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Interpretations of living apart together (LAT) have typically counter-posed 'new family form' versus 'continuist' perspectives. Recent surveys, however, construct LAT as a heterogeneous category that supports a 'qualified continuist' position – most people live apart as a response to practical circumstances or as a modern version of 'boy/girlfriend', although a minority represents something new in preferring to live apart more permanently. This article interrogates this conclusion by examining in depth why people live apart together, using a nationally representative survey from Britain and interview accounts from 2011. Our analysis shows that LAT as a category contains different sorts of relationship, with different needs and desires. While overall coupledom remains pivotal and cohabitation remains the goal for most, LAT allows people flexibility and room to manoeuvre in adapting couple intimacy to the demands of contemporary life. Hence, we suggest, LAT is both 'new' and a 'continuation'.
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Families, Relationships and Societies • vol 2 • no 3 • 323–38 • © The authors 2013 • #FRS
Print ISSN 2046 7435 • Online ISSN 2046 7443 • http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/204674313X673419
article
Why do people live apart together?
Simon Duncan (s.s.duncan@bradford.ac.uk)1
University of Bradford, UK
Julia Carter ( julia.carter@canterbury.ac.uk)
Canterbury Christ Church University, UK
Miranda Phillips (miranda.phillips@natcen.ac.uk)
National Centre for Social Research, UK
Sasha Roseneil (s.roseneil@bbk.ac.uk)
Mariya Stoilova (m.stoilova@bbk.ac.uk)
Birkbeck, University of London, UK
Interpretations of living apart together (LAT) have typically counter-posed ‘new family form’ versus
‘continuist’ perspectives. Recent surveys, however, construct LAT as a heterogeneous category
that supports a ‘qualified continuist’ position – most people live apart as a response to practical
circumstances or as a modern version of ‘boy/girlfriend’, although a minority represents something
new in preferring to live apart more permanently. This article interrogates this conclusion by
examining in depth why people live apart together, using a nationally representative survey from
Britain and interview accounts from 2011. Our analysis shows that LAT as a category contains
different sorts of relationship, with different needs and desires. While overall coupledom remains
pivotal and cohabitation remains the goal for most, LAT allows people flexibility and room to
manoeuvre in adapting couple intimacy to the demands of contemporary life. Hence, we suggest,
LAT is both ‘new’ and a ‘continuation’.
key words living apart together • LAT • family • couples
Introduction
Sociologists and demographers have recently become interested in ‘living apart
together’ (LAT) – that is, being in an intimate relationship with a partner who lives
somewhere else. Around 10% of adults in much of Western Europe, North America
and Australasia live apart from a partner, although precise estimates vary according
to the question asked and the survey group. This equates to roughly a quarter of all
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Simon Duncan et al
324
those adults not married or cohabiting (see Strohm et al, 2009; Duncan and Phillips,
2010; Reimondos, 2011; Liefbroer, 2012). This ‘discovery’ of another relationship type
alongside marriage, unmarried cohabitation and singledom has not been replicated
in the worlds of ocial statistics, formal institutions, government policy and the law.
Rather, it is usually taken for granted that ‘single’ in residential terms means ‘without
a partner’ in relationship terms. This assumption will be incorrect about a quarter
of the time.
Researchers disagree about the social importance and role of LAT. Is LAT a new
way of doing intimacy in contemporary societies, where marriage and cohabitation
are increasingly decentred? Or is LAT simply another stage on the well-established
route to cohabitation and marriage? Taking the rst view, Levin (2004: 223) sees LAT
as ‘a historically new family form’ through which people can experience both the
intimacy and satisfaction of being in a couple, but at the same time retain individual
autonomy. Bawin-Legros and Gauthier (2001: 39) go further and interpret LAT as
fostering ‘a new form of love semantics’ where couples come closer to pure love,
untrammelled by structures, than is possible in marriage. Similarly, Roseneil (2006)
suggests that people who live apart can de-prioritise sexual/love relationships and
place more importance on friendship, thus changing the very meaning of coupledom
itself. In these interpretations, LAT begins to move beyond traditional constructions of
family, resonating with Giddens’ (1992) notion of ‘pure relationships’, Beck and Beck-
Gernsheim’s (2002) emphasis on individualisation and Bauman’s (2003) metaphor
of ‘liquid love’. This is paralleled in the demographic literature where LAT is seen to
signal an advanced stage of the second demographic transition, whereby changes in
family forms, relationship patterns and fertility are fundamentally underpinned by
individualistic behaviour (De Jong Gierveld, 2004; Liefbroer et al, 2012).
