Why Living Apart Could Save Your Relationship
The oldest breakup line in the book could be the newest secret to staying together.
It sounded like a breakup. About a year into dating, Laurel turned to Joey in bed and said: “I know this is when people talk about moving in together, but I just don’t want to do it.”
Joey, 45, felt a wave of relief. Laurel, 35, was relieved he was relieved.
The Austin couple has been together for eight happy years now, and the entire time they’ve lived apart. Not the sitcom-y she’s-in-7B-he’s-in-2C apart. We’re talking different ZIP codes. You could watch an episode of This Is Us in the back of a Lyft in the time it takes to go from his place to hers. They say they’re absolutely committed to each other. They just don’t want to live together. Ever.
It’s not that marriage is out of the question. But if they get married, they’re not shacking up. And if they had to move in together, they would each require their own bedroom and separate workspace.
Actually, scratch that: “The dream is to rent both sides of a duplex,” Laurel says.
They each like to live a certain way, for starters. His place is dark and has a large workbench in the living room for projects. Hers, light and brightly decorated, has plenty of room for pet birds. That’s right: She lives with parakeets, but she won’t live with him. And he’s cool with that.
Facebook doesn’t offer a relationship status that precisely captures Joey and Laurel’s particular brand of coupledom, but sociologists call it Living Apart Together (LAT). Which, sure, sounds like a dystopian assisted-living facility, but it encapsulates a growing and agreed-upon distance between an increasing number of couples.
Sharon Hyman, a Montreal filmmaker making a documentary about the trend, calls LAT couples “apartners.” “There are more and more people who are choosing this,” Hyman says. An estimated 6 to 7 percent of people in the U. S., in fact. And 62 percent of apartners are over age 34, according to recent research from the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “Most of the people I’ve interviewed for my film have previously been married, cohabited, had kids,” Hyman says. “They’ve been there, done that—and they don’t want to do it again.” Maybe they’re on to something. Like the rest of us, apartnered couples are figuring out the balance between space and closeness, dependence and independence, in their relationship. They’ve just taken it to an extreme.
Our need for that balance is deeply biological: In order to explore the world and develop as individuals, we need independence. But we also have a need to be firmly tethered to another person for the safety that that provides, according to Stan Tatkin, Psy.D., a psychobiology-focused couples therapist in Calabasas, California. Our individual tolerance for space and closeness—and whether we tend to feel smothered or abandoned—goes back to how attached we were to our caregivers as infants and has been influenced by all of our past romantic relationships. “The question is, How good are two people at tolerating each other’s tolerance?” Tatkin says. The stronger couples, he says, are flexible. They’re not threatened by their partner being too close or too distant.
The rest of us trying to figure out the right amount of space in our relationships will run into conflicts that we’ll need to work out. That’s where thinking like an apartner helps. Even if you share a tiny one-bedroom with someone, keep these ideas in mind:
Claim your "me" area
Remember the scene in This Is 40 when Paul Rudd’s character hides out on the toilet with his iPad to escape his wife and kids and steal some me time? Not an ideal situation. Apartners always have a go-to place when they need some space—their individual residences. Couples living together can figure out personal spaces where each can indulge their separate interests without hogging the toilet. “Music room, sewing room, whatever,” Tatkin says. “As long as you agree on it and can afford it.”
If square footage is tight, claim a ritual that gives you alone time, like walking the dog, according to Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., author of How We Live Now.
Draw a digital line
Often our lives become so enmeshed that it gets hard to tell where our space ends and theirs begins. That can spill over online—where your “likes” become her “likes.” Sharing a Google calendar to schedule your time together or setting up a shared email address to use for kids’ school and doctors’ forms could be a good idea. (“Transparency just makes life easier,” Tatkin says. “It’s work to hide things.”) But a shared Instagram account will make you two the bane not only of each other’s existence but of all your friends’. Keeping your individual email, phone, and computer passwords helps maintain some digital independence.
Let your interests be your interests
“Agree that there are certain things each of you is allowed to do on your own, or with other friends or family, guilt-free,” DePaulo says. Laurel says: “I’m never going to see a Marvel movie, and Joey never has to go see Belle and Sebastian.”
Doing stuff alone may stoke your passion for each other. Vicki Larson, coauthor of The New “I Do,” points to famed psychotherapist Esther Perel’s belief that the erotic can’t exist with 24/7 closeness—especially when sweatpants are involved. “You need to miss somebody sometimes to feel the desire to be with them,” Larson says.
Joey and Laurel have found that to be true. “When you’re not around someone every day, it’s artificial scarcity,” Laurel says. She can’t wait to go over to Joey’s place on Friday and spend the night together.
Man using digital tablet at cafe window
Because apartnered couples aren’t around each other as often, the time they do spend together is more focused on each other. “Whenever Laurel and I see each other, it’s more of a date,” Joey says. Couples who are living in the same house may be physically close, but they could still be a world apart if they’re glued to separate devices. That’s called “parallel play,” and it’s what developing toddlers do. Developing toddlers are also prone to tantrums and aren’t all that fun to be around. Since you’re both grown adults, watch a show with, not next to, your partner. The couple that keeps up on Succession together stays together.
There are pitfalls. “Too much distance—too often, too sustained—will break up a relationship,” Tatkin warns. Joey and Laurel both dislike that they live so far apart, making it difficult to get to each other quickly if there’s a problem, to say nothing of a lack of spontaneous sex. (Safe to say, proximity increases probability.) “It takes lots of communication so that no one feels insecure or gets neglected,” Joey acknowledges. So they let each other know whenever one of them needs more (or less) quality time together, making sure they’re never too far apart. Emotionally, if not physically.