[Bella's intro: A way of living that would have once seemed strange is suddenly a topic of great interest. I'm talking about the phenomenon of committed couples choosing to live in places of their own not because they have to (for example, because far-flung jobs keep them apart) but because they want to. I am finding new journal articles about this trend surprisingly often. I included a chapter about it in How We Live Now. Sharon Hyman is a filmmaker directing a documentary on the topic. When she showed me an essay she had written about her own experiences living apart and the bigger issues around this way of living, I loved it so much, I asked her if I could share it with "Living Single" readers. Happily, she agreed. Thanks, Sharon!]
"I want you. I need you. I just don’t want to live with you."
Guest post by Sharon Hyman
I'm a filmmaker, a Canadian, a former Orthodox Jew, an aspiring free spirit. He is a musician, an engineer, an Albanian-American with Buddhist leanings, a functional grownup. We have been dating for almost two decades and no, we do not live together even though we reside in the same city. We are what I call Apartners - committed partners living apart. And we are in good company - it is estimated that almost 1 in ten North American adults are in an Apartnership. And yet we are not accounted for in census forms and there is still a stigma attached to our relationship choice. But that is quickly changing, as divorce rates soar and people seek new ways to make love last.
People often ask me why I don’t live with my partner. To which I reply, why would I?
I was looking for a confidante, a companion, a lover. And maybe someone to go to Prince concerts with. What I wasn’t looking for was a roommate. That I had in college, when I lived with my best friend Naomi. Those were among the best years of my life. And when she married and moved away I was actually afraid to live alone.
But then a funny thing happened. I discovered that I loved it. Loved the silence (when my neighbours weren't blasting REO Speedwagon) and the solitude (on the off days that I actually liked myself). I loved the time to reflect and create, to work and think, and to spend time with friends and family (ok, friends).
So when I met David, we were two individuals who came together to share part of our lives. But we were not each other’s entire lives, a notion promoted by popular culture which I feel leads to unrealistic expectations. We were like a Venn diagram, with overlapping parts.
And I just did not see how living together would add to the equation - in fact, I could see how it might subtract. And math was never my strong suit.
David wakes up at the break of dawn for work, and goes to sleep at dusk. I am a night owl who is at my most productive in the wee hours of the morning. (And by productive I mean I can win online Scrabble games).
David is an introvert who needs copious amounts of time alone. (I once told him about a meditation retreat where you are to remain perfectly silent for thirty days and he asked, oh, is that supposed to be hard?) I am a shy extrovert who likes to be with people but needs time alone to recharge.
The truth is, I usually don’t want to see anyone every day, not even myself! So living alone and being in a committed relationship suits me just fine.
As we all know, relationships are just about impossible. I don't care how many studies are published that reveal the secret to happiness - the real secret is, relationships are impossible. Between what I am projecting onto you and what you are transferring onto me and my deep-seated needs and your unconscious feelings, it is a wonder any couple lasts five minutes together.
It doesn’t matter how many mindfulness courses you take. I am mindful of the fact that relationships are impossible.
So if you could find any way to make a relationship work, I am impressed. But you will likely have to be creative with your solutions, and they might fly in the face of societal expectations.
For me, one of the ways that works is having separate abodes.
Yes, David and I still have arguments (I always say relationships are like a bloodletting - if you want to learn the worst parts about yourself, just fall in love). But rarely do we fight about him leaving his clothes on the floor or me not washing the dirty dishes. Nor do we squabble about finances, a sore spot for many couples. And when I am irritable or he is crabby, we are able to take the space we need to figure things out.
Of course there are times that necessitate cohabiting, such as when David had surgery, or when my vestibular disorder requires someone to be around more frequently. I had one bad spell for eight months and David did stay at my apartment. Yes, it was lovely cuddling every night, and we had the time to work through several issues that had been on the back-burner for years (imagine how much fun THAT was!). But as soon as my health improved, I welcomed staying alone again, as I am sure did David - in fact, I am pretty certain I heard him counting the days in his sleep.
We have gone through all the ups and downs of life and always try to be there for one another. In fact, Apartners report feeling just as supported in their relationships are do married or cohabiting folks.
For the record, I am not an advocate for couples living apart. What I am an advocate for is having options. I just do not believe that there is only one way to love, no one-sized-fits-all, cookie-cutter way to have a relationship. (And cooking is not my strong suit, either). It is all about what works best for you and your mate.
The current Western culture trajectory for love, widely promoted by Hollywood movies and romance novels, is that you meet, you fall in love and you move in together and/or marry. But not that long ago, marriage actually had little to do with love. It was about property ownership, maintaining kinship lineages, or offering protection and financial assistance.
In some cultures, people still do not marry for love - that may come later, if at all. In other cultures, couples move in with their extended family. The nuclear family is actually a rather recent phenomenon which only originated during the Industrial Revolution when couples had to move away from their extended families for work.
So as you can see, what we think of as a “normal relationship” is really just what the norm is for one particular culture, in one particular era.
I personally am grateful that I live in a time when so many options are available to North American women - and I do not take this fact for granted for a single moment. Many (though not all, we still have much work to do in this regard) have the physical, financial and legal autonomy to live on their own, and can opt to do so, or not.
Some may call this selfish, but why judge others just because their needs are different than your own? I actually feel that by living alone, I can be more present and loving for others. (Or at least not become a total misanthrope).
As the the brilliant poet and academic bell hooks wrote, “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a shield".
But that is me.
Maybe for you, living apart is not a viable option. Maybe you have children that you wish to raise with your partner under one roof. (Though it should be noted that for some, living apart has actually helped save their marriage and keep their family unit in tact. And others with children from prior marriages may prefer not to introduce a new adult into their living arrangement).
Maybe for you it makes more sense to pool your financial resources. Or maybe you just really like seeing your love every day, and that works best for you both.
And that’s cool. But the point is, isn’t it great to know that there are options?
Maybe one day David and I will choose to live together. Or maybe we will remain Apartners. Either way, I feel that we are blessed to have the choice, and that is something that I wish for everyone to have without judgment.
About the Author: Sharon Hyman is a Montreal filmmaker currently directing the documentary APARTNERS: LIVING HAPPILY EVER APART.
[Note: For more about innovative ways of living, take a look at How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. It includes an entire chapter on committed couples living apart. For another critical take on the idea that couples should be each other's everything, see Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. And for more about how the practice of coupling has changed over time, see "The top 10 ways couples have changed."]