Older couples living apart together

Researchers are fascinated by the emerging trend of older couples living apart together. They see it as a new kind of family system.

It was Ernest W. Burgess who argued way back in 1926 that the increased urbanization of American life would increase individualism and differentiation

This, he argued, would free men and women from the constraints of existing forms of family dynamics.

Ernie was more than right. Researchers in the decades since have noticed the same thing. In the global economy, intimate relationships have become decoupled from the glue of local social and economic conditions.

Two trends are emerging. There is an increased diversity in how people run their intimate lives, and spouses now display more individualism and differentiation than researchers expected (Daly, 2005; Giddens,1992). 

Post COVID? Even more so.

In the 21st century, people all over the world are re-thinking intimate relationships along the arc of their own personal preference. 

One of these emerging global trends are older couples in living-apart-together relationships (LAT). More and more couples are choosing to remain married, but live apart.

What does it mean to live in an LAT relationship?

An LAT relationship is one where married couples are choosing to live apart from one another during their marriage. 

Called "living apart together", or "LAT", couples that choose this emerging non-traditional living arrangement cite a number of advantages. 

Although very few studies have been conducted in the USA, most American LAT couples describe the same list of benefits to researchers that were also cited by European couples: 

  • To secure independence without sacrificing emotional support

  • To secure time for personal hobbies and interests, and friendships that are independent.

  • Conventional marriage is “for young people.” Old age bestows options.

  • Living together creates more opportunities for fights about nothing and petty irritations. Living apart curbs that negativity.

  • Living apart reduces the impact of personal differences.

  • Living apart also prevents exploitation along gender roles.

While an LAT relationship can be independent financially, there can also be commitment, independence, inter-dependence, and intimacy. 

What does it mean to live apart in a relationship?

A living-apart-together couple does not share a common home. 

Nevertheless, research tells us that most LAT couples are perceived by friends, family, and themselves as a committed couple.

The term LAT relationship was first coined by a Dutch journalist in 1978. 

The growing trend of living-apart-together relationships has been particularly interesting to European researchers over the past 20 years (DeJong Gierveld, 2004), (Ghazanfareeon & Karlsson, 2006), and (Funk & Kobayashi, 2014).

What all of these studies reported was that LAT couples were particularly advantageous in later life because of the promise of achieving  balance between intimacy and autonomy.

Researchers found that European women were particularly keen on exploring living apart together relationships because they highly valued their autonomy. 

Women went on to say that they were better able to maintain boundaries with their partner, and maintain a healthy independence in a LAT relationship.

LATS are “good enough”

Researchers Duncan and Phillips looked at LAT relationships in Great Britain in 2011. 

They found married but living apart relationships were seen as “good enough,” and they had the same emphasis on exclusivity and commitment found in couples living under the same roof.

Older couples have satisfied their responsibilities of raising children... and as career aspirations ebb, an opening for personal growth may become apparent.

The loose and open nature of LAT relationships is reflected in the simpler commitments that underscore the importance of maintaining intimacy and connection.

Gender also weighs in on the desirability of “living apart together” relationships. 

Swedish research showed that older women were significantly more interested living apart together as a way of side-stepping tired old household gender roles and maintaining a greater independence. 

Clarifying expectations for a living apart together couple

The Baby Boom generation revolutionized many aspects of intimate relationships. Boomers gave us no-fault divorce, serial monogamy, and cohabitation without shame.

Boomers now comprise the new 65+“third age group.” The longer Boomers live, a growing number are experimenting yet again with new ways of living with intimate partners.

Older couples in a living-apart-together relationship typically expect to successfully balance security, intimacy, and personal freedom.

Successful LAT couples establish clear boundaries on the terms of the relationship. LAT relationships are not open or polyamorous. They are as exclusively committed as couples living under the same roof. For most, one essential boundary is the absence of competing intimate relationships outside of marriage. 

It's also a best-practice for LAT couples to establish boundaries for household living arrangements, what's okay and what's not, etc. 

Unclear and murky boundaries can provoke frustration, resentment, and unnecessary suffering for new LAT couples. 

Some couples have used a couples therapist to help clarify intertwined expectations. We can help with that.

Researchers tell us that men in LAT relationships tend to view it as a conventional marital bond, while women more commonly see living apart together arrangements as experimental and innovative (Ghazanfareeon Karlsson, & Borell, 2002).

Similar to European studies, most American LAT couples live quite close to one another. 40% report seeing their partner several times a week, and 25% report seeing them daily. Over 90% reported calling, texting or emailing their partner daily.

While older couples in a living-apart-together have particular reasons for embracing the LAT lifestyle, younger LAT couples are sometimes reluctantly separated because of career responsibilities.

What are some disadvantages to living apart together?

As I mentioned earlier, from a global perspective LAT relationships are a steadily emerging trend, despite some obvious disadvantages. Internet surveys tend to show an increasing curiosity about LAT relationships.

  • Not every couple is comfortable with separate finances, two rent or mortgage payments, or redundant monthly expenses that are a consequence of not blending your two households.

  • Maintaining positive rituals for staying emotionally connected.

  • Managing the expectations of both minor and adult children. 

  • Battling occasional bouts of loneliness or boredom.

  • Trust issues were also mentioned by researchers as a problematic area.

Young LAT couples see living apart together as a phase of their relationship. Older couples in a LAT relationship see it as a feature.

What are some advantages for living apart together?

  • Balancing needs of the self with the needs of the relationship.

