Living apart together (LAT) by choice is seen by sociologists as a new facet to an old arrangement. With new research showing that couples are increasingly likely to live in separate homes, what can people who cohabit learn from those who don’t?
The psychotherapist and broadcaster Lucy Beresford is the author of the book Happy Relationships. She thinks successful LAT relationships achieve a balance between independence and emotional commitment. “It allows for something called individuation,” she says. Some people might like a “calm space to go to, or a little meditation room” – a more extreme version of the garden shed bolt hole. But presumably some have more mundane wishes, such as a space where lids are replaced on bottles and jars, and the toilet flushed. Either way, living apart together “gives you breathing space”, she says.
Nurturing self-reliance is a skill that cohabitees can learn from those in LAT relationships. “When people complain, ‘My husband doesn’t support me’, or ‘My wife isn’t there for me emotionally’, those are very important observations in a relationship,” Beresford says. “But we must never expect someone else to rescue us. Emotionally, we need to be resilient. It’s the opposite of codependency and collapsing on your partner.”
Living apart together can make it easier to find breathing space in a relationship, but sustaining a support network, and pursuing outside interests can create the same sense of space and individuation in a cohabiting dynamic.
Beresford also thinks that LAT scenarios show a healthy realism away from the traditional fairytale of lasting love under one roof. “If we are going to live to 110, some of our relationships might have a life expectancy of more than 80 years,” she says. Practical changes might be necessary to make a relationship endure.
But Simon Duncan, emeritus professor in social policy at the University of Bradford, who has written about LAT relationships in the book Reinventing Couples, sounds a note of caution. Often the choice to live apart can be a “negative preference” – a choice to preserve the relationship when living together is unbearable. He cites one woman whose partner’s “hardcore” green lifestyle meant a lack of washing and no central heating.
As Beresford points out, the possibility of escape that a separate home provides can mean that “nothing gets resolved, nothing gets processed. Millions of people make it work,” she says. “But there are important skills that no one should run away from – around compromise, respect and accommodation.”