Theyve been married for 25 years, and raised twins but have never lived in the same house. Is this the secret to long-term happiness?
‘Goodnight, honey,” I say. “Goodnight, sweetheart,” my husband says. I turn over to go to sleep. He turns to the door to catch the train home.
That has been my nightly routine for 25 years. Well, not every night. Occasionally, there’s some reason John needs to be in my neighbourhood early in the morning. Or, now that we’re old – correction: with our 29-year age gap, I’m old, he’s ancient – there’s the issue of his knees, and if they’re particularly bothersome, he might brave a night with me and our 15-year-old twin sons instead of the New York subway. But, for the most part, he arrives around 4pm, I make dinner for 6pm, we obsessively watch the news for a few hours (thank you, President Trump) and later in the night my husband goes to his apartment a couple of miles away.
Here’s what my marriage is. We have argued at Walmarts across America on vacations. We’ve secretly congratulated ourselves on our stellar DNA when our son Henry brought home a chess trophy. We’ve burned dinners, fretted about tax returns, held hands when we’re too tired to do anything else, made hasty trips to the ER when the kids used the bed as a launchpad to nowhere. In other words, we’ve had a marriage like any other. Except for this one thing: John and I have never lived together. Is that so strange?
Depends who you ask.
While I have blithely been living what I considered the most tediously conventional existence, I have somehow become cool, or at least part of a gently escalating trend. The current infelicitous phrase, coined in 2004 by sociologist Irene Levin, is that I’m part of an LAT couple, Living Apart Together. That is, two people who are married or in a long-term committed relationship who do not live under the same roof. (Canadian Sharon Hyman, who is directing a movie on the subject, has come up with a phrase guaranteed to appeal more to punsters: “apart-ners.”) Studies on the subject vary, and different countries define LAT differently. But a recent reckoning in the US estimates that 3.5 million Americans (3% of all married couples) are LAT. In the UK, where not just marriage but long-term partnerships are accounted for, that number rises to 9%.
The Canadian government has looked at this phenomenon extensively, and determined that, as we get older, those LAT relationships became more and more non-transitional – that is, we became more sure that we are going to live separately and stay that way. Of course, Canadian researchers are failing to ask the critical question: “Would you change your mind about living separately if you were moving in with our prime minister?” That’s the only way to really know how committed LATs are.
It’s not as if this is the most outlandish arrangement in the world. I used to say John and I were very Woody and Mia, until that comparison lost its cachet. But still, historically there are many couples who made it work. Anita Hill and Margaret Drabble are both known for having successful relationships with people who did not share their living space. Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter. OK, they’re divorced now, but it worked for years, which counts as success. Then there were the intellectuals Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Maybe the writer Robert Parker and his wife got it exactly right: they divorced and then got back together, with the caveat that they create two entirely separate apartments in one huge home. They had to issue invitations to each other to visit. They also built a third kitchen, presumably the Switzerland of their residence.
I’ve never understood why living separately is a big deal. I want the same love and commitment as anyone else; but why do I have to live in the same place to achieve it? Particularly if you find that you fundamentally love each other, but have very different ways of living and spending money. While John exhibits, shall we say, the frugality of his Scottish ancestors, he nevertheless likes decor that would be best suited to the set of Downton Abbey: his uptown studio consists of two grand pianos and family furniture that I believe is haunted. I like stuff that is new, light and whimsical – I say whimsical, he says appalling. Why should I have to live without my light-up plastic owls if they give me pleasure? The truth is, we don’t agree on much, except each other.
Still, for most people, the idea of living separately just seems a bizarre fantasy. “My relationship is entirely co-dependent,” one friend says. “My husband and I work together, every day, in my studio apartment, on the same couch. I don’t even fantasise about getting my own apartment any more. I just fantasise about getting a door.”
But among those I know who are LAT, it’s not some sort of grudging compromise. The people I know wouldn’t have it any other way. “The thing most people ask me is, ‘What is the longest you have been apart?’” says Ken Carlton, about his marriage to his wife, Geri Donenberg; she is a professor of medicine in Chicago, he a writer in Brooklyn. “The better question is, ‘What is the longest you’ve been together?’ And that would be 10 days, on a recent vacation.” It’s a second marriage for both. While Jewish dating site JDate brought them new love, they had children from earlier marriages and jobs in different cities – not to mention independent spirits. So they stayed rooted, and have had weekly dates for the 12 years of their marriage.
“I think the secret is that, generally speaking, one is genuinely excited when you don’t have to be together,” says Tim, an executive in television sales from New York who has been with his partner, Mary, for six years in separate homes (and, yes, the fact that both came out of difficult marriages does play a role).
For Lisa Church of San Francisco, who spent 10 years happily with her partner in separate homes – five years before having their daughter, Rena, five years after – “it just felt right. We’d both been married before, we both cherished alone time.” Though they got more grief post-Rena, Church notes.