Alternatively, other studies take a more ‘continuist’ perspective – they conclude
that ‘despite all the hung and pung nothing has really changed’ (Weeks, 2007:
6). In this view, LAT is just another stage on the well-worn route from singledom
to cohabitation and marriage, or is an interruption to cohabitation forced by
circumstances such as job location (Haskey, 2005; Haskey and Lewis, 2006; Ermisch
and Seidler, 2009). This involves little that is new, despite the new name; there have
always been ‘special’ or ‘steady’ boy/girlfriends and ‘courting couples’, just as there
have always been temporary couple separations because of economic circumstances.
Furthermore, people who live apart (LATs) are not radical pioneers moving beyond
the family, but are cautious and conservative (Haskey and Lewis, 2006). So instead of
‘a social change in the nature of what it means to be a couple’, Ermisch and Seidler
(2009: 41) dismissively conclude that LAT attracts popular attention just ‘because it
is more prevalent among the better educated, who write about it and comment on
society’. From this continuist perspective, LAT would if anything reinforce the central
normative position of marriage and cohabitation.
Recent surveys of the reasons for LAT, drawing on representative national samples,
provide evidence for both the ‘new family form’ and the ‘continuist’ perspectives –
although the quantitative emphasis rests on the latter. These surveys construct LAT
as a heterogeneous category made up of several groups according to their reasons
for living apart. For example, in Britain in 2006, as many as 40% of LAT respondents
were ‘not ready’ to live together (Duncan and Phillips, 2010). Of the remaining 60%
of more established ‘partner LATs’, almost half cited external constraints to living
together because of nancial problems (mostly housing aordability) or job/study
Why do people live apart together?
325
location. Another 13% of partner LATs indicated ‘constrained choice’ – they put
responsibilities to children or older parents rst, or were waiting to marry. As many
as two thirds of respondents said they ‘denitely’ or ‘probably’ would like to live with
their partner in the future. Nor were LATs as a category particularly pioneering in
their attitudes about families and relationships; rather they were part of a younger,
more liberal group together with cohabitants and young singles, in contrast to older
married people. All this supports a continuist perspective. Yet half of partner LATs
also cited more ‘open choice’ reasons for living apart, including those who wanted
to keep their own home or who ‘just do not want to live together’ (respondents
could choose more than one option). This suggests the credence of ‘new family form’
perspectives. Evidence from France (in 2005) suggests similar conclusions: the majority
of people living apart ‘were obliged to live separately because of circumstances’ such
as job location, housing or nance (over 60%), while about 15% were ‘not yet ready’
to live together. Overall, 70% intended to live with their partner within three years.
Nonetheless, a quarter lived apart because of ‘the desire to remain independent’
(Régnier-Loilier et al, 2009: 93).
Similarly, Liefbroer et al (2012), using a 2004–08 survey of seven European countries
(Austria, Bulgaria, France, Georgia, Germany, Romania and Russia), found that
‘practical reasons’ of job location, housing and nance were mentioned most often
as a reason for living apart (ranging from 47% in Germany to 75% in Georgia), with
around a fth ‘not being ready yet’ (from 6% in Georgia to 24% in Romania). Again,
LATs as a category showed little attitudinal dierence compared with cohabiting,
unmarried couples, where it was age, not relationship form, that made a dierence.
Nevertheless, ‘independence’ as a reason for living apart reached highs of 21% in
France and 25% in Germany, although dropping substantially in Eastern Europe.
On this evidence, these recent surveys take what we might call a ‘qualied continuist’
position. Liefbroer et al (2012: 11) conclude that ‘only a minority of people in a
LAT relationship do so for ideological reasons. For most, it is a living arrangement
entered into out of necessity. For others, it is a convenient – and probably temporary
– arrangement’. Similarly, Duncan and Phillips (2010: 132), although admitting that
‘[f]or some, but not for many others, being a LAT may be experienced as a new
family form’, conclude that LATs ‘as a whole do not show any marked “pioneer”
attitudinal position’, where ‘“steady” boyfriend/girlfriend relationships and … those
partners who are primarily LATs because of external constraints … are hardly “new
family forms”’ (2010: 131).
We question this ‘qualied continuist’ position on three, interlinked, grounds. First,
the minority of those living apart who do choose ‘independence’, ‘choice’ and so on
in their questionnaire or interview responses are sociologically important; possibly
they do constitute an emergent, new and dierent way of ‘doing intimacy’, albeit
quantitatively smaller than sometimes assumed in non-representative qualitative
studies. Second, compounding this issue is the ambiguity of survey evidence despite
its apparent robustness. Many LATs will have a number of overlapping reasons for
doing so, with various degrees of certainty and ambivalence, and sometimes these
reasons will be contradictory. For example, in our 2011 survey of LAT in Britain
(discussed below), almost half (49%) of respondents gave several reasons for living
apart, some of which were apparently contradictory (for example, they chose both
‘independence’ and ‘circumstance’ reasons). Some of the reasons themselves suggest
ambivalence or indecision. Third, is the question of how we interpret these survey
Simon Duncan et al
326
responses. Some respondents who gave ‘constraint’ or ‘circumstