Couples who live apart from each other are becoming increasingly common. Relationship counsellor Suzette Reed takes a look at the growing trend of Living Apart Together.
Well, yes and no – more and more couples are in committed relationships but choose to live apart, which is especially common for expat relationships. Living Apart Together (LAT) is a growing lifestyle pattern, and often a lifestyle choice. Estimates by the now defunct Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships put around 18% of couples in northern Europe into this category.
Research by demographer John Haskey of Oxford University suggests three main reasons for people in relationships to live apart and that this is a rapidly growing phenomenon. LAT couples generally fall into three categories: apart, but sadly; apart, yet gladly, and apart, but working on it.
LAT couples who are apart, but sadly so, may be those whose work takes them away from home; or there may be other family commitments keeping them apart – such as former relationships or caring for other family members; or they may be subject to legal or residency requirements.
Some couples choose to have separate homes and come together when they want to, falling into the gladly apart category. They often live close together but have a separate space in the same house or in the same area, sharing responsibilities for family needs but acknowledging they need to have room – think English actress Helena Bonham Carter and her partner, director Tim Burton, who live in adjoining houses with a communicating door.
The third category of couples – apart, but working on it – are trying to find a way forward with the commitment they have for each other, alongside a need to make sense of the differing pressures they’re under and decisions each one has to make.
Younger couples are more likely to be familiar with managing long distance relationships, even as first-time expats. Their first experience of intimate relationships, either at university or in their early careers, is often a choice between trying to keep together with geographical distance between them, and letting go of the relationship.
Difficult choices – but how much more tricky when the commitment has been made and others may be involved. Career paths that separate families, albeit temporarily, can be complicated. Negotiating the ground rules for families that are not in the same home and may not be in the same country can be fraught. In an age of fantastic networking opportunities, we can text, email, Facebook, tweet and Skype – all means of bringing us closer together. But time zones and work pressures can impinge on family life and finding time to spend together is really vital – and, after all, a cuddle is always a lot better than a Facebook post. Couples and families that are in for the long haul need to make plans together and be realistic and optimistic about how and what is possible.
Some relationships thrive when there is a bit of distance between the couple, but this can only happen if mutually agreed; if one partner feels ambivalent or put upon by the decision, then things can quickly turn sour. The quality of time spent together needs to be the focus, rather than the quantity. Communication is the key to managing a way through the challenges, and communication is as much about listening as it is about speaking if absence is to make the heart grow fonder, rather than leading to a case of out of sight, out of mind.