Absence may make the heart grow fonder for couples who choose to live apart, study finds

Charles Hymas
Living separately may sustain relationships that might otherwise disintegrate - Julian Andrews

Absence may actually make the heart grow fonder, according to research, which shows a quarter of couples now live apart but abide by the same rules as married or cohabiting partners.

While some have long-distance relationships, most live near one another even in the same street and spend much of their time together.

Nearly all are in constant contact through text, Facebook, Facetime and other messaging platforms and virtually all expect monogamous fidelity, according to Simon Duncan, emeritus professor in social policy at the University of Bradford.

Dubbed “living apart together” (LAT) couples, some are young and forced into such relationships by the cost of buying a house together or believe it is too early and are “not ready” to live together.

But an increasing number are older couples are actively choosing it as a way of sustaining love with a difficult partner or retaining their independence after the breakdown of a previous relationship.

Professor Duncan said the phenomenon among the middle aged had grown since the 1950s when such a relationship would not have been accepted by society and couples tended to feel they had to stay under one roof.

“Living apart together supposedly gives people all the advantages of autonomy – doing what you want in your own space, maintaining pre-existing local arrangements and friendships – as well as the pleasures of intimacy with a partner,” he said.

“Some even see it as ‘subverting gendered norms’ – or at least that women can escape traditional divisions of labour.”

His research, based on a nationwide survey supplemented by 50 in-depth interviews, cited as an example ‘Helen’ who could only stand short doses of her long-term partner coming to visit and having to “clear up his newspapers, clean his clothes and watch constant football on television.”

Another, Maggie, struggled with her partner’s “hardcore” green lifestyle including a lack of washing, failing to flush the lavatory and no central heating. Living apart together was “the next best thing” to her ideal of conjugal marriage, said professor Duncan.

Wendy told the researchers that she had lived with her “LAT” partner for a year but said he became abusive when he had been drinking. “I mean I do love him, but he is awkward to live with but I don't know what I'd do without him,” she said.

“I would love to be with him, if he was the person that he is when he's not drinking because he is the most kindest, he treats me brilliant in every way.”

Some men found the very idea of living with women threatening. For Ben, “not a big commitment merchant”, living apart together was at least “safe.”

The 25 per cent of couples who are LATs account for nine per cent of all adults in the UK., Although 43 per cent of LATs were aged 16 to 24, some 45 per cent were aged 25 to 54 and 11 per cent were aged 55 or over. 

Just under a third (31 per cent) said that it was too early, that they were not ready to cohabit, or they hadn’t thought about living together.

But a similar proportion (30 per cent) said it was choice because they wanted to keep their own homes, prioritise other responsibilities or children and “just did not want to live together.”

Whilst 19 per cent had been in their relationship for less than six months, and a further 24 per cent for up to 17 months, 22 per cent had been with their LAT partner for three to five years, and 19 per cent for six or more years.

Eight in ten (82 per cent) had not ever lived with their LAT partner but nearly a fifth had done so. Married and separated LATs were disproportionately more likely to have lived with their partner in the past.