“I want to live a single life with you. For our couple life would be the equivalent of our single lives today, but together.”―Isabelle Tessier
Should lovers be fused to each other, or should they have personal space? Two popular relationship models—living apart together and being single with someone—offer different answers.
Love as a Perfect Union
“I've got you so deep in my heart, that you're really a part of me.”―Frank Sinatra
The desire to be with one's beloved, which is so typical of romantic love, is sometimes taken to the extreme and becomes a desire for a complete fusion. Such a union we often understand to involve a joint identity: Two lovers form a profound union (or fusion) as if they were two faces of the same coin.
One obvious problem of this model is that it does not make physical sense, as the two lovers remain two distinct individuals. Hence, we may say that the model merely refers to the psychological realm and expresses, metaphorically, a prevailing wish to be each other’s "soulmates." It is doubtful, however, whether even psychological fusion is plausible or recommended in love. Two lovers may resonate with each other, but they are not fused—autonomy is of great value in romantic relationships. Lovers may give up a lot for their beloved, but they cannot and should not lose their unique identity.
The Need for Romantic Cartilage
"It takes a loose rein to keep a marriage tight."―John Stevenson
The above notion of unity is dangerous to a loving relationship, as one lover’s every small movement can have an exaggerated impact upon the other, and hence upon the relationship itself. When some distance between two lovers exists, the relationship can absorb certain shocks. Cartilage, the connective tissue located in many areas of the body, is important because it provides support and protects bones from the friction that would otherwise result from bones rubbing against each other at the joints.
We may regard distance as a kind of shock absorber that has a similar function to that of the cartilage adjoining our bones: It protects lovers from the friction that excessive proximity causes. There are various types of distances that people take in order to reduce such personal friction in their close relationships. These include reducing sensitivity toward the partner, having affairs, or getting absorbed in work. I focus here on two increasingly prevalent kinds of "romantic cartilage": Living apart together, and being single with someone. Although the two kinds of romantic cartilage are related, their major concern is different: While the first kind consists of geographic distance, the second refers to behavioral freedom (and involves greater personal space).
Living Apart Together
"What Robert [my lover] and I had, could not continue if we were together. What Richard [my husband] and I shared would vanish if we were apart."―Francesca, in Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County
Love includes the desire to be as close as possible to the person we love. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of romantic couples today live at a geographical distance from each other. Commuter marriage is one example—a relationship between people who are married and intend to remain so but nevertheless live apart, usually because of the locations of their jobs, educational demands, or dual-career pursuits.
An increasing body of research indicates that living-apart-together relationships often have equal or greater value in maintaining and promoting romantic connection. Compared to close-proximity relationships, distant relationships also show higher levels of relationship quality. And the commitment level among distant couples is similar to that of geographically close couples; hence, distant relationships enjoy a higher rate of survival. These couples enjoy greater personal space, which enhances their personal flourishing as well as the flourishing of their togetherness. Commitment and trust are important in all romantic relationships, but have greater significance in long-distance relationships, as there are more opportunities for events to occur that could threaten the commitment. Indeed, long-distance romantic couples generally enjoy equal or even higher levels of stability, satisfaction, commitment, and trust than do comparable geographically closer couples. Accordingly, the percentage of extramarital affairs is similar, or even lower, than of that in standard marriages (e.g., Jiang & Hancock, 2013; Kelmer et al., 2013; Stafford, 2005).
In this regard, Laura, a divorcee in her early forties, said that when she and her former husband lived in a commuting marriage:
“I felt good about having my own personal space so I did not have extramarital affairs. After 11 years of marriage, when we moved with our three girls to a house of our own and I stayed in the house every day, I felt that my personal space and freedom were being violated by my husband and as if I was in captivity. At that time, I began to have affairs.”
Being Single With Someone
“I want to talk in bed in the morning about all sorts of things, but sometimes, in the afternoon, I want us to decide to take different paths for the day.”―Isabelle Tessier
In her excellent, thought-provoking article in Huffington Post, “I Want To Be Single—But With You,” Isabelle Tessier vividly describes another option for romantic connections—being single with someone else:
“I want to be afraid with you. To do things I would not do with anyone else, because with you I am confident!…I want you to have your life, for you to decide on a whim to travel for a few weeks…I don't always want to be invited for your evenings out and I don't always want to invite you to mine. Then I can tell you about it and hear you tell me about yours the next day. I want something that will be both simple and at the same time not so simple. Something that will make sure that I often ask myself questions, but the minute I'm in the same room as you, I know. I want you to think I'm beautiful, for you to be proud to say that we're together. I want to hear you say you love me and I especially want to tell you in return…”
The togetherness described by Tessier is sometimes described as "quirkyalone," that is, “someone who enjoys being single (but is not opposed to being in a relationship) and generally prefers to be alone rather than dating for the sake of being in a couple” (Wiktionary). This type of relationship provides much greater personal space than exists in living apart together. Sexual freedom is not constitutive of living apart together, though as in conventional relationships, the partners might agree to it; in being single with someone, sexual freedom is part and parcel of the deal. It is noteworthy that greater personal space does not necessarily mean either chaotic or limitless space.
The connection in being single with someone involves a greater respect for the other. Respect accords the partner her personal space, which has its own intrinsic merits. Respect has shown to be closely connected with marital satisfaction, while its opposite, contempt, is one of the major predictors of divorce. Respect implies our right to treatment that enhances our self-esteem (Gottman, 1995; Hendrick & Hendrick, 2006).
The being-single-with-someone approach may succeed in preventing many conflicts due to each lover’s short-term, and often superficial, wants; it will be much less beneficial, however, in nurturing (or promoting) long-term romantic profundity (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008). Profound love is indeed not so much about what each lover is unable to do on his own, but more about what both of them can do together. This involves constantly coordinated interactions, concessions, and dialogue (Krebs, 2015), all of which are considerably reduced in the being-single-with-someone scenario. This approach may be more suitable for the initial stages of the relationship, when lovers do not know each other so well and excitement is central to their relationship. Developing and deepening the relationship requires much more than the “live and let live” policy that underlies this approach.
(It is interesting to note that cartilage is also present more extensively in the infant skeleton, bone replacing it during growth. Similarly, it is the profound bones of joint interactions that support long-term romantic love.)
“You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, but don't forget who's taking you home, so darling save the last dance for me.”―The Drifters
Spending too much time with one's beloved may actually decrease love. Some kind of distance, providing greater personal space, is important for a relationship. Distance may focus the partners’ attention on the profound aspects of their relationships and help them disregard superficial ones. Significant and temporally extended physical distance can harm a relationship, but a more limited distance may be beneficial. Distance, which is a kind of romantic cartilage preventing lovers from excessive mutual friction, may have its own costs, but an appropriate distance can minimize the costs and increase the benefits. Determining the appropriate distance is not easy, but it is crucial in intimate relationships.
Alas, there remains no perfect formula for love.