Remember when living together without getting married was a controversial trend? Now many middle-aged and older adults are diving into a new way of organizing love and family—being in committed, long-term relationships without living together. Sociologists have named this practice living apart together (LAT). It was already a trend in Europe and elsewhere—in China, it’s called a “walking marriage”—and now it’s catching on in the US and Canada.
We’re not talking about “long-distance relationships,” in which partners, usually compelled by circumstances, live far apart temporarily. LAT couples generally live within a short walk or drive of one another. Nor is this about people who are dating and not ready to commit to moving in together or getting married. Some LAT couples are married—and others have been couples for 10 years or longer. Many choose this lifestyle because it provides more individual freedom…and perhaps a little less responsibility. If you are in a LAT relationship (though you may never have thought of it that way), or if a LAT relationship might be in your future, understanding what makes LATs work for both partners—or not—could help you succeed and be happier…
Couples Have Many Reasons to Live Apart
Many people who choose LAT relationships have already experienced a traditional cohabiting arrangement such as a marriage or common-law marriage. Many are divorced—the rate of divorce for people over 50 has doubled since 1990. Others are widowed.
Now they want something a little different—maybe a lot different. For women in particular, especially those who have been through a divorce, there may be a desire for more independence than a previous marriage allowed. In one study, published in The Journal of Family Issues, a woman told the researchers, “I don’t want to be dependent on anybody as much as I was then. Because it took a long time to get to the point where I felt I could make it on my own.” Men, it turns out, also value the way that LAT relationships protect autonomy.
There are many other reasons. Some men and women have children at home and want to keep each family separate until the kids have moved out. Others already are doing caretaking for an elderly parent—or have recently cared for a spouse—and for that reason aren’t eager to set up a new shared home. Some may wish to keep all assets separate.
For many people, it just feels better to stay in the home in which they’ve nested for years or one that they’ve created independently. LAT couples have “sleep-overs,” spending several nights a week together, and they often spend holidays and share milestones together.
As with all life choices, there are challenges when a couple decides to live “apart together.” Here are some common ones—and ways to solve them…
Challenge: Societal Pressure
Just because you and your partner may be enthusiastic about the idea of separate living quarters, it doesn’t mean that everyone in your lives will be. Some people, particularly more tradition-oriented friends and relatives, may not support your “bucking the system.” Their caution may leave you second-guessing the wisdom of your LAT plan.
Solution: Anticipate where you might meet with resistance, such as certain outspoken friends or relatives who always like to weigh in on your decisions. Once you identify potential stressors, develop a game plan to address each one. Example: When Aunt Margaret mentions that it will be easier for your partner to cheat if you aren’t living together, be prepared to thank her for her concern and assure her that infidelity is not something you are worried about.
Challenge: Dealing with Disagreement
When disagreements arise (as they inevitably do for any couple) and you don’t live together, it’s easy—and can be tempting—to retreat to your own place to avoid unpleasant negativity. But while a cooling-off period can be helpful, avoiding each other doesn’t tend to solve disagreements.
Solution: When conflicts arise, nip the temptation to run “home”—and commit to each other that you’ll address and resolve issues together.
Challenge: Feeling Like You Are In “No-Man’s-Land”
Although LAT partners value their independence, each partner’s definition of what it means to be “committed” might differ. Each decision—how much time to spend together…what family events to share…whether marriage is an option someday—may have to be negotiated. And some studies find that LAT partners don’t tend to feel as fully supported as do those in more traditional, cohabiting marriages.
Solution: For the best chance at reaching a set of decisions that truly makes both partners happy, each of you should be specific about what will make the relationship feel solid to you. Make concrete statements such as, “For me to feel like we have a committed relationship, I’d like to spend at least three nights a week with you.” Or, “As my committed partner, I would like for us to spend holidays together with both of our families.” Of course, you can always change the plan—together.
Challenge: Difficulty Expressing Vulnerability
Because being self-reliant and valuing independence is what generally draws LAT partners to one another, it can be challenging to ask for emotional or physical support when the need arises. Asking for nurturance may feel like an imposition.
Solution: Expressing vulnerability in intimate relationships is never easy. But it’s important to remember that in healthy, loving relationships, partners take care of one another’s feelings. Being able to share deeply personal emotions is what often sets committed, intimate relationships apart from others.
If asking for what you want and need from your partner feels daunting, get professional help. Couples therapists are trained to help people feel safe talking about their innermost feelings.
Challenge: Expectations Change Over Time
Change is inevitable. What may have seemed like a great idea at first—living apart—may not prove to be so feasible or desirable later on. For example, while you may not plan to ever move in together, that calculus may change if one partner falls ill and needs help. Studies suggest that many LAT couples often fail to discuss sticky topics such as heirs and finances, end-of-life decisions and caretaking issues.
Solution: Don’t wait until illness strikes to have these important conversations. Be a realist. Illness and death are things that eventually befall all of us. All couples, including those who do live together, are better off discussing these tough issues before a crisis hits…but especially LAT couples, because their unusual arrangement doesn’t always allow the usual solutions.