Couple-ish: Living Alone, Having a Partner

A new study sheds light on the rising phenomenon of couples living apart.

Posted May 17, 2019

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Living Alone while Having a Partner
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Many couples begin their relationships while living in separate homes. But today’s couples continue living apart much after that initial period. A growing number of people decide to prolong this separation of living for years, and sometimes indefinitely. Many simply feel good with living alone and, when partnering up, do not want to change their living situation.

To understand the extent of this phenomenon, one study shows that 7 percent of American women and 6 percent of American men report that they are in a living apart, together (LAT) relationship. While this sounds like a small share, it actually represents 35 percent of all individuals who are not married or cohabiting at the moment.

In France, around one in three adults lives without a partner in urban areas, and, as in many OECD countries, around a quarter of these people report being in a “stable intimate relationship” with someone who lives elsewhere. All in all, nearly one in twelve is in a stable non-cohabiting partnership.

Following these numbers, a new study, conducted by Arnaud Régnier-Loilier, analyzes the 2013–2014 EPIC (Étude de parcours individuels et conjugaux) survey of individual and conjugal trajectories among 7,825 men and women aged 26–65 living in France. This study examines the prevalence of this rising phenomenon and the characteristics of the people who choose this living arrangement long-term.

One of the most important findings of this new study is that age is a crucial factor in understanding this growing phenomenon. At young ages, non-cohabitation is seen as a “stage” in the process of union formation. However, above age 30, the reasons for not living together are different from those given by the younger age group. For older people, non-cohabitation is a longer-term arrangement and the proportion who intend to live with their partner decreases. For example, among 31-40-year-olds, relationships have lasted 3.6 years on average, and 55 percent intend to live together within the next two years. However, among the 51–65-year-olds group, relationships have lasted 11 years, on average, and only 22 percent report planning to share a home in the future. It might well be, however, that it is not a matter of age per se. Rather, older people might simply be more immune to social pressure and mainstream norms. 

Why Do Couples Choose to Live Apart?  

The reasons for this overwhelming new phenomenon vary. At later ages, many non-cohabiters have already lived with a partner and may no longer wish to repeat the experience. Indeed, if even one of the partners has been married, the probability of living apart increases. The study shows that two years after the start of the relationship, this probability is 42 percent if one or the partners was previously married, compared with 23 percent when neither has ever been married.

Jacquelyn Benson, from the University of Missouri, shows that living apart together contributes to feeling freer in the relationship. Partners also feel more empowered to pursue friendships and interests outside of the relationship. Others tackle fewer conflicts within their relationship because they are not fighting about minor household assignments that often sabotage the relationships of cohabiting couples. Most obviously, living apart gives one autonomy while also giving him or her the option for intimacy.

Another perspective emphasizes the fact that such living arrangements allow the flexibility in going in and out of relationships. In another study, Arnaud Régnier-Loilier analyzed three waves of the French Generations and Gender Survey. The results show that after three years, 22 percent of people in a stable non-co-residential relationship are still with the same partner, and 12 percent after six years. The longitudinal data reveal, again, that among older couples non-cohabitation is more a form of coupledom in its own right, lasting more years.

It seems that people around the world become more creative in finding alternatives to conventional marriage lives. They feel more empowered and freer to develop their own way of partnering up or simply choose to live on their own. Such ways of living are more accepted these days and are therefore expected to be more prevalent in the near future. The following endearing video, produced by the University of Missouri, is a great example for these new alternatives: