Ten years ago, ABC News heralded “living apart together”—maintaining a committed romantic relationship with someone in a separate household—as “the new American family.” Although demographic data on the phenomenon is scarce, scholars believe this relationship form has been on the rise in the U.S. as well as Europe over the past few decades.
When many of the practical benefits of relationships, like splitting household work and sharing expenses, are tied to sharing a home, why would people choose to live apart indefinitely? According to the existing European research on the question, younger couples typically live in separate homes due to external circumstances, such as caregiving responsibilities or financial constraints, and often aspire to cohabit or marry in the future. Older couples, on the other hand, generally do not express that wish. External circumstances are relevant to their living arrangements, but so too are their relationship expectations—expectations that speak volumes about contemporary priorities and raise interesting questions about why we benefit from healthy relationships.
Jacquelyn J. Benson and Marilyn Coleman of the University of Missouri enumerate seven factors behind older adults’ decisions to live apart from their romantic partners. Their findings, published last month by the Journal of Marriage and Family, were based on in-depth individual interviews with 25 Midwestern adults, ages 60 and up, in heterosexual, non-cohabiting relationships. The sample was made up of ten couples and five individual women whose partners refused to participate. The respondents were recruited by way of a university email listserv and word of mouth. Most were white and two-thirds were college-educated. As the small, non-representative sample and the non-random recruiting method imply, the study is just a first look at how and why some American adults choose LAT (living apart together) relationships.
The seven factors that underlie the study participants’ relationship decisions, Benson and Coleman discovered, are these:
- Relational goals. Most respondents “were not looking for the type of security afforded in marriage,” in the investigators’ words. Rather, they wanted intimate companionship, a partner to do things with, confide in, and provide emotional support.
- Personal goals. “He has his life, and I have mine” was a common refrain among interviewees, and most wanted to keep things that way. That is, they desired to maintain their autonomy: the personal roles, habits, and hobbies that they practiced prior to their LAT relationship.
- Age. Many individuals said they were too old to enter a (new) marriage, an institution they associated with younger people hoping to raise families. One man stated, “I’m not entirely sure I see any substantial point in being married other than, than having kids”—a view reminiscent of the “high-investment parenting” model of marriage that the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves has touted. For young people, dating was a step toward marriage and a family, respondents noted, whereas dating at their own age was about enjoying intimacy in the present, not planning for the future.
- Caregiver burden. Marriage is supposed to entail lifelong, mutual, unlimited support in sickness and in health, and these older adults in LAT relationships were averse to that prospect. They reported being willing to support their partners to some extent, but saw their relationship form as “a self-preservation strategy to avoid the physical, financial, and sometimes emotional risks associated with being a spousal caregiver.” One woman, for example, wanted to keep her savings for her own old age, not use them to cover any nursing home care her partner may need in the future.
- Partner factors. Some participants lived apart from their partners primarily because their partners preferred that arrangement, but all participants mentioned differences in preferences, habits, and/or health that made separate households superior. “Small problems become larger problems when you live together,” one man explained. These concerns overlapped with the preference for autonomy noted above. Women in particular wanted to “protect themselves from the demands of caregiving and the relationship from becoming inequitable (e.g., imbalanced domestic work)” and men, especially, “wished to protect their time, particularly in terms of how they leisured.”
- Relationship histories. Twenty-three of the 25 study participants had been married at least once in the past, and 14 had been through a divorce. Their experiences in marriage influenced their ambivalence toward or hostility to the institution. Benson and Coleman report that respondents’ description of marriage as a poor fit varied by gender: “Women internalized the lack of fit, whereas men externalized it. In other words, men blamed the institution of marriage (e.g., marriage is not a good fit for them), and women blamed themselves (they are not fit for marriage).”
- Shifts in social mores. Recent changes in the public view of marriage, cohabitation, and relationship combined with individuals’ life experiences to make LAT relationships more attractive to respondents. For instance, one woman mentioned that for women, marriage no longer means a man will take care of you, “so now, one of the things I’ve felt I needed to do for myself was to know that I could take care of myself.” Living in a different household than her partner meant remaining self-reliant.
The interviews also revealed variety in participants’ preferences for living apart together: five individuals envisioned marrying or cohabiting in the future, and lived apart only due to external constraints. Nine individuals were ambivalent about their living arrangements, discussing both its benefits, like autonomy, and its costs, like a limited degree of closeness or lacking someone to spend time with on a daily basis. Some of these ambivalent partners acknowledged living apart together was “an emotional self-preservation strategy” (the authors’ term) in response to fear of rejection.
Eleven interviewees, in contrast with these two groups, advocated LAT relationships and mostly “abhorred” marriage. They felt committed to their partners personally, but did not want to take on the formal obligations marriage entails. “I wouldn’t want to…put [my commitment] down on paper. I don’t want, I hate to feel trapped, but emotionally, yeah, I feel that way,” explained one man.
As preliminary studies often do, this one raises more questions than it answers. Does limiting the time and effort one invests in a relationship limit the physical and emotional health benefits one can reap from it? Scott Stanley has written in this space that “most scholars assume that a major reason for [marriage’s health benefits for men] is wives’ direct influence on their husbands’ behavior.” Remaining largely independent from one’s partner, as study participants seemed to want, might mean forgoing these benefits.
Along the same lines, can partners who want to avoid the burden of caregiving expect to enjoy the advantages of being cared for in the case of, say, receiving a cancer diagnosis or recovering from heart surgery, situations where spousal support seems to promote better outcomes?
The limited commitment of LAT relationships could also shape partners’ relationship satisfaction and overall happiness. Researcher Samantha Joel has found that “we deeply appreciate our partners’ willing[ness] to invest in our relationships, in turn leading us to commit more to the relationships ourselves.” Would couples who explicitly desire to limit their relationship obligations miss out on this positive cycle of appreciation and mutual commitment? Needless to say, offering answers to these questions will be the task of future studies.