Thirty years ago, a teacher in a small town near us was scrutinized and nearly fired when it was discovered that he was living with a partner to whom he was not married. The school board considered their living arrangement to be sufficient cause to question the teacher’s character.
Cohabitation without marriage, which was a mark against someone’s character in 1990, is now broadly accepted. An unwillingness to commit to marriage no longer raises eyebrows. Commitment resistance has gone even further today: many people in long-term intimate relationships now see moving in together as too great a sacrifice to make.
This lifestyle choice is popular enough that it has earned a label, “Living Apart Together,” and an acronym, LAT. Recent surveys show that couples are increasingly drawn to LAT. Nearly 10 percent of adults in Western Europe, Canada, and the U.S. say they have intimate partners but live apart. In Britain, the number is closer to 25 percent.
Paula Cocozza, writing in The Guardian, cites the psychotherapist and broadcaster Lucy Beresford’s opinion that “successful LAT relationships achieve a balance between independence and emotional commitment.”
I am struck by the use of the adjective “successful” in that sentence. What, I wonder, constitutes a successful LAT relationship? Should it be gauged by independence or sexual satisfaction or financial health? How long might a “successful” LAT relationship last? Is it expected to last? If not, is it a source of emotional strength or emotional stress?
Beresford, who is an advocate of LAT, believes that longer lifespans virtually necessitate some such relationship scenario. “If we are going to live to 110,” she writes, “some of our relationships might have a life expectancy of more than 80 years.” The thought of spending 80 years in a committed married relationship appears to her to be unrealistic. Relationships that require less commitment seem to offer greater sustainability.
But is this true? Does less commitment equal longer relationships? The LAT movement has not been around long enough to test that thesis, but I find it highly suspect. Less commitment is usually a predictor of a short life for relationships of all kinds: in romance, friendship, and business.
Leah Rockwell, who is a professional counselor, has written about her own LAT relationship in Good Housekeeping. She explains that she chose to live apart from her romantic partner because: “I’ve come to prefer joy with only a small side dish of turmoil.” I wonder why Rockwell equates living together with turmoil and living alone with joy.
An interviewee in a study published by The Sociological Review agrees with Rockwell. She said, “I have the best of both worlds, I do have a relationship but … I can do my own thing.” Indeed, one of the reasons women frequently give for preferring LAT relationships is that the separation frees them from the traditional feminine roles of homemaker, cook, and cleaning person.
This is, however, not how LAT tends to function in real life. The woman still has her own house to clean and according to research by Simon Duncan, Emeritus Professor in Social Policy at Bradford University, often continues to perform traditional roles within LAT relationships.
Duncan’s research also suggests that many couples consider their LAT relationship to be “a less than optimal choice.” He writes that “research shows a darker motivation – people can end up living apart because they feel anxious, vulnerable, even fearful about living with a partner.
In Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits an academy of higher learning on the flying island of Laputa, where research professors explore novel ways to better the world. He meets an architectural professor who, after watching spiders and bees, has come up with a revolutionary approach to construction. His idea is to build houses from the roof down.
LAT, I suggest, takes a similar approach to building relationships. People try to build a relationship from its roof – companionship and sexual satisfaction – rather than from a foundation of wholehearted commitment. There is an order in which relationships, just like houses, must be built. Violate that order, and things go very wrong.