Committed couples who choose two separate abodes are on the rise.Does having two leases give you a new lease on love? Celina* says she and her third husband, Eric, a newscaster, have kept the spark alive by having separate homes. "It's a marriage preserver," reports the bubbly entertainment writer.
Even after being monogamous for six years, sharing a home, Celina says would have been a "lifestyle shock." Paying rent on two apartments in a doorman building in Manhattan, she admits, is a luxury. Still, she says, it keeps the relationship fun, romantic, and functions like a "pressure valve."
And the two are not alone in choosing to couple, but not cohabitate. Studies at University of Leeds, Oxford and the New York Times, have led this social phenomenon to acquire its own nomenclature, "Living Alone Together" or LAT for short. And it's gaining steam in Europe, too: In the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Swedish researcher Dr. Jan Trost reported an increased incidence of Scandinavian LATs. Exact numbers are hard to come by—though the 2007 U.S. Census reported that 30 million Americans live alone, it's tough to determine how many have a steady date a few doors down.
Couples who are LATs place a high premium on romance. Stephen and Kate Robinson, married TV writers in their mid-thirties, have lived on two separate coasts for six years. Since they often only have a weekend together, Stephen say they "try to do special things, so it's like an early-relationship date." Jim, a preppy, twice-married, 74-year-old, father of six, is happily LAT with Jane, a svelte, single mother and teacher, ten years his junior. "When I see Jane, it's always a fresh date," he says, and she agrees: "He puts so much effort into making the relationship romantic—planning our dates and [the way] he writes his e-mails."
Mindful about keeping the spark alive, most LATs are less interested in compromise or negotiation, which are normally part and parcel of any relationship. Overall, they did not cite making concessions as an opportunity for growth, either as a unit or as an individual. "[Eric and I are] far too spoiled to have to negotiate who gets to keep his stuff or what show to watch," she says. She'll watch movies at her husband's place, but grumbles that it reeks of cigars and is stocked with his "sporty stuff." They sleep at her place, which she says "looks like it was designed for a drag queen."
Not all LATs are rich, even if they include a share of independent celebrities couples such as Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton. "Money would be a terrible reason to live together," says Jim, who continues to work part time editing books. When he and Jane go out, they split the bill and each pays their own mortgage. Jane says they are still "interdependent and interconnected" and invest their own money into the relationship. This past weekend they traveled to his granddaughter's college graduation; next week they will go to her son's. And Jane worries about the cost as well as the effect of their "carbon footprint." The two have discussed ways to cut down on the cost of oil and gas of operating two homes.
While not environmentally prudent, experts do see advantages to living apart. If there are children involved from a previous marriage, especially ones who may be troubled or living at home, psychologist Dr. Joan Levine says that separate homes "seem to work. Even when one person wants to live together and the other does not." Dr. William Pinsof, a family psychologist and President of Northwestern University's Family Institute sees LATs as nothing out of the norm. "From a psychological viewpoint, it is hard to imagine the value of defining any major social group that is not physically or emotionally harming itself or others as deviant or undesirable," he says.
Yet the LATs still feel a bit taboo. Some LAT couples interviewed worried "coming out" ould harm their work reputation with colleagues and clients. "I don't want my students to look at this the wrong way," Jane says. Meanwhile, Celina fears the her unorthodox lease/relationship status could threaten her rent stabilized apartment.
In the 1950's, married couples on TV shows like I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver slept in separate beds to reinforce their sense of their morality and prudence. When the film Terms of Endearment came out in 1983, it was a breakthrough in multiple ways, including Aurora Greenway (Shirley McLaine) choosing to keep separates homes after becoming romantically involved with her neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). Over twenty-three years later, real couples living independently—in an effort to preserve a relationship—remain a minority, but any challenges are worth it for its devotees. "I like to wake up alone," says Jim. "It doesn't mean I don't want love."
And not all LATs find themselves living apart for the same reason. Researchers at Oxford and University of Leeds purport three distinct sub-groups: "undecidedly apart," "regretfully apart," and "happily apart." The LATs who are "undecidedly apart" are monogamous, but have no plans for either marriage or separation. Some are like Jim, who, after two less-than-perfect attempts at happily-ever-after, says, "At this point marriage would be absurd."
For years, Celina felt the same way, but then she had a change of heart—and persuaded Eric to marry. They are "gladly apart," a category of couples who marry but set up separate households. "I wanted to be married for the same reason gay couples do, " says Celina. "I want to visit him in the ICU, be the contact person in case of emergency, and get health insurance."
And then there are the square pegs in the round hole: The LATs who are "regretfully apart" and face separation due to career, economic or family obligations. Stephen says he and Kate "insisted on living together before we were married (despite some parental opposition) because it seemed like a key bellwether for the relationship." As they are now expecting their first child, they say they won't live in separate homes once they can find jobs in the same city. Stephen says that, "Together" is clearly the default setting for us, all the rest is temporary adjustment."
* Names have been altered to protect their identities.