“I need my space” is not just a lame excuse.
After years of traveling the country to explore the innovative ways people are living for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, two things became very clear. First, there is no one best way to live – different lifespaces work better for different people. Second, in choosing their living arrangements, people aren’t just looking to share their lives with others – they also want time and space to themselves.
In what is perhaps the quintessential expression of the contemporary quest for both independence and interdependence, some committed couples are choosing to live apart, in places of their own. There is even an acronym for them – they are LAT, Living Apart Together.
These are not just the couples who live apart because far-flung jobs or educational opportunities demand it. They are also couples who could easily live together, but choose not to. They include married couples, even some with children.
Some of the LAT people I interviewed told me that their decision to live separately troubled their friends and family, who feared that their separate spaces were a first step toward separate lives. No, they insisted – living apart was actually good for their relationship. Maybe it even saved it.
Now, thanks to a just-published set of studies, we now know more about the kinds of people who choose to live apart from their partners, and what that means for the quality of their relationship.
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.”) The most straightforward way they measured this was by asking direct questions. People who value independence agree with statements such as “I like to be completely alone” and “When I am alone, I feel relaxed,” and 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 desire for independence mattered. Women who, like Greta Garbo, said “I want 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.
In Part II, to be published here soon (here it is), I will share what the research showed about the importance of men’s desires.
Woman waving photo available from Shutterstock