I love you – now go home
The next time your partner inexplicably leaves dirty laundry around the house, remember that some happily married couples don’t have to deal with that. Meet the ‘apartners’.
How living apart can strengthen your relationship
i’mpretty sure my last live-in relationship would still be intact if we’d just had separate bathrooms. After five years, little di erences in our preferences and routines started seriously getting to us: we worked opposite hours, and he liked to shake o stress by going out a lot with other people, while I liked to retreat to our cocoon-like bedroom and binge on Netflix shows. In the end, compromising on what we wanted just to share space made us feel like we’d stopped growing as individuals. Once we broke up, I wondered if I’d ever reconcile my need for serious alone time with the fact that being with someone means being with them.
So I was intrigued when my friend, Esihle Dlamini, 29, revealed that she and her husband live in di erent apartments. This arrangement, she explained, gives her space to pursue her work and hobbies, and helps them better understand what’s actually going on with each other. “We enjoy this idea that there is a space we each have to ourselves that nobody else is going to enter for a period of time,” says Esihle of her marriage. “I don’t think it really forces communication.”
Turns out, this arrangement is kind of a thing. Sociologists call it ‘living apart together’, or LAT, and it’s distinctly di erent from the phenomenon of commuter relationships, in which couples live apart for their jobs but typically see an end date to this. LAT couples are fully committed, even married, but they specifically choose not to live together.
While there hasn’t been a ton of research on this phenomenon, the Census Bureau reports that the number of spouses whose partner is absent from the household has doubled to over three million since 1991. Research also suggests that LAT is more common among younger people, for reasons that range from wanting more autonomy to just liking their own place and choosing to keep it.
As appealing as it began to sound, I was still sceptical that LAT is the cure for relationship listlessness. So I called Judith Newman, an author who has written about this lifestyle based on her experience living apart from her husband, John, for almost 25 years – a journey she touched on in her book, To Siri, With Love (Quercus; R290). She says they discovered early on that his fastidiousness and her desire for children (he wasn’t initially so sure) made living apart a choice. Keeping two separate places, even with kids, would actually give them more space. And, she adds, it’s made their relationship possible. “Some people get married or start to live with each other, and all of these qualities they find wonderful rub up against the ones that aren’t supportable on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “If they didn’t have to do that, they’d probably be very happy together.”
Eli J Finkel, psychologist and author of The All-or-nothing Marriage
(Penguin Putnam; R473), agrees. “For some, LAT is a way to play to the strengths of the relationship without succumbing to its weaknesses,” says Eli. “It makes time together special, rather than mundane and habitual.”
For Esihle and her husband, having two apartments a few streets away from each other was in part a pragmatic decision made when they were dating. “He moved from another country, and we felt it was important that he have a chance to build up his own life and his own friends,” says Esihle. “And part of doing that was getting housemates.” That way, she explains, “We could both have our own independent universes as well as a shared one.” Though she’d cohabited in other relationships, this arrangement works well for them. “Even if he doesn’t sleep at my house every day, we’ll still meet for a drink on the way home or grab a coee,” she says.
But keeping a LAT relationship strong also requires some serious self-awareness. “If I’m just lonely and need someone, I’m going to have to pick up the phone and say it,” says Esihle. “I can’t just slam dishes while I’m cooking dinner and hope that someone notices. Which I’ve done before!”
Is LAT a forever arrangement? Many of the couples I spoke to don’t know. After all, how realistic is it that you’d keep separate places if you start a family? Esihle says they’ll deal with that conversation as it comes up. “We don’t take anything for granted in terms of talking about family planning and how it’s going to happen, and where and how we want to raise our kids,” she says.
When Judith and her husband had kids, their boys grew up living primarily at her house; her husband would stay over until they were in bed, head home and then come back in the morning to make breakfast. “Proximity and support are not the same thing to me. I would not have been able to have the father that my children adore in their life this way if we had lived together, because I would have killed him,” she says.
Surprisingly, the most consistent issue couples face is judgment. Esihle has felt the scrutiny, too. “People who essentially watched us grow up can, in one breath, testify to our ability to communicate and love each other despite the distance,” she says. “And then, in the next breath, say, ‘This makes absolutely no sense. How can you take care of each other if you live five streets away?’”
But for the people I spoke to, living apart is more than just one giant compromise. It’s also a way to be more mindful about all the little decisions they make in their partnerships. “We’ve already kind of abandoned status quo,” says Esihle. “With other relationships, we felt like we were on a fixed track.” And getting o that track in favour of choosing what really, truly works for you and your partner? That sounds freeing. And if it works, well then, I may never have to share a bathroom again.
“Living apart is more than just one giant compromise. It’s also a way to be more mindful about all the little decisions they make in their partnerships.”