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The Joys — and Pains — of ‘Living Apart Together’

Gwyneth Paltrow’s un-cohabitation is nothing new. For these couples, the ‘LAT’ lifestyle is what keeps their relationships strong

Earlier this week, Gwyneth Paltrow took a break from slingin’ Goop to tell the Sunday Times that she and her husband, Brad Falchuk, don’t live together. “All my married friends say that the way we live sounds ideal and we shouldn’t change a thing,” she said. And while this little tidbit really got the daily morningnews content machine cranking, un-cohabitation is really nothing new.

In fact, like all relationships on the internet, it even has its own acronym: LAT, or “Living Apart Together.”

Back in 2003, in an article titled “The Architecture of Intimacy,” Nor Hall explained that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera didn’t live together in a single home, and neither did Vanessa and Clive Bell. Hall theorizes that the idea that a loving couple must cohabitate changed during the Depression. “Couples who had insurmountable distances placed between them by Depression-era poverty or by the world wars, for example, were often linked by an intense shared fantasy of a peaceful and abundant life together,” she wrote. “Happiness could be achieved if only the image were just so — a perfect mate, a perfect wedding, a perfect house.”

Similarly, the 2011 documentary Two’s a Crowd interviewed New York LAT couples who were forced to move in together after the 2000 economic downturn.

Yet much like “Skittle Parties” or eating ass, LAT relationships keep popping up as a “hot new trend” young people are doing. In 2012, the New York Times published a piece titled “Living Apart and Together: The Optimum Balance,” and again in a 2018 “Modern Love” column titled “Staying Together by Living Apart (in a Duplex).”

There is a growing number of sociological and psychological studies on LAT relationships that outline the potential benefits and downfalls. However, in 2013, Psychology Today concluded that “there’s no research to suggest that either choice is the ‘right’ decision,” and that “the research to date identifies a number of potential advantages and disadvantages to each, leaving it up to the individual couple to decide which lifestyle is most likely to work for them.”

Five years later, not much has changed. In 2018, the NYU Dispatch argued that “research on LAT relationships is still an emerging field, and there’s little data on the psychological benefits of this arrangement.”

“It’s certainly an arrangement that will continue to raise a few eyebrows, but it’s encouraging that society is beginning to open up to and accept different forms of relationships,” the Dispatch concludes. “Given the figures that researchers have been noting, LAT relationships look set to become far more common as time goes on.”

Lisa Bahar, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, says her experience in couples therapy aligns with the research.

“I think couples and families are learning ways to create a family unit that maintains family, but has some rules, so to speak on what is in the best interest for all,” she tells MEL.

Bahar says every family has these “rules,” and while living apart together is currently getting some attention, “let’s face it, this is not new.”

“Couples sometimes live in the same house but have separate rooms. Or, based on travel, [they] have an apartment or home in another city or state. [It makes] more sense than hoteling.”

In other words, people enact all sorts of “rules” in order to achieve the ultimate goal: maintaining a harmonious family unit. And if living separately keeps the family intact, then so be it.

The most important thing, Bahar says, is that it’s consistent. If you’re living separately but there’s no consistency to it — you’re together a lot one month, but never see each other the next, or only one partner is seemingly making the effort to be at the other’s place — that’s where the disadvantages of LAT arise.

“The best way [to live in a LAT relationship] is to keep it consistent, so that younger and even older members of the family know what to expect and adjust and adapt accordingly.”

Laurel, a 36-year-old in Austin, Texas, has been in a textbook LAT relationship for nine years. “About a year [into our relationship], I said something like, ‘Hey, I know that the next step would be to move in together, but I’m really enjoying what we have, and it doesn’t make my commitment to you any less,’” she tells MEL.

“I swear he sighed in relief. We are both really introverted people and need a lot of alone time. I had never not lived with a partner, and I was enjoying my newfound solitude after a divorce. So it ended up being a really positive thing for both of us.”

Laurel and her partner live about 30 minutes apart, on opposite sides of Austin. “It’s not ideal, but Austin’s housing market is nuts, and both our places are pretty nice,” she explains.

Susan, a 52-year-old in Indiana, lives half a mile from her partner, and the two will soon be celebrating a 28-year anniversary.

