Until recently, moving in together was a decisive step in a couple’s relationship. For many, romance included a series of milestones, such as leaving their toothbrush next to their loved one’s, exchanging keys, and finally moving in together. The decision to share the same roof marked a turning point indicating a higher level of commitment. Sharing everyday life, with its wonders and its frustrations, was an unequivocal sign that the relationship was consolidating.
However, nowadays more and more people decide to live as a couple, but in separate houses. Despite being in a stable romantic relationship, neither of them wants to give up their independence because they are comfortable living alone.
In fact, this phenomenon is increasingly widespread. In the United States, for example, 35% of people who live alone maintain a stable relationship. In Spain, it is estimated that 15.9% of women have stable romantic relationships, but live apart together. In the UK, 9% of adults who live alone are also in a stable relationship.
Together, but not too close: why do couples decide to live in separate houses?
The reasons for maintaining that physical distance are many. In fact, we can find three large types of couples. First, we find those who feel it’s too early or just aren’t ready to live together yet.
Then we find the couples who really want to live together, but something prevents them from doing so, usually for economic reasons, family problems or work reasons. It is no coincidence that this phenomenon is more common in young people under 29 years of age, although it is becoming increasingly apparent in older people. In Spain, for example, 4.6% of women between the ages of 30 and 34 have stable romantic relationships, but prefer not to live under the same roof with their partner.
As we progress through the calendar, the reasons for having a partner and living alone vary. Many do it to preserve their independence and privacy. In some cases, these are people who are not willing to give up their freedom since they have never lived as a couple and in others, they are people who have been married or cohabited before, but now prefer to live separately to lead a different lifestyle and, as far as possible, avoid the mistakes of the past and the habits of coexistence that put an end to the relationship.
In fact, more and more people see living apart as a way to balance aspects of a shared intimate life with autonomy and independence. These people conceive the relationship as a couple in a different way. They love each other, but they don’t feel the need to live in the same house to express that union.
They believe that not being together constantly strengthens their bond. They find that living apart helps them keep the magic alive, extend the honeymoon period indefinitely, and by protecting their space and rationing their time together, creating situations where they are truly happy to see each other.
Having a partner but living apart together, does it work?
In the last decades the conception of the couple has varied a lot. Before, marriage was an important milestone, but for years it has ceased to be so, so that fewer couples feel the need to go down the aisle to say “I do.” The conception of living together as a “mandatory” step to consolidate the relationship is also changing.
In fact, this new way of understanding relationships does not necessarily imply a decrease in their quality or duration. A high percentage of these couples are still together after 12 years of relationship, despite the fact that are living in separate houses.
Living apart means decorating the house to our liking, planning our schedule more freely or seeing more of our friends and family. These couples say that they lead a richer intimate life because they focus on what is truly important in the relationship, instead of arguing over the details of living together, such as who should throw out the garbage or clean. When they are together, they spend quality time and dedicate themselves to enjoying each other without the disagreements of living together undermining the relationship.
However, it also means seeing your partner much less. In fact, the success of this new model of coexistence depends to a large extent on the fact that both members agree and feel satisfied with this lifestyle, because if it is “imposed” by one of the two, whoever does not share it will end up seeing it as a lack of commitment and it is likely that sooner rather than later he/she will put pressure on the other, putting him/her between the hammer and the alvin.
The success of this type of relationship also depends on the psychological reasons behind the decision to have a partner and live apart. A more in-depth study conducted at the University of Bradford revealed that some people have a “darker” motivation: they prefer to live alone because the prospect of living with a partner makes them anxious, frightened or even makes them feel vulnerable.
Sometimes living as a couple, but each one at his home is due to insecurity, people are not sure of the seriousness of the relationship and prefer not to get too involved. Other times it is because they want to protect themselves emotionally by maintaining a certain psychological distance represented by that physical distance, perhaps because they have been hurt in the past.
When this model of coexistence is not a free choice or is born of fear and reservations, it is likely that the relationship will not last long. Although in the end, it all depends on the level of satisfaction that this distance brings to each member of the couple.
Duncan, S. et. Al. (2015) Women’s Agency in Living Apart Together: Constraint, Strategy and Vulnerability. The Sociological Review; 63(3): 10.1111.
Castro-Martín, T. et. Al. (2008) Not truly partnerless: Non-residential partnerships and retreat from marriage in Spain. Demographic Research; 18: 443-468.
Strohm, C. Q. et. Al. (2009) “Living Apart Together” relationships in the United States. Demogr Res; 21: 177–214.