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


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.

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 an 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.

But for many married people, a home of one's own is increasingly an option where the positives outweigh the negatives. When old models of living no longer fit, people will find new ways of making life work. Living solo together is most certainly one of them.

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