  • LAT relationships frustrate entrenched “co-dependent” patterns of anxious and avoidant attachment.

  • Relationship time is more highly valued, and intentional.

  • Alone time and personal space are less likely to persist as perpetual problems for couples who are married but living separately.

How living apart together marriages empower women

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal discussed research that shows that the typical American living-apart-together couple is over 50. 

Americans are, above all things, serial monogamists.

Outside the long-term couples that newly adopt the LAT lifestyle, perhaps divorce, or the death of a spouse, created circumstances requiring independence....and gender-normed roles in a late-life relationship are apparently a less attractive option for many older couples.

Research tells us that older women in living-apart-together marriages describe their home as a place where their sense of agency, personal control, and need for intimacy can be more fully realized, because it is a boundary-establishing resource.

Older women in LAT relationships have a rich and varied methodology for establishing boundaries. 

By having their own home, researchers report that these women can not only “segment their social relations in time and space,” their external relationships can be segregated or integrated at will.

In their conversations with researchers, older LAT women in Europe showed great analytical insight into how gender norms have either assisted or thwarted them in the past (Ghazanfareeon Karlsson, & Borell, 2002).

These European LAT wives described their ability to confront and challenge oppressive gender norms as a crucial factor in the relationship satisfaction they enjoy in a living apart together dynamic.

A new model for intimacy and autonomy

The specter of Gray Divorce is opening up more opportunities for older couples to try new models of intimate relationships that are more personally satisfying than conventional in form.

Living apart together relationships differ from conventional marital norms in that fixed notions of propriety and convention are thrown out the window.

Finch and Mason argued way back in 1993 that human beings operate with a much more fluid sense of family reciprocity than is conventionally understood. 

They argued that intimate relationships are a constant “process of negotiation, in which people are giving and receiving, balancing out one kind of assistance against another, maintaining an appropriate independence from each other as well as mutual interdependence” (Finch& Mason, 1993).

In other words...an older couple’s emotional bank account transcends the external form of the relationship.

The research clearly shows that LAT relationships work best when both spouses have regular opportunities to make deposits in one another’s emotional bank accounts, and operate from clear expectations and shared values.

Final thoughts on living apart together relationships

Living-apart-together relationships comprise as much as 10-15% of older couples in many European nations, and is becoming an attractive emerging option in the USA as well.

But in the USA, LAT relationships do not get anywhere near the research scrutiny living apart together relationships garner in European countries.

A 2016 national survey by legal scholar Cynthia Grant Bowman suggested that perhaps as many as 9% of older American couples have LAT relationships. We don’t really know for certain, because little research has been done.

Bowman teaches family law at Cornell. She is concerned that a growing number of older American couples are living apart together, but our culture isn’t really noticing, or talking about it.

Bowman is advocating for formal recognition and extended legal protections for a new family dynamic that is hiding in plain sight.

6 months ago, she released an important book; Living Apart Together; legal protections for a new form of family.

This lifestyle makes sense for many older Americans...but perhaps it’s a little too European to talk about openly.

LAT relationships openly defy a fundamental American assumption about relationship intimacy… cohabitation.

But Americans are also notoriously adventurous and optimistic. As I mentioned earlier, older American couples perceived the benefits of an LAT relationship the same way as their European counterparts.

While some researchers have commented that these new relationship forms are more complex, they confirm that couples with healthy emotional bank accounts, and effective ways to communicate their expectations were most likely to have long term relationship success, no matter what external form it takes.

Research:

Aart C. Liefbroer; Anne-Rigt Poortman; Judith Seltzer (2015). "Why do intimate partners live apart? Evidence on LAT relationships across Europe". Demographic Research. 32: 251–286. doi:10.4054/DemRes.2015.32.8. PMC 4465270. PMID 26085812.

Benson, J. J. (2013). From living apart, to living-apart-together: Older adults developing a preference for LAT (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://mospace.umsystem.edu/ xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/44653/research .pdf?sequence=1 Benson, J. J., & Coleman

Connidis, I A., Borell, K., Ghazanfareeon Karlsson, S. (2017) Ambivalence and Living Apart Together in Later Life: A Critical Research Proposal. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79(5): 1404-1418 https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12417

Sex, Love and Security: Accounts of Distance and Commitment in Living Apart Together Relationships Crossref DOI link: https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038515573689 Published: 2016-06 Dr Julia Carter, School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, CT1 1QU, UK. 

Duncan, S., & Phillips, M. (2011) people who live apart together (LATs): New family form or just a stage? International Review of Sociology, 21,513-532. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03906701.2011.625660

Finch,J., & Mason J. (1993). Negotiating family responsibilities. New York, NY:Tavistock/Routledge. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/978020339320

Haskey J (2005). "Living arrangements in contemporary Britain: Having a partner who usually lives elsewhere and Living Apart Together (LAT)". Population Trends. 122: 35–45.

Levin I (2004). "Living Apart Together: A New Family Form". Current Sociology. 52 (2): 223–240. doi:10.1177/0011392104041809.

Reimondos, A., Evans, A. and Gray, E. (2011) Living-apart-together (LAT) Relationships in Australia, Family Matters, Vol. 87: 43-55

Strohm CQ, Seltzer JA, Cochran SD, Mays VM (2009). ""Living Apart Together" relationships in the United States". Demogr Res. 21: 177–214. doi:10.4054/demres.2009.21.7. PMC 3091814. PMID 21566723.

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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