Aaron and I met in 1998. He was the man of my dreams, but dreams are odd. Sometimes they start out joyfully and then turn into nightmares. Ours didn’t, but it could have. “Living apart together” is the way we made things come out right for us.
We were both middle‑aged when we found each other. We had a long-distance relationship for several months, and then decided to live together. Since he was moving to my town, I agreed to find us a place to live, and asked what kind of place he’d like.
He emailed me a staggeringly long list of requirements, right down to the carpet color. Trying to feel optimistic, I set out apartment hunting.
The only place I found that met our needs for space (let alone carpet color) was the whole top floor of an old fourplex apartment building. Both upper apartments were vacant, and they shared a utility room at the rear, so there were interior connecting doors. We decided to combine them into one unit.
I credit renting that place with saving our relationship. Because at the end of six months, we gave up. We could not live together. So we each took a unit, and barely spoke for the next month. Feelings were raw. It was obvious that one of us would move away before long, with an awkward goodbye, or none at all.
Neither of us wanted that. So we got together again, but this time, we didn’t merge our apartments. At first, I felt disappointed. This was not what I had always imagined. I saw it as something he wanted, something I had to take or leave—“my way or the highway.”
Then I realized that, for most of my life, I’d made major sacrifices to keep from having to live with a roommate. I’d often paid half my salary in rent. I’d abandoned the idea of saving for a down payment on a house. I’d lived in less-desirable houses and neighborhoods. I’d done whatever I had to do to be able to live alone.
So Aaron wasn’t the only one who needed his own place. I still had misgivings, but I decided to give living apart together a fair try.
It worked so well that we went on that way for another several years. In the summer of 2004, we married. And we’ve lived happily apart together ever since.
Why was living apart together such a success for us? How can two people keep an intimate relationship going without cohabiting? Why would anyone even want to? Is this some modern breakdown of traditional marriage?
Surprisingly, there’s nothing new about it. During the decades when I designed restorations for historic buildings, I was surprised to learn that a typical mansion is a large outer shell covering a collection of private apartments. Most have one suite for the husband and another for the wife, as well as a children’s wing and one for servants. This is the way many couples live when they have all the choices in the world.
Some well-known people have chosen this arrangement—Fannie Hurst and her husband, Jacques S. Danielson; Arundhati Roy and husband Pradip Krishen; Jaimy Gordon and Peter Blickle; Deborah Moggach and Mel Calman; Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written about his own separate but committed life with his partner
So is living apart together a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” kind of choice?
Not really. It’s more talked about in the case of famous people because they’re more talked about. But it’s not uncommon for couples to live apart—from necessity or choice, temporarily or permanently. It isn’t even an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s something any couple might consider trying, in whole or in part.
Living apart together has even been discovered by social researchers—a 2013 article in the scholarly Journal of Communication featured a comparison of cohabiting and noncohabiting couples. The next knock at our door may not be a kid selling chocolate bars for the local school—it may be a sociologist with a clipboard.
This book will talk about the reasons and benefits—as well as a few disadvantages—that come with making conscious decisions about what to share and what to keep separate, both from our experience and from that of other couples we’ve met along the way.
It starts with a house tour—a look at each room, or type of room, in a typical house or apartment—and goes on to examine common drawbacks of combining two people’s needs in such spaces and how an apart-together living arrangement might work better. After the tour, we discuss a few intangibles like housework, expectations, and compromise as well as hot topics for many marriages, such as children, pets, and money.
And finally, the reason for it all: our precious time together.