Much like Whoopi Goldberg, Susan was too keen on living alone by the time her partner came around to the idea of living together.

“My partner has the proverbial feet of clay, and by the time he ‘decided’ we should live together, I was extremely happy living alone and did not want to give it up,” she says, admitting that she didn’t know “LAT was a thing back then.”

“I truly believe that if we weren’t LAT, our relationship would not have lasted as long as it has. There’s little opportunity to take each other for granted and I think we appreciate each other’s quirks more because we’re not exposed to them every day,” Susan explains. “It’s definitely not for everyone, and both partners have to be 100 percent onboard to have any chance of success.”  

Susan adds that both partners’ experience in cohabiting relationships helps. “We both have been married before, so we know what it’s like to live with someone, just in case anyone thinks we have commitment issues. It also takes a fair degree of trust, but that has to be in place for any relationship. I’ve had people ask if I’m worried about cheating because it would be ‘easier’ since we live apart, but I’m not. We trust each other just as much, if not more, than if we lived together.”

Susan says she and her partner spend three to four evenings together each week, “talk on the phone every day, vacation together at least twice per year, and try to squeeze in a couple of long weekends here and there.”

In a sense, consistency in LAT relationships is what separates it from a long-distance relationship. John, a 30-year-old in Texas, is living in a long-distance relationship with his wife. And it is decidedly not a LAT relationship: John’s wife was accepted into a graduate-school program in another state she couldn’t refuse, while John felt the prospects at his job were too good to give up.

“We just crossed the one-year mark of living apart with another two years to go. If I’m being honest, it has been very tough. I miss her so much, but we know that it’s a short-term sacrifice that will have a large payoff for our future,” he tells MEL.

“We had been together for eight years. Married on our eight-year anniversary. And then, three days later, she moved out-of-state to start her graduate program,” John says. “We decided I should stay behind because my future with my current employer is quite promising.”

John struggles to find many advantages to the two living separately. He does admit his “golf game has gotten significantly better.”

“But in all seriousness, I can’t think of many benefits,” he tells MEL. “I guess I could say our communication skills have improved greatly and our emotional support for each other has grown in our personal endeavors, since we can’t physically be there.”

In order to make up for the distance, John and his wife are constantly in contact, sharing what’s happening in each other’s lives. “Daily communication is key, especially video chatting. We get to video chat only a couple times a week due to schedule alignment, but the video chats always provide more connection,” he says. “I also visit her for one week every month. Sometimes I’ll send flowers if she’s going through a tough time. But really, it’s just trying to stay on the same page, which is the most important thing.”

When couples wind up in a LAT relationship not by preference, John says, you need even more trust. “Trust each other 110 percent, otherwise it just won’t work. The heart-grows-fonder thing is mostly bullshit,” he concludes.

“The worst parts are missing the little things that get taken for granted in a relationship: holding hands, watching a movie together, going for a hike, completing house projects with each other’s help, all things I miss. If we could go back in time, I would make the decision to move with her.”

But in conscious un-cohabitation, Laurel and Susan are having a great time.

“I definitely think absence makes the heart grow fonder!” Laurel tells MEL. “We have a date during the week and then spend weekends together, and our time together is special. I really treasure it. There’s still something of that spark, that romantic feeling. I still have butterflies about him, and I think not being around each other all the time helps preserve that.” Laurel knows it’s a luxury, too: “It’s way more expensive not to split rent.”

But the benefits are undeniable. Like John and his wife, Laurel and her partner have become better communicators. “We both had to learn at first to say, ‘Hey, I need some alone time,’ or that we don’t want to hang out that night, and not get our feelings hurt.”

“When we do have a fight,” Susan adds, “we can retire to our separate corners to cool off.”

“I feel like it’s only improved our relationship,” Laurel says. “And it’s made me really have to be enough person on my own.”

If younger couples actually adopt LAT relationships, Bahar says, so long as they follow the consistency of Laurel and Susan’s relationships, it will model how future generations view long-term relationships. “This is modeling for children, adolescents [and] young adults on how to relate to a significant other, so the pattern of LAT may continue for generations to come,” she says.

LAT is “definitely not for everybody,” Susan concludes. “But I think more people should know it’s a real option!”