Separation Agreement: What It Means to Be Living Apart Together

The latest trend in co-habitating is not co-habitating.

Illustration by Jesse Lenz

Here’s how it usually goes: We’re sitting on the sofa, Brad and I, the dog somewhere between us, and I’m telling a story about something at work — an insulting BCC, perhaps, that was uncovered by a colleague’s fateful Reply All. I’m going into detail, maybe even reading emails aloud from my phone, when I see, from the corner of my eye, that Brad is jiggling his beer can to see how much liquid remains. Even if, when we both look up, his facial expression isn’t one of dullness and despair, as mine is when he’s narrating a Phish concert he attended in 1998, I know from the beer-can jiggle that I’m boring him to death. I also know he’ll be leaving soon “to get another beer,” and it might be several hours before I see him again. That’s because when Brad goes to the fridge for his replacement IPA, he’s got to leave my apartment and go across the hall to his apartment, where the beer is kept — behind another door with a different set of keys. Once there, he’s liable to get distracted by playing with his cat, checking his email, sorting his laundry, or listening to a Phish concert he attended in 1998. Or he might do none of those things and just grab a beer and come back.

You might think I’d be offended when he beats a hasty beer-induced retreat in the middle of a work story. But actually, I’m thrilled. While I know it’s my right as a member of a couple to bore my partner, I don’t think it’s great for the relationship. I mean, if you want to keep the magic alive after four years, talking about blind carbon copies isn’t generally the way to do it.

Having an excuse to flee the scene is a terrific relationship-maintenance fail-safe, and it’s especially nice if said fleeing doesn’t involve putting on shoes.

Brad and I have been living happily like this for three years, in a state that sociologists call Living Apart Together. In many ways, it’s a very conventional domestic arrangement. We’re in constant touch throughout the day and let each other know when we’re coming “home.” We eat dinner together most nights and spend many of our evenings and weekends together. He comes to family dinners with my parents; I go to Central Pennsylvania to visit his. We even vacation together.

But because we don’t share the same apartment, our time together feels like choice rather than obligation. And we hardly ever argue, because, as it turns out, there’s not much to argue about when you’re not sharing the same physical space.

If Brad is bothered by my tendency to leave socks in the living room, he can get up and go to a living room without socks on the floor. If I’m bothered by his refusal to use air conditioning in the summer, I can go sit in front of my window unit and turn myself into an icicle.

Is it really necessary to have NPR blaring from multiple radios in a small two-bedroom apartment? Brad would say no, but then, I don’t think it’s necessary to constantly listen and re-listen to live recordings of concerts you’ve already been to.

Fortunately, neither of us has to compromise.

The term “Living Apart Together,” or LAT, was coined in 1978 by Dutch journalist Michel Berkiel. (“Lat” sounds much more felicitous in Dutch than in English, as it’s actually a Dutch word meaning “stick.”) The term was introduced stateside by Irene Levin in 2004 in the academic journal Current Sociology. In her piece, Levin described LAT as “a historically new family form.”

“Previously, it was expected that one would be married in order to live together,” she wrote. “Only in marriage was a couple considered to be a ‘real’ couple. … [But] to be a couple is no longer dependent upon sharing a common household.”

A LAT relationship, according to Levin, relies on three conditions: The couple lives in separate homes; they define themselves as a couple; and they are perceived by others as a couple as well. Since Levin’s research came out, there has been a never-ending stream of articles, blog posts, talk-show segments and essays about LAT, as well as a documentary film, directed by Sharon Hyman, called Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart. (I appreciate Hyman reaching for a new term, but something tells me “apartners” isn’t going to catch on.)

LAT relationships have become the subject of ongoing academic research as well as of a book (inventively titled Living Apart Together), and TED talker/well-known social scientist Bella DePaulo devoted a chapter of her most recent work, How We Live Now, to LAT. In fact, pretty much any day of the week you can Google “Living Apart Together” and find new first-person essays and trend pieces on it.

Numbers aren’t easy to come by because unlike married folks, people living apart together don’t need to register anywhere. But Sharon Hyman puts the number of “apartnerships” at one in 10 North American couples. Meanwhile, new research from the University of Missouri suggests that LAT relationships are especially on the rise among American couples ages 60 and up — though the researcher notes that LAT is more understood in Europe: “U.S. society has yet to recognize LAT as a legitimate choice.”

Personally, I attribute this lack of legitimacy to the American obsession with weddings and the fulfillment of the Reese Witherspoon rom-com American dream. Everything in life, we are told, leads to finding The One, to creating a family with that person, to living happily ever after in a ridiculous fairy tale that at least half the time ends in divorce. Legalizing gay marriage (which needed to happen, of course) ironically only reinforced this dominant hetero-normative narrative.

Co-habitation, too, has acquired an almost marriage-like credibility, having lost the sheen of sin that came of its association with premarital sex. In my last relationship, when people asked if we were married, I’d say, “No, but we live together,” and I was always greeted with a wave of the hand: “Same difference.” If you’re buying a grill together or arguing about how to situate the dishes in the dishwasher, you’re in a real relationship.

Living Apart Together? It doesn’t have the same cultural authority.

When I heard, two years ago, that there was a vacancy in Brad’s apartment building, I got very excited. A mutual friend of ours — a union lawyer familiar with conflict — practically staged an intervention to keep me from taking the place, thinking of all the things that could go wrong. I appreciated his concern, but the truth was this: I’d been searching for a LAT framework for years.

I got interested in the idea back in high school, when I read about the most famous American LAT relationship: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. Though they lived across Central Park from one another, in separate domiciles, they raised a family and made movies together. They seemed to be the perfect LAT ambassadors — until Allen went from LAT with Farrow to traditional marriage with one of Farrow’s children. That was definitely unfortunate.

