I’m pretty sure my last live-in relationship would still be intact if we’d just had separate bathrooms. After five years, though, little differences in our preferences and routines started seriously getting to us: We worked opposite hours, and he liked to shake off stress by going out among other humans, while I liked to retreat to our cocoonlike bedroom and binge Netflix as if Kimmy Schmidt and I were the last two people on earth. In the end, compromising on what we wanted just to share space made us feel like we’d stopped growing as individuals. Once we broke up, I wondered if I’d ever reconcile my need for serious alone time with the fact that being with someone means, like, being with them.
So I was intrigued when, last year, my friend (and former Glamour colleague) Annie Fox revealed that she and her husband live in different apartments. This arrangement, she explained, gives her space to pursue her work and hobbies, and helps them better understand what’s actually going on with each other. “We enjoy this idea that there is a space we each have to ourselves that nobody else is going to enter for a period of time,” says Fox of her marriage. “I do think it really forces communication.”
Turns out, this setup is kind of a thing! Sociologists call it “living apart together,”or LAT, and it’s distinctly different from the phenomenon of commuter relationships, in which couples live apart for their jobs but typically see an end date to their living-apart-ness. LAT couples are fully committed, even married, but they specifically choose not to cohabit.
While there hasn’t been a ton of research on this phenomenon in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of spouses whose partner is absent from the household has doubled to 3.6 million since 1991. Research in Europe and Canada suggests that LAT is common among younger people, for reasons that range from wanting more autonomy to just liking their own place and choosing to keep it.
“It makes time together special, rather than habitual.”
As appealing as it began to sound, I was still skeptical that LAT is the cure-all for relationship ennui. So I called Judith Newman, a New York author who has written about this lifestyle based on her experience living about 70 city blocks from her husband, John, for almost 25 years—a journey she touched on in her new book, To Siri With Love. She says they discovered early that his fastidiousness and her desire for children (he wasn’t initially so sure) made living apart a clear choice. Keeping two separate places, even with kids, would actually give them more space and could even be cheaper. Plus, she adds, it’s made their relationship possible. “[Some] people get married or start to live with each other, and all of these qualities they find wonderful rub up against the ones that aren’t supportable on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “If they didn’t have to do that, they’d probably be very happy together.”
Eli J. Finkel, professor of social psychology at Northwestern University and author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, agrees. “For some, LAT is a way to play to the strengths of the relationship without succumbing to its weaknesses,” says Finkel. “It makes time together special, rather than mundane and habitual.”
For Annie Fox and her husband, Nash, having two Brooklyn apartments a few blocks away from each other was in part a pragmatic decision made when they were dating. “He was moving here from another country, and we felt it was important that he have a chance to build up his own life and his own friends,” says Fox. “And part of doing that was getting housemates.” That way, she explains, “we could both have our own independent universes as well as a shared one.” Though she’d cohabited in other relationships, this arrangement works well for them. “Even if Nash doesn’t sleep at my house every day, we’ll still meet for a drink on the way home or grab a coffee,” she says.
“If I’m lonely, I can’t just slam dishes while I’m cooking and hope that someone notices.”
But keeping a LAT relationship strong also requires some serious self-awareness. “If I’m just lonely and mopey and need someone, I’m going to have to pick up the phone and say it,” says Fox. “I can’t just slam dishes while I’m cooking dinner and hope that someone notices. Which I’ve done before!”
When Deena Chanowitz, 35, made the decision to attend medical school in Vermont, nearly 300 miles from her husband in New York City, she realized that she wanted to start the next chapter of her life on her own. “I figured I could have date time with Gary on the weekends and be fully committed then, versus being stressed out during the week.” Her husband of two years agreed, and she says it made their relationship better than ever. Though they moved back in together because they had a baby in June, she plans to go back to Vermont next summer and continue the LAT relationship. “When I was in New York, I was overworked and not fully present. Now we have better quality time.”
Is LAT a forever arrangement? Many of the couples I spoke to don’t know. After all, how realistic is it that you’d keep separate places if you start a family? Fox says they’ll deal with that conversation as it comes up. “We don’t take anything for granted in terms of talking about family planning and how it’s going to happen and where and how we want to raise our kids,” she says.
“Proximity and support are not the same thing to me.”
When Newman and her husband had kids, their boys grew up living primarily at her house; John would stay over until they were in bed, head home, and then come back in the morning to make breakfast. “Proximity and support are not the same thing to me. I would not have been able to have the father that my children adore in their life this way if we had lived together, because I would have killed him,” she says, laughing.
Surprisingly, the most consistent issue couples face is judgment. Newman has fielded questions from strangers who have assumed she and her husband were on the rocks. “I would get concerned phone calls from parents [at my kids’ school] who decided something awful was about to happen and one of us was going to have a breakdown in the middle of the school auction,” she says.
Fox has felt the scrutiny too. “People who essentially watched us grow up can, in one breath, testify to our ability to communicate and love each other despite distance,” she says. “And then, in the next breath, say this makes absolutely no sense and how can you take care of each other if you live five blocks away.”
But for the people I spoke to, living apart is more than just one giant compromise. It’s also a way to be more mindful about all the little decisions they make in their partnerships. “We’ve already kind of abandoned status quo,” says Fox. “With other relationships, we felt like we were on a fixed track.” And getting off that track in favor of choosing what really, truly works for you and your partner? That sounds downright freeing. And if it works, hell, I may never have to share a bathroom again.