I never cared much about buying a home. I know all the reasons why you should if you possibly can, but as I spent my 20s in London, where a house now costs 14.5 times the average salary, it was all pretty academic; it’s simply not a city where most people can afford to buy alone.
And so, in part because I never cared much about getting married either, I rented 10 flats for varying periods over 10 years in London, an accidental minimalist. I loved it because it meant I could pick up and go—just put my few boxes in storage and take off.
“The product of freedom and security is a constant” is a law of science fiction writer Larry Niven’s. ”To gain more freedom of thought and/or action, you must give up some security, and vice versa.” I think about this often. It’s not that I didn’t want security—in my 20s I lived in some of those shitty flats for years, sustaining relationships that created some stability. But that stability never amounted to a sense of home, and for the longest time, I didn’t care. I wasn’t earning much as a freelance journalist, but I was paying my own way, and even when I was in relationships, I was free to do whatever I wanted.
So no one was more surprised than me when, at 32, I got married. I’d known my new husband for four months, and no, no one needed a visa and no one was pregnant. The idea came along one night after the fourth drink, at a bus stop in Stoke Newington. Over the next week, neither of us could think of a reason not to go through with it, so we did. The bride wore shorts, and afterwards we went to the pub; it was sweet and romantic, and I was excited. “I expected something like this from you,” my aunt said when I called my family afterwards to tell them—always a cutting comment to those who fancy themselves independent spirits.
“Is he a kind man?” my mother asked. It was the only question that really matters, and yes, he was. Even now that we are divorced, I wouldn’t change my answer.
Living in an expensive city sometimes leads to different life choices than you might have made had money been less of a factor. I left my beloved flatshare to live with my husband, as moving in together is what you do, right? It’s so expensive to pay two rents. As we bought soft furnishings to make a home out of his bachelor pad, he brought up buying a place. Now that we could join our incomes and actually afford it, it’s what you do, right? Everyone tells you it’s so much cheaper to own than to rent.
I didn’t walk into marriage with my eyes closed, exactly, but I didn’t consider what it meant. Never one to plan very far ahead, I was amazed to discover that my impulsive decision put our relationship into a context I’d never experienced before: It was already determined that we were going to stay together.
So buying a home made sense. We spent a year looking, arranging, and waiting to move into a tiny yet perfect flat, just off the Regent’s Canal. The process was hell because banks hate freelancers, but mostly it was miserable because I had a bad attitude—the bureaucracy of buying property will drive anyone to frustration, but I was graceless in the face of the endless errands to gather tax papers and notarized copies and the sheer hell of the cost of it all.
In an attempt to save money, we went to stay with my in-laws for what was supposed to be a month before closing on the property. A month turned into three and a half. My in-laws were lovely people, but I experienced an unbearable restlessness as the moving-in date kept creeping into the future, “next week, hopefully,” until I didn’t care about any of it anymore—not the house, not the prospect of future security, and, in my darkest moments, not even the marriage. Because if I hadn’t gotten married, I fumed to myself as the weeks dragged on, none of this would be happening.
We moved into the flat just in time for the East London cherry blossom season. I was relieved, but that feeling of finally being at home never came. I did all the things you’re supposed to do—for the first time in my life I bought “investment” furniture. I went to John Lewis, the U.K. department store where you shop when you’re a capital-A Adult, and picked out a classy table lamp. I scouted for bargain midcentury furniture on eBay and bought proper frames for the prints I’d previously hung with tacks. It was all very lovely. Looking back, it felt a bit like living someone else’s life. Then, as the marriage started to deteriorate, I worked to fix it knowing it was half for us, and half for the flat.
I lived in that house for just a year and a half before I moved out. It took us another nine months to sell it, at the same snail’s pace that had me so frustrated on the way in. For months after our relationship ended, my ex and I exchanged countless painfully factual emails, before we finally sold up and could finalize the divorce. A year and a half isn’t a long time, but if you count the buying, owning, and selling, that place was on my mind for three years—about as long as the marriage itself.
I always say we got married in a fever, on a romantic whim. It took me spending three months on the sofa after separating, sideswiped by the turn my life had taken, to realize that whim had come with an unspoken promise. The marriage, and then the house, represented a wild idea: Maybe, just maybe, it is possible to make a decision and have your life be predictable after all.
Every now and again my route takes me past my old flat. Seeing it feels like a window into the past, because that house was my marriage. But buying a house doesn’t make it a home, and having a wedding doesn’t mean you’ll feel married. I’m now in rented accommodation again, living with a man who’s not my husband, but who I find myself planning with as if he were. We’re moving again this summer, which will make for 14 houses in 14 years in London, and I’m free again to do pretty much whatever I want. But something is different—it snuck up on me, and I’m surprised how nice it is to feel at home with someone. Maybe I’ll buy a place again someday, but security has nothing to do with where I live.
Jessica Furseth is a freelance journalist living in London, U.K. She writes about urbanism, belonging, and the culture of technology. More of her work is on jessicafurseth.com and on Twitter @jessicafurseth.