Q: What is up with couples who live apart together? Why is that a healthier arrangement for some people’s relationships? Is it healthier? I’m asking because obviously it’s something I worry about concerning myself. The thought of living with another person is pretty intimidating for me, partly because it seems to lead to relationship demise for some people. I read an article in huff post about this earlier this week, but it was pretty shallow and mostly justified the arrangement as acceptable. I think I don’t want to live alone, but maybe I really do?
A: My first reaction is to this answer this with a loud “Yes! I get where you’re coming from!” because I often feel like it would be very hard for me to live with someone else again when I feel happiest living alone. Don’t get me wrong, I love having company and – of course – I enjoy it when partners will spend the night, or I will sleep at their place. But for daily life, whether shallow or not, I enjoy the quiet and calm of living alone.
So naturally my answer to what is up with people living apart is to say, “Well, that sounds normal to me!” but, statistically speaking, most couples live together and share their lives, their living space, their finances, and their shared responsibilities together in a physical “present” way as well as emotional ways. However, many couples do decide to live apart, and this is becoming more common so I’m glad you brought it up.
A little known bit of history here, Romans during the time of Jesus felt that sleeping in the same bed as one’s spouse ruined a marriage. Now, we’re inclined to believe sleeping in the same house will! And, since we’re talking about the Bible, I always think it is amusing when Christians talk about “Biblical marriage” and forget that Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis lived apart (see Genesis 23:2). Rabbinical literature and even, to some extent, scholars of Islam say that the reason Abraham had to travel to bury Sarah was because she had left him years previously. In other words, while most people want to talk about “Biblical marriage” in a sexual context, a “Biblical marriage” or marriage-as-represented-in-the-Bible can also include living arrangements and relational structure, specifically living apart. I think it’s really important to support those couples who, for whatever reason, choose to live apart. The point is, we can’t really say “staying together, living apart” is a trend since it isn’t exactly a new relational pattern, or even being talked about in new ways. It’s been a pretty consistent relational behavior, as far as we can tell, throughout time, though I will be quick to say there have certainly been times where it was more socially acceptable to live together.
Did you know that author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) lived apart from her husband, Calvin Stowe? They did, for long and sustained periods of time during their marriage. Letters between them reveal that the couple repeatedly lived apart to help space pregnancies, though the couple had, all told, seven children. In one letter, Calvin (who was a seminary professor) tells Harriet that having a male friend spend the lonely nights cuddling with him in bed was a great comfort in her absence: “He puts his arms around me and hugs me to my hearts’ [sic] content.” This is not necessarily an indicator of same-sex behavior, since we know boarding houses and rented rooms often accommodated men who lived together. Think of them as hotels that doubled, even tripled booked people to a single room. Other letters between the Stowes express what must have been considerable sexual frustration. To one of her many siblings, Harriet writes with irritation of the tedious and demanding labor of frequent childbearing, childcare, and nursing alone, though she was relieved that her husband was not present since coming together was the source of her frustration.
Virtually every book on sex and relationships written about Europe and the Americas during the Revolutionary Period up to the invention of the pill in 1950 attests to the fact that, historically speaking, couples have lived apart more often than they lived together. In other words, it’s actually a very recent thing for couples to live together or for culture to pressure couples to live together. Think about all of the “clues” in Victorian literature – the friends of Jane Austen characters with a noticeably absent spouse. Or the way that Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds. Think of how John Adams, considered an effusively amorous husband among the Founders, still spent most of his marriage to Abigail away from her. Or the way that men in modern literature are often depicted as married but unattached or “aloof.” Men in literature, especially after the turn of the century, are alone (existential as much as spatial). If married, it is often to a wife who was either “visiting” a friend, a relative, some distant relation, or was “back home with the children.” These are not just literary tropes, they are reflections of a cultural and relational reality and reconstructing what we know of relationships over the decades and centuries, what we see are “waves” of cultural support and waves of decline. During the Civil War, men could be generous with their compliments towards a potential spouse, so much so that women were expected to decline a marriage proposal no less than three times before finally accepting. This speaks, I think, to an understanding that men were allowed to flirt, compliment, and express their amorous feelings – even publicly. But, as we know, all of this ended after the Civil War. Relationships became bawdy and ribald for a short period (a “baby boom” if you will as men returned from war) and then sharply became extremely conservative as Methodism with their emphasis on personal holiness and lifestyle conversion began to become more prevalent.
Now, I say all of this not to go off on a rabbit trail but to say that each of these “waves” would have affected how our ancestors would have related to one another. In my own family, I know that my great-grandparents slept in separate beds (even though they had several children) and often slept in different houses. My grandparents spent a considerable part of their marriage apart from one another – even though they believed firmly (unlike their parents) that they were supposed to sleep “under the same roof” as one another. My grandfather, in the last conversation I had with him before he died, was rather forceful on this point. “It doesn’t matter where you are during the day, you’ve got to be under the same roof by the time you go to sleep.”
Again, in terms of history, it is a recent thing for couples in the Western world to feel a need to live together. There are cultural as well as commercial reasons for this, I’m sure. Today, many couples have the economic freedom to have separate living spaces and are not alone in desiring this. Of course, with the influence of lifestyle blogs, it is becoming more acceptable to break the cultural norm of living together and find individualized space.
Kate Ashford, writing for BBC-Capital, makes a pretty interesting survey of date for those living apart, together.
