'My Secret to a Happy Relationship? Live Apart'

I was clear from the beginning with my latest boyfriend—any guy I'm going to be with should not want to live with me. And that will be a good thing.

Not because we wouldn't love or be committed to each other—I absolutely want that. And not because we wouldn't care for each other or do everything couples do—I want that, too.

But after two marriages and divorces, I am all too aware of what often happens when couples live together. Now that I'm no longer raising young children—when it helps to have someone around to co-parent with—there doesn't seem to be a compelling need to have my partner around 24/7. I have now lived happily alone since 2004 and had several boyfriends.

I did not always feel that way. Like many people, I had an idea of what things were "supposed" to look like. I was aware of the romantic script many of us follow — meet, date, fall in love, wed, have kids and live happily ever after. Under the same roof, of course.

It's what my parents did—until my sister and I had grown up.

When my mother was in her 40s, with both daughters out of the house, she left my dad and her comfortable suburban New York City home and moved to Miami, where my sister lived. She bought a condo, got a job and created a life for herself.

My parents didn't divorce, however—they had what is called a live apart together (LAT) relationship. My father visited her for a long weekend every month. They did that for about 10 years, until my father retired and joined her in Florida, where they lived together in somewhat peaceful coexistence until they passed after 61 years of marriage.

LAT, Living Apart, Couples Living Apart

At the time, I didn't pay too much attention. But at midlife, divorced for the second time and with two young children, I had questions about the romantic script. And a question for my mother—why had she moved out?

"I'd had enough," she told me. After many years as a wife and mother, I knew exactly what she meant.

Yet when I fell in love a few years after my second divorce, to a man who also had a child at home, I assumed we would eventually move in together. It seemed he had other ideas, as whenever I brought it up he was vague about the concept, which hurt me.

But the longer we were together; committed, very much in love and seeing each other a few times a week, the more I realized that it wasn't so bad. In fact, I began to like it.

So I did something I had never done before. I asked myself, what do I want my life to look like? I already had a house, a career and the number of kids I wanted, so I certainly didn't "need" a man. But I did want a boyfriend.

I just didn't want him hanging around all the time.

Many older women like myself have come to realize that living apart from a romantic partner allows us to have companionship as well as independence. It also frees us from the gendered caretaking and housekeeping women often do. According to a recent study, many single women in their 60s and 70s would like to have a companion but were adamant that they were "willing to be lonely before sacrificing independence."

A LAT lifestyle can offer commitment, love, intimacy, sex and all the other things many of us want in a romantic relationship while still giving us a room of our own. Here's why it works for me.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

When I met my second husband in 1985, we lived on opposite sides of the country. We could only see each other for a few — albeit exciting — days once a month. Once we lived together, we found ourselves falling into a routine and niggling over the right way to hang the toilet paper, load the dishwasher and other domestic nonsense. Like many couples, our sex life fell into a routine, too. But when he traveled for work, as he often did, I got a chance to breathe and even miss him a little.

I never fell into a similar rut with my post-divorce LAT partners because we always had the chance to long for each other. Our interactions weren't clouded with the small daily disappointments and frustrations of occupying the same space all the time. And each reunion, even if it was only after a few days, was something to look forward to. Given that so many people say they are in sexless marriages, LAT arrangements just may be the key to keep desire alive.

No room for complacency

Here's what can easily happen when we live with our partners—we begin to take them for granted. Life is busy, we're distracted, we want things to be easy and so we go into autopilot. Both parties can forget to appreciate, or even notice, the little things our partners do to make our life better. That complacency can lead to living life side-by-side without enjoying the aspects of the relationship, and your partner, that drew you to them in the first place.

That hasn't happened with any of the partners I have had an LAT arrangement with. If anything, research shows that LAT couples work harder at staying connected. We plan for the times we are going to be together and when we are, we're much more engaged and in the moment—not just occupying the same space.

living apart together, LAT, relationships, love
Vicki Larson decided to adopt the living apart together (LAT) lifestyle later in life. Vicki Larson

A room of one's own

As much as many women want equality in their marriages, the truth is many do not achieve it. I finally did — when I divorced, and my former husband and I had 50-50 physical custody of our boys, one week with me, one week with him. Having "me time" rejuvenated me, and made me a better mother, friend, journalist and when I started dating again, a better partner to my new boyfriend. Having a "room of one's own" allows for much-needed self-care and space.

Like many people, I grew up with a narrow view of what relationships "look like." I didn't know we had options and that one of those was a LAT situation. Although I am not currently in a long term relationship, LAT has brought me, and various partners, joy and contentment. In 2020, we have seen how shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on socializing are putting strain on couples who live together, leading to separations and in some cases, divorces. I wonder if those couples would have fared better if they had considered the option of LAT?

I appreciate it's not for everyone, but it certainly works for me.

Vicki Larson is an award-winning journalist; the lifestyle editor, columnist and writer at the Marin Independent Journal; and the co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. Her writings can be found in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Aeon, Quartz, HuffPost and Medium among other publications.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.