First comes love, then comes… a U-Haul truck?
For many couples, moving in together is the key step that transitions them from a dating relationship to a long-term committed partnership. However, a small but growing minority of long-term couples in countries like the U.S., Britain,1 Sweden,2 and Canada are forgoing cohabitation entirely, preferring to keep their separate homes. This phenomenon is referred to as "living apart together," or LAT.
Why would any long-term, committed couple choose to live apart rather than together? Despite the fact that living with a romantic partner can be an amazing experience (I have a live-in boyfriend and can confirm that it is awesome), research suggests that there may be some meaningful benefits to living separately.
First, living apart may be one way to enhance the novelty or excitement in a relationship. In the beginning, couples tend to engage in lots of novel and exciting activities together – what researchers call self-expanding activities.3 They dress up for dates, they explore new parts of the city, they try each other’s hobbies, and they have engaging discussions with each other. As time goes on, though, it can be easy for long-term couples to fall into such a routine that they stop doing fun new things together, leading to boredom.
By choosing not to live together, LAT couples may have found a way to help prevent their relationships from becoming monotonous. These couples have less time to spend together, so they have to actually plan or schedule their time. It is easy to see how this “opt-in” versus “opt-out” arrangement may encourage these couples to put more effort into dates, leading to more exciting, self-expanding activities that reduce boredom and increase satisfaction.3
As of yet, there is no research on how LAT relationships specifically relate to relationship novelty or excitement. But we do have research on the more well-known phenomenon of long-distance relationships. Long-distance couples, who also have only limited time to spend with each other, tend to experience more passion in their relationships than couples in geographically close relationships.4 Long-distance couples idealize their partners more—they see their partners in unrealistically positive terms, which is, generally, a good thing. They also spend more time reminiscing or daydreaming about their relationships, and report feeling more romantic love for their partners. These effects are actually more pronounced the less face-to-face time the couple spends together. It seems that absence really can make the heart grow fonder. If so, living apart may be one way—a gentler way—to reap some of these same benefits.
LAT couples may further avoid one major drawback to cohabitation, which is artificially increased commitment to the relationship. Basically, living together puts up barriers to ending a relationship – it’s more difficult for couples to break up if they live together because they would have to split up their stuff, each partner would have to find a new place, and so forth. This is no problem for highly satisfied couples with no interest in breaking up. But for people who might be feeling unfulfilled in a relationship, living together can make them feel “stuck” because of the additional hassle of breaking up.5 LAT couples do not have to contend with this. Breaking up would be much less of a hassle for them, so they can be more confident that they (and their partners) are staying in the relationship for the right reasons.
It may seem counterintuitive that living apart from a romantic partner can have relationship benefits, which is why I’ve focused on those benefits here. But none of this is meant to negate the enormous potential benefits of cohabitation. We’re social beings, and having the consistent companionship of a romantic partner can be incredibly satisfying. Moving in together is also an expression of your own commitment to a relationship, which can be very meaningful to your partner, and vice versa. Indeed, my own research suggests that we deeply appreciate our partners’ willingness to invest in our relationships, in turn leading us to commit more ourselves.6 In other words, the decision to move in together may make both partners more appreciative of each other, and more committed to each other, which have a whole range of positive consequences.
In sum, when deciding whether or not to move in with a partner, there’s no research to suggest that either choice is the “right" decision. Instead, the research to date identifies a number of potential advantages and disadvantages to each, leaving it up to the individual couple to decide which lifestyle is most likely to work for them.
This article was originally written for Science of Relationships. CHCH, a local Canadian television news station, recently interviewed me about LAT couples on their debate show, “Square Off.” You can watch the interview here.
1. Duncan, S., & Phillips, M. (2010). People who live apart together (LATS) – how different are they? The Sociological Review, 58, 112 – 134.
2. Karlsson, S. G., & Borell, K. (2005). A home of their own. Women’s boundary work in LAT-relationships. Journal of Aging Studies, 19, 73-84.
3. Aron, A., Normon, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.
4. Stafford, L., & Merolla, A. J. (2007). Idealization, reunions, and stability in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 37-54.
5. Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
6. Joel, S., Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G, & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1333-1345.