Committed couples who live in different places are officially deemed by sociologists to be Living Apart Together, or LAT. And depending on your definition of a couple, this moniker might apply to more people than you’d expect.
Ashford points out that there are around 5 million people in the United Kingdom who are classified as “single” but are actually in a relationship, just not living with their partner. That’s roughly 9% of the adult population of the UK! She goes on:
About one-third of these people expressed a preference for not living together because they wanted to keep their own homes or were prioritising other responsibilities. And about 10% were in LAT relationships because their partner had a job or was studying elsewhere.
Having worked with churches for over a decade (where you are privy to a great deal of personal information as people welcome you into their homes and lives), those numbers sound about right to me. I’ve known many women who have expressed to be how “grateful” they are when their husband went to work offshore or at a refinery hours away. One woman on the board of her church told me over drinks, “I hate to say it, but the moment he gets home, I’m already looking forward to when he leaves. I prefer it that way. I love my husband, I do, but whenever he’s home, it’s really difficult to one him.”
I think the reasons for these arrangements are, of course, different for each couple but it does interest me that in the last two decades of relational literature and self-help books, individuals are encouraged to go their own way, do their own thing, and shuck off anyone who does not wholeheartedly support this individuality, including a spouse or significant partner. One of the more popular rating statistics for online dating sites is whether someone is “more/less independent” or “more/less needy.”
Did you catch that?
The dichotomy is whether someone is either independent or needy.
One of those descriptors is celebrated in Western culture, the other to be avoided at all costs. One is positive: the self-actualized independent; the other quite negative: the cloying, babyish needer. Both of these, when I see them appear on personal inventories, are red flags as much. Then again, they are also indicators of hope. That someone registers as either tells me “there’s something important here worth exploring.” That is, when I am talking with someone who has filled out an online dating profile, I will look at their metrics and ask them what being independent or needy means for them. Sometimes, a high level of independence means they are interesting and have activities that fill their life, sure, but it could also mean they are not ready for a committed relationship because they do not have space in their lives for wanting or being wanted. Conversely, the needy person might have unrealistic expectations, sure, but that descriptor could also indicate that they really are in a healthy place, ready to care for someone and ready to be cared for. The trouble is not the person, it is the way we talk about “independence” and “need.” Getting back to your question, I think – speaking broadly – all of us are probably a little confused and insecure about where those acceptable levels of independence and neediness really are. One way I might phrase this is, “It’s easier to be needy alone.” Individuals choose to carve out a little space for themselves and the cultural narrative rushes in to tell them they need more stuff, more land, more independence, and that it is a status symbol to “have two houses” and stay together but live apart. But, in doing just that, they report feeling more alone, more lonely, and more depressed. Clearly, something is out of balance here.
To be blunt, I think we do this because we want our partner to be an accessory to our consumeristic life. What we really want, and what is reinforced, is a marriage in title only. The ideal is “sharing” ourselves, but the reality is independence. Is it any wonder we’re so confused about relationships? These scripts are competing with one another, and in a way, we’re not really making healthy choices for ourselves. We’re just going along with what culture prescribes for us, what seems “logical” or what feels easiest. We’re not fighting for our relationships anymore; we’re apathetic about the whole thing.
Coming back to your question, I think it’s really interesting that you presuppose living apart is “healthier” and then immediately ask whether it is healthier. I might turn that around and ask, which one is healthier for you?
You’re right. Living together can lead to an erosion of the relationship. It’s hard to see your partner as a sexual person, to want to touch their butt when you are familiar with the smell of their waste. It’s hard to stay positive and believe the best when you see your partner’s frustration and occasional disgusting habits up close and personal. “Real life” takes the shine off the rainbows and the fluff off of the imaginary puppies. But let’s set those to the side. Which arrangement is healthier for you?
I prefer to spend time alone. I get more done, I feel more rested, I feel more relaxed, but health wise? I’m a wreck. Whenever I am away from people for too long, I can feel myself slipping into depression very easily. Whenever I am away from people for too long, I will eat an entire bag of cookies in a single day. Breakfast, snacks, nibbles, second breakfast, brunch, afternoon tea… that’s the first row of Oreos, right there. When I am with someone, I will feel happier since I’m able to share ideas and experiences with someone else, laugh with someone else, make meals for someone else, and then shuffle off and do my own thing with the comforting knowledge that I will see this person again in just a little while. So, while I might prefer to be alone, I know I am healthier when I am living with someone. There is something psychologically and emotionally fulfilling for me when I am able to take care of someone else, and a pet is no substitute for another human. So, for me the question could – depending on when you ask me – be rephrased as, “which option is healthier for the relationship?” Sasha Roseneil, a professor of Psychosocial Studies for Birkbeck, Univ. of London, says living apart can actually be a strong indicator of relational health.
“For some people, more or less consciously, living apart together is a way of dealing with the messiness of intimate life today, protecting themselves, their children and their homes from some of the distress that they have previously experienced when a cohabiting relationship breaks down. That said, most people in LAT relationships have a strong sense that they are a couple, and many are in long-term relationships to which they are deeply committed.”
Since we’re looking at how things are in England, it might be helpful to see another breakdown of that data, here.
But yeah, it’s a tough question you’re putting to me. Whether it’s healthier for you to live alone or just something you want is a tough call to make. I can think of a handful of couples right now who are healthier apart but want to stay together, and that has been (and currently is) a really tough decision to see being lived out. The next time I’m in a long-term committed relationship, I’ll have to revisit this and might have a different answer.