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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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Imagine it: you don’t see his socks strewn across the floor. Her elephantine snoring no longer wakes you. You can actually hear yourself think. When you meet up with your partner, the spark of romance crackles in the air once again.

Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

The ancient Romans thought that sleeping in the same bed ruined a marriage. What about sleeping under the same roof?

If you’re a trend-watcher like me, you may have noticed an increasing number of stories in the media about married couples living apart. That’s because the number of people going this route is skyrocketing. According the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 3.5 million married couples in the U.S. are living apart. The number of married couples who live separately for reasons other than legal separation has nearly doubled since 1990.  

What’s driving the trend?

Traditionally, we may have thought of living separately as a privilege of the wealthy, a choice made by those who could afford to run well-staffed, multiple households. Royal family-type stuff. On the other hand, couples living apart in the past were often the result of one partner, usually the husband, being employed in work that involved long sojourns away from home, like seamen or military personnel. But it was definitely outside the norm.

Several factors seem to be at play in the trend of today's marrieds increasingly living apart. Technology is part of the story. Sociologists point to connections happening between people over the Internet, where relationships spring up over long distances. Couples may decide to wed but keep their individual residences, meeting face-to-face on weekends and holidays. The availability of unlimited cell phone connection, Skype and photo sharing means couples can stay in close touch when they don’t live together.

The Great Recession appears to have caused an uptick in commuter marriages done for financial reasons. Jobs are scarce, and when one partner finds good work in another location, the financial gain may outweigh the cost of keeping a separate household. In some cases, one parent will take on the role of primary breadwinner and work remotely while the other parent acts as primary caregiver for the children. At a time of tremendous job insecurity, when one person finds a well-paying job in another city or state, the idea of moving the entire family for something that might not last may not seem worthwhile. So the partner with the remote job establishes a temporary household, perhaps a small apartment, for a trial period before committing to a family move.

Other reasons have as much to do with fulfillment as finance. Some couples considering divorce have found that living separately has actually saved their marriage.

Lise and Emil Stoessel have kept their 29-year marriage together by living five miles apart for the last several years. Plagued with a variety of incompatibilities, the couple was at the end of their rope when they decided to try living under separate roofs. Lise wrote a book about their experience called Living Happily Ever After—Separately. She reveals the positive side of the couples’ arrangement, explaining that their solution has been far less traumatic and less expensive than divorce. The couple has rekindled their romance and enjoys an enhanced relationship with the children.

Ideas about marriage are changing and expanding . Gay marriage has become more acceptable, and people are marrying later, and for reasons that are distinct from those common even a generation ago. Adults become accustomed to independence prior to marraige, and many are reluctant to give that up just because they decide to commit. Living apart while in a committed relationship is becoming more socially acceptable, and may even take on an air of chic, like the coupledom of Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, who keep side-by-side town­houses in London. He snores, she's bossy. Separate residences with a communal space on one floor was the answer.