’re driving me crazy and I just need some time alone,’ we’d phrase in a way that made it beneficial for both of us.”
“The most important thing is to communicate your need for space/alone time with your partner and set up those needs and expectations in the beginning”
Alexis said it is possible to get alone time in a 130-square foot tiny home.
“Reading a book nestled back in our loft feels like a separate room, and the mattress helps muffle sound transfer from downstairs. Headphones go a long way in creating privacy bubbles, even if you’re only five feet from your partner. If that’s not enough, get outside! Healthy encouragement to stay fit and take in some fresh air. Hang out on the porch or go for a bike ride,” she said.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Getting out and exercising is a great way to get away from your partner in a tiny home. ” quote=”Getting out and exercising is a great way to get away from your partner in a tiny home. “]
“You really have to accept that maybe the other person’s need for space and alone time isn’t a personal jab,” added Macy.
The benefits of living together in a small space
I’ve gotten so used to small space living in a sailboat with Tom that I feel lost when I housesit in a large place. I lose things in the various rooms of the house and feel very far away from him. Sometimes, when I’m cooking in the kitchen, it seems like he’s a world away sitting in the living room.
I love the intimacy that living small brings to our relationship.
Alexis said she loves how much time she and Christian are out filming and exp0loring the world, and also loves coming home.
“When we come home, it’s our sanctuary. I love how cozy it is—well suited for cuddling! It’s so refreshing to live in space that we created together, made to suit our needs and reflect our style,” she said. “But the best part of living tiny with Christian is how its helped us improve our conflict/resolution skills. There’s no room for sulking in our house; we now confront issues as they arise. In a larger house, it can be too easy to avoid conflict. Better communication creates more trust. Our relationship is stronger than ever.”
[clickToTweet tweet=”There’s no room for sulking in a tiny house. You have to resolve your conflicts. #tiny” quote=”There’s no room for sulking in a tiny house. You have to resolve your conflicts.”]
Melody loves that small space living on a sailboat helped her and her husband become a better team.
“We’ve learned to work together in ways that we didn’t before we lived on a boat,” she said. “We’ve grown to respect one another a lot more. He sees and appreciates how hard I work, and vice versa.”
And Macy adores the adventurous life she leads with her family as they travel from place to place.
The worst things about small space living
The couples I talked to didn’t have huge issues with each other when it comes to tiny home living, with makes sense, because they are still together! But I loved what Alexis said about bumping into each other.
“We have gotten really good at the tiny house choreography but sometimes we get in each other’s way,” she said. “Christian might really want to go to the bathroom, while I’m in the middle of picking out something to wear from the closet which blocks access to the bathroom. He has to wait for me to move. This is can be frustrating for both of us.”
Not bad if that’s you’re main relationship complaint.
I also have found that Tom and I sometimes get in each other’s way. Sometimes I’ll ask him p0litely to leave my cooking zone while I’m the middle of dinner, since there’s not enough room for two people in the sailboat galley. Then, I hope he becomes engrossed in some boat research or a book so he doesn’t watch me flail food this way and that when I cook.
Then, I can quickly wipe away the carnage from the teak, and we eat together in peace.
Really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Kristin Hanes is a journalist who founded The Wayward Home as a place to learn about alternative living. She currently lives on a sailboat and in a Chevy Astro van, and has written articles about alternative living published in Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, Marie Claire and SF Gate. Read more about Kristin here.