When people think about marriage, they think about intimacy, companionship, and mutual affection. But it’s hard not to also think about the tedium of married life: picking up your spouse’s dirty socks from the floor, constantly putting down or lifting up the toilet seat, or fighting over whether to watch football or Dancing with the Stars.
Some couples seek to redefine marriage by eliminating all the features that feel like chores and keeping what they consider the best parts. Woody Allen and Mia Farrow did it. Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton do it. “It” is “living apart together” (abbreviated as LAT), and according to the 2000 U.S. census, about three million couples in the United States do it, too. But if a married couple doesn’t live together, is it really a marriage at all?
Alone Again, Naturally
LAT couples, who claim to be otherwise completely committed to each other, choose not to live in the same residence. They live separately for a variety of reasons; some are unwilling to give up their own home or apartment or are loath to accommodate their partner’s decorating style or schedule. A LAT scenario may make sense to preserve structure and routine when one or both partners have children from previous relationships. Some couples are simply unwilling to embrace change; others fall into LAT relationships for financial reasons, such as if one person is forced to take a job far away from the other. The only thing that all LAT couples have in common is that they find life easier when they don’t share living space with their partner.
Couples who were surveyed for stories on the LAT phenomenon for Elle, Self, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle say the greatest benefit to their relationships is the preservation of their individual freedoms. “I have my own life and I want to keep it,” says one woman. “I love my downtown neighborhood; he loves his uptown digs,” says another. “Why should we rock the boat?” Respondents reported that they had time to invest more energy into their careers, they weren’t subjected to their partner’s intimate hygiene habits, and many reported that when they didn’t see their partner every day, it helped preserve the relationship’s “spark.” After a few days or nights apart, seeing each other again became that much more special, almost like recapturing the magic of those first few dates.
Authors David Knox and Caroline Schacht explain that this illustrates the concept of “satiation.” After repeated exposure to a stimulus, we become less sensitive to its effects, such as when we live with a partner. In their book, Choices in Relationships: An Introduction to Marriage and the Family, they write, “Individuals in a LAT relationship help ensure that they will not ‘satiate’ on each other but maintain some of the excitement of seeing or being with each other.” Without the hassle of negotiating the daily drudgery that accompanies marriage, couples reported having the time and energy to focus on doing fun things together, as well as enjoying their own time alone.
“Me Time” or “We Time”?
But is that daily drudgery really such a bad thing? Many psychologists and marriage therapists are skeptical of the LAT phenomenon, seeing it as yet another sign of an overly individualized, self-obsessed culture. Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men, told the New York Times, “One of the challenges of marriage is to learn how to live with a person and integrate that person into your life. By living apart, you are losing the opportunity to gain that level of intimacy and cooperation.” It might not be glamorous to do each other’s laundry or argue over housework, but those negotiations are necessary if couples want to live a fully integrated life. Being able to overcome differences and successfully figure out how to exist in each other’s space are vital life skills. If couples refuse to compromise on things as simple as home decor, how can they expect to weather serious challenges when they arise? Marriages that are structured around freedom, individual desires, and each person’s singular comfort are by definition not focused on partnership.
Among other disadvantages of LAT, such as social disapproval, the cost, and the inconvenience, Knox and Schacht explain that another big detractor is the lack of shared history that comes from maintaining two residences. “Because the adults are sleeping in separate quarters, a lot of what goes on in each house does not become part of the life history of the other.”
Married couples today face other similar struggles—to share a bed or sleep separately, to share a checking account or to maintain individual finances—and the arguments for and against each are, unsurprisingly, similar. Proponents of keeping things separate say that allowing each person the freedom to be him or herself within the relationship helps each to be a better and happier partner. Opponents say that the negotiation required to overcome personal differences and learn to function together as a unit is the most invaluable aspect of marriage, and couples that structure their lives so that they never have to inconvenience themselves are, in essence, cheating. Some also worry about the lessons absorbed by children living within these types of families; they could come to believe that marriage is a completely individual pursuit that doesn’t require any adaptation, compromise, or sacrifice.
Numbers from Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project and studies from European countries show that the LAT relationship is growing in popularity. As someone who’s getting married at the end of the year, I can attest that it’s not always easy or exciting to pick up dirty glasses or share the television, but those chores seem like a small price to pay. Living apart together may have been the choice for Mia and Woody, but then again, they ended up getting divorced.