Committed couples who live apart: why they want that, and how women’s wishes matter more

Bella DePaulo

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Photo by Sabrina Mazzeo on Unsplash

“I need my space” is not just a bad excuse.

One of the most important characteristics of people who embrace their single lives is a love of solitude. The “single at heart” – my name for people for whom single life is their best life, not some sorry second best – savor the time they have to themselves. Many also love living alone. That doesn’t mean they don’t also enjoy spending time with other people. Most of them enjoy that, too. There’s nothing special about wanting opportunities to socialize. Thinking about spending time alone and not worrying about being lonely – that is special.

When I researched my book How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I visited people in all sorts of living arrangements, and not just single people. I wanted to know about all the innovative and fulfilling ways people found to live, other than in nuclear family households. I found that people varied wildly in the proportion of time they wanted to themselves, compared to the time they wanted to be with others. But I never found anyone who did not enjoy at least some time on their own. Even the people who, by choice, lived in big, bustling households of family or friends, would do things like get up before everyone else, to have that quiet alone time.

For some, just having a dollop of solitude each day wasn’t enough. What they really wanted was a place of their own. That’s no problem if you are single, love being single, and can afford your own place. But what if you are in a committed romantic relationship and still want to live in a home of your own?

Some couples do live separately. I’m talking about committed couples, sometimes even married couples, and sometimes even couples with children. They are not living apart because some far-flung job, or pursuit of an education, or any other practical or logistical reason keeps them from living together. They are not living apart because they are just not ready to move in together. They are ready and able to cohabit. They just don’t want to. They want places of their own.

Committed romantic partners living in places of their own have become a bit of a modern-day phenomenon (though they are not entirely new). They are often called LAT, Living Apart Together. Sharon Hyman, a documentary film maker who wrote a beautiful essay about the phenomenon, calls them Apartners.

My own study, for How We Live Now, was an intensive exploration of the living arrangements of a fairly small number of people. I could not answer, in any compelling way, just what separates the couples who do live together from those who live apart. But soon after my book was published, a more extensive pair of studies was published that answered that question, and addressed an intriguing dilemma: what if one person in the couple wants to live apart more than the other person does?

Living apart together: How women’s and men’s wishes matter

In the first study, Birk Hagemeyer and his colleagues surveyed 548 German heterosexual couples, 332 who were living together and 216 living apart. They ranged from 18 to 73 years old (average was 40), and they were together anywhere from one month to 53 years (average was 11 years). Fewer than half (42%) were married, and 62% had at least one child. The couples answered questions about the quality of their relationships when they were first recruited, and a subset did so again a year later.

The authors believe that one of the most important characteristics of people who like living apart is their preference for independence and privacy. The authors called this an “agency motive.” I’d call it a love of solitude. The most straightforward way they measured this was by asking direct questions. People who have a strong agency motive agree with statements such as:

  • “I like to be completely alone.”
  • “When I am alone, I feel relaxed.”

They disagree with statements such as:

  • “Being alone quickly gets to be too much for me.”

The same motive was assessed more indirectly by showing participants pictures of other people and asking them to invent fantasy stories about their romantic relationships. Participants were assigned higher scores on agency if they made up stories in which, for example, the partners pursued their own interests and opportunities for growth.

However it was measured, that love of solitude mattered. Women who wanted to be alone were especially likely to get their way. Men’s preferences were not irrelevant, but what distinguished the couples who lived apart from those who lived together was more often the woman’s wish.

Age was also important. Couples who lived apart were much more likely to be in their 40s or older – perhaps because any children they may have had were already grown.

Where men’s preferences mattered more was in the quality of the couples’ relationships. When men said explicitly that they liked their time alone, but lived with their partners, both they and their partners reported more conflicts in their relationship and less satisfaction. On the average, the couples living apart said they had more conflicts than the couples living together, but when men scored as intensely interested in their independence, both on the direct and the indirect measures, then the couples living together tended to experience more conflict than in those living apart.

To find out how the wish for time alone mattered in their day-to-day lives, the authors invited couples who were still in the same living arrangement a year later to participate in a second study. For each of 12 days, 106 couples (48 who lived together and 58 who lived apart) reported how much time they spent together, how much time they had to themselves (on a scale ranging from not enough to too much), and how satisfied they were with their relationship that day.

On the average, the couples who spent more time together on a given day also said they felt more satisfied with their relationship that day. That was not so, though, for the men or the women who lived with their partner and felt that they did not get enough time to themselves that day. They were not so satisfied with their relationships.

Just because you are expected to live together doesn’t mean you have to

One of the women I interviewed for How We Live Now tried living with her partner, broke up, then got back together and lived apart from him. She explained it this way:

“Some people ask me, what’s the point of being with someone if you don’t want to live with him? For me, it’s not that I don’t want to be with him – I do (if I didn’t I’d have stayed gone!); I just like my space…If we lived together in a traditional way, we’d kill each other.”

One of the hallmarks of 21st century living is choice. More than ever before, if we have the resources to do so, we can choose to live in ways that best suit us as individuals. For some, the traditional ways of doing things, such as living together when you are married, still work best. Others, though, take the road less traveled, and that makes all the difference.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA
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