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Why Many Couples Are Happy Living Apart Together or Together Apart

"Sometimes I want us to decide to take different paths for the day."

Key points

  • Assuming that people can be either single or partnered, but not both, is up for debate.
  • Two features characterizing romantic relationships and singlehood are living together and sexual exclusivity.
  • Giving up living together is easier and with a higher relationship quality than giving up sexual exclusivity.

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”

Can we be single while also being in a relationship? The common assumption is that we can be either single or with a partner, but not both. However, relationships and singlehood have many nuances and different degrees. Moreover, two common living arrangements, living apart together (LAT) and living together apart (LTA), dismiss central characteristics that typically distinguish the difference between being in a relationship and being single.

The Problem

Two significant features that characterize typical romantic relationships and typical singlehood are living together and sexual exclusivity; typical romantic relationships require both features, while typical singlehood requires none. Two increasingly common romantic relationships, which include only one of these characteristics, are “Living Apart Together” (LAT) and “Living Together Apart (LTA). In both relationships, the second term (“apart” or “together”) indicates physical (or geographical) closeness, while the third term (“together” or “apart”) refers to emotional closeness. Can committed romantic relationships exist without one of these kinds of closeness?

Living Apart Together (LAT)

Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it kindles the great.” —Roger de Rabutin

The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.” —Charles Dickens

Love involves the desire to be as close as possible to the person we love. Nevertheless, today, growing numbers of romantic couples 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. 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, distance relationships show higher levels of relationship quality, and the commitment level is similar to that of geographically close couples. These couples enjoy greater personal space, which enhances their personal and relational flourishing, and the percentage of extramarital affairs is similar, or even lower, than in standard marriages. Hence, distant relationships typically enjoy a higher rate of survival (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019; Jiang & Hancock, 2013; Kelmer et al., 2013).

Living Together Apart (LTA)

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 living apart together (LAT), “apart” relates to living not under the same roof all the time, while “together” refers to emotional closeness. In living together apart (LTA), the opposite occurs: “together” refers to living under the same roof, and “apart” relates to some deviations from typical romantic closeness, mainly, lacking sexual exclusivity. Two examples of such situations are: (a) when couples continue to live together under the same roof after deciding to separate, and (b) when sexual exclusivity is absent.

Wilfried Rault and Arnaud Régnier-Loilier (2020) examine situations where couples continue to live together under the same roof after deciding to separate. Major reasons for this living arrangement are material (primarily financial) constraints and the desire to preserve the parental unit despite the marital breakdown. This arrangement is not rare, and is found in about one-quarter of separated couples (Rault & Régnier-Loilier, 2020). A related, very common phenomenon, is that of sleeping with an ex after divorce. Here, the partners live apart but occasionally have a sexual relationship (see here).

In the arrangement of living together apart (LTA), or as Tessier terms it: “being single, but with you,” the partners physically live together, but their sexual activities remain mostly separate. This is a kind of consensual nonmonogamy like in open sexual marriages. Open sexual marriages assume that marriages are essentially positive, but they suffer from declining sexual desire. As in typical committed relationships, LTA also involves a hierarchy between the primary partner, with whom they live, and the secondary partner, who assumes a more girlfriend or boyfriend like role than spouses do. LTA may be richer than monogamous marriages, but its depth and duration are often lesser (Ben-Ze’ev, 2022; 2023, and here).

The physical and romantic notions of “apart” and “together” express two separate continua (one physical and one romantic) between great distance and profound closeness. Most people are in between these extreme poles, this is the case of LAT and LTA. Another interesting case is the suggested attitude of monoflexibility, which straddles on both continua, though leans nearer the monogamy pole of closeness, while leaving room for exciting exceptions (see here).

Can You Feel Single While Being With a Partner?

"I love being single. I can come and go as I please and stay out as late as I want to." —Eric Dickerson

I want to have sex all night long. Just not with my husband!” —A married woman

Feeling some degree of being single within romantic relationships is not merely part of LAT and LTA, in which living together or sexual exclusivity may be absent, but also part of typical romantic relationships where these characteristics are present.

In their article, “Single while Partnered,” Jayda Felder and Laura Machia (2023), argue that people in romantic relationships often perceive themselves as having varying degrees of feeling single or partnered. They suggest that capturing the subjective experience of a relationship status being either single or partnered can be achieved by conceptualizing a spectrum on which ‘in-between’ ratings signify varying degrees of feeling more or less single or partnered. Felder and Machia establish the construct of Perceived Relationship Status (PRS): the extent to which people perceive themselves as single versus being in a relationship. PRS may vary regarding commitment, satisfaction and feeling lonely or neglected. However, the focus of their study is on the attitudes and behaviors that threaten one’s actual romantic relationship. Thus, when those in exclusive relationships are uncertain about whether their relationships will last forever, they may experience ambiguous loss while feeling high from the sense of being single (Felder & Machia, 2023).

There is sometimes an unusual response to wearing a wedding ring, which is usually regarded as blocking the possibility of establishing a new long-term relationship. However, this ring does not necessarily eliminate fleeting casual sex (Ben-Ze’ev, 2023). People, single or married, who want casual sex, will be encouraged to approach those wearing wedding rings, assuming no long-term relationship will be developed. This idea is demonstrated in popular culture, where, in one episode of Seinfeld, George starts wearing a wedding ring because he has heard that it helps single guys pick up women.

Concluding remarks

I will never compromise on a man who cannot be emotionally and intellectually available for me, no matter how intense the sexual satisfaction.” —A woman

Giving up living under the same roof is usually easier and better for the relationship quality than giving up sexual exclusivity. Indeed, living apart together is more common than living together apart. At its basis, LAT employs the wish to enhance the partners’ general flourishing while sacrificing around-the-clock geographical proximity but avoiding hurting the partner’s feelings. LAT involves less actual time together but enjoys a greater quality and durability of the relationship. In LTA, the two partners spend more actual time together, but the partner’s heart is occupied for longer by someone else. It is all boiled down to the fact that romantic closeness is more significant than physical proximity.

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Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2022). “I am glad that my partner is happy with her lover”: On Jealousy, and Compersion. In A. Pismenny & B. Brogaard (eds.) (2022), The moral psychology of love. Rowman & Littlefield, 127-150.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2023). “Is casual sex good for you? Casualness, seriousness and wellbeing in Intimate relationships.” Philosophies, 8, 2023, 25.

Felder, J. P., & Machia, L. V. (2023). Single while partnered: perceived relationship status in various contexts. Current Psychology, 1-12.

Jiang, L. C. & Hancock, J. T. (2013). Absence makes the communication grow fonder: Geographic separation, interpersonal media, and intimacy in dating relationships. Journal of Communication, 63, 556–577.

Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in long-distance relationships. Family Process, 52, 257-270.

Rault, W., & Régnier‐Loilier, A. (2020). Continued cohabitation after the decision to separate:“Living together apart” in France. Journal of Marriage and Family, 82, 1073-1088.‏

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