But up till then, I thought their arrangement made a lot of sense. I’d seen firsthand, after all, the way people who love each other can come to hate each other when forced to share physical space — not because I’d been in juvy or anything, but because I had a half sister.

Vicki was my father’s daughter from his first marriage. She was six years older than I and lived with her mother in Arizona. Each summer, she’d come to live with us for three months, and it was like Christmas in June every time. My memories of her getting off the plane are bathed in light because to my young and adoring eyes, she was a radiant, magical, sparkle-suffused fairy, like Glinda the Good Witch but just for me.

In the first couple weeks after her arrival, I could never get enough of her. I’d beg to brush her long blond hair; I’d trail after her from room to room like a puppy. But as the summer crept on and the novelty of her existence wore off, she’d transform from fairy into human girl — one who liked to play pranks on her gullible little sister. Our dynamic would normalize to the point where I’d wonder how long it was in adult time till August came. Still, I dreamed of her coming to live with us for good.

Then, when I was nine, she did just that: She came to Philly for high school. Once again, her arrival on our Eastern shores was shot through with light. But it didn’t take long for our relationship to sour. This wasn’t her fault. She was perfectly rational as an older sister: She teased me about my attachment to my pet tortoise; she shooed me out of the room when her friends came over to listen to records; she threw a pencil at me after I “accidentally” broke the much-praised clay elephant she’d made at camp. She was doing what she was supposed to do. Had it been a regular summer, I would have gotten over it.

But now that she was living with us, I realized that Vicki and I would be together forever, or at least what I understood as forever at nine. The immutability of that arrangement — which I’d never questioned with my parents — became increasingly oppressive, until she had no fairy dust around her at all. So I told my parents that she lit sparklers on the stoop with her friends in the absence of adults. She, in turn, called me a tattletale crybaby. When she moved back to Arizona to live with her mother, I was relieved, though she was the person I loved most in the world.

This pattern would repeat itself through-out my adult life.

I didn’t know it when I was nine, but I’m not cut out for co-habitation — whether with a half sister or a romantic partner. I have a problem separating myself from the moods of other people, and I always feel I’m being judged and observed, even when I’m not. I can’t truly relax unless I’m by myself, which means that on an introversion spectrum from Sartre’s “Hell is other people” to the dude who’s just thinking about building a man cave, I’m basically Howard Hughes.

Nonetheless, I’ve spent most of my adult life co-habiting, in marriage and outside of it, as it always seemed the thing to do. When I was struggling with mental illness, being married or partnered made me more coherent, externally. I could point to the architecture of my life as proof that I wasn’t totally lost. It didn’t occur to me that I should enjoy it, or that it should be right for me.

Now, even as I’m in a situation that feels more true to who I am, I still find myself thinking every now and then about moving in with Brad. Some part of me still craves the legitimacy that would bring, but, more important, if we made the switch, we’d be able to have a house with a yard, something both of us dearly want. I’ve even gone so far as to send him real estate listings — always of large houses with many rooms. Truth is, it probably wouldn’t work out unless we had separate wings to live in. (If anyone knows of a decaying Mount Airy mansion in need of caretakers, please do email.)

Even if we found the perfect place, there are three big obstacles.

First of all, we both love our goofy keepsakes and collections — all the stuff, from matchbooks to seashells, that makes our individual spaces our own. How would all this peculiar and personal clutter be integrated into a larger whole? It seems impossible and undesirable. I don’t want my pottery shards sullied by his baseball cards.

There are also the pets. Brad’s black three-legged cat, Tripod, doesn’t like anyone other than Brad. My black three-legged dog, Birdie, doesn’t enjoy the company of cats. Brad sleeps with Tripod and I sleep with Birdie, and when push comes to shove, most nights we’d both rather be with our animals than each other.

That brings us to the sleep issue. Truth is, I hate sleeping with another human. I find it distracting, especially when said human is a snorer. Brad likes to sleep under a light sheet in his A/C-free bedroom; I have a 13-pound weighted blanket made for autistic children in my own. We’re not a good nighttime match.

All of this could be overcome, I know, with sacrifice and compromise. But to what end? To fulfill expectations? To broadcast our commitment? To grow our own vegetables? Every time I think I might be on the verge of seriously considering a change, I go to a party or bar and find myself surrounded by people who, when they learn of my arrangement with Brad, are consumed by envy. I’ve even had women pull me aside and ask how I managed to pull this off, desperate for pointers.

These aren’t people in bad relationships, mind you. They’re simply human beings who recognize that sharing your deepest daily self with another human being is really, really hard. There’s a reason the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” is so, well, familiar.

Considering the consistent media coverage and the wistful looks on so many faces, I know LAT relationships and marriages have real, solid appeal to many people. For those who wonder if the sex is as good as it is in traditional co-habiting partnerships, I’d answer by asking couples one simple question: Was the sex better in the early days of your relationship, or is it better now that you’ve shared a bathroom for a few years? There is something to be said, erotically, for maintaining a little mystery. With the boomers dealing with widowhood and Gen Xers moving into their post-divorce years, I’m guessing we’ll continue to see an increase in LAT for those who can afford it. (It is, after all, a luxury to be able to maintain two domiciles.)

As for me, I’m going to try and resist the lure of conventionality for at least another year. I think Brad is glad to keep things the way they are now, too — though he would, if we lived together, have a shorter distance to walk to get that other beer. He’d probably need all the beer he could get.

Published as “Separation Agreement” in the November 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.