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Is Living Apart Good for Marriage? For More Americans, Two Roofs May Be Better Than One

Sharing a marriage no longer means sharing an address.

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Is living apart good for marriage?

If you think about it, the idea of a married couple living together under the same roof for as much as half a century is a fairly new thing for human beings. As late as the 19th century, people would often get married more than once in their lifetimes because one spouse would die. Households were also larger and more variable.

My mother remembers growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, where conditions reflected a very different lifestyle for married couples. Her mother was the second wife of my grandfather, whose first wife died in childbirth. The farmhouse was filled with children from both marriages, as well as various extended family members who came and went, along with a variety of workers whose labor helped run the farm. Life revolved not only around the farm, but the circles of church and community. With the development of nuclear households, it became more common for small units to live under one roof, first a couple with a smaller numbers of children, later just the parents by themselves when the kids moved out. This kind of arrangement produced very different strains and dynamics for a couple—a kind of intensity of focus that was less familiar to previous generations. Enough to drive some people bonkers.

Some argue that what couples living apart lack in daily intimacy is more than made up for in sanity and romance. Experts report that many married couples are happier together when they’re living apart.

In a article called “ Dual Dwelling Duos: An Alternative for Long-Term Relationships,” researchers Judye Hess and Padma Catell found that high divorce rates may be linked to narrow frameworks which cause people to accept the idea that married partners must live together and that not wanting to indicates some sort of problem or pathlogogy. Hess and Catell argue that this is a myth. Leave It to Beaver-style togetherness, they suggest, is not necessarily a recipe for satisfaction, and is often quite the reverse. Differences in neatness or tastes in decorating that seem like minor issues become amplified when sharing a home and can wear down nerves over time. Feelings of engulfment and loss of self are common among couples sharing a roof, and can lead to bitterness and resentment, even depression.

The counter-argument from some psychologists is that the choice to live apart reflects more selfishness and an over-emphasis on individualism. Learning to live with another person, they argue, is necessary for growth. But for some, the grin-and-bear-it approach does not make for a satisfying life.

Of course, there are plenty of ambiguous situations playing out in which married couples living apart have a sort of indeterminate status that may not be healthy. Jealousy, lack of commitment and lack of disclosure of new relationships that may develop may threaten these marriages. Sometimes living apart serves as a means of avoiding deep-seated problems, a game of marital make-believe. This can cause problems not only for the couple, but for others who may be drawn into their hazy orbit.

Even for couples who are more secure and straightforward about their arrangement, there are particular strains associated with living apart, such as having to attend events with friends and family alone. Sex may be less readily available, and lusty phone calls may not make up the difference. Making arrangements for children can become complicated, which is why many couples don't think of living separatly until the 50-plus stage. Expense can be an issue, although as we've seen, sometimes financial indicators point toward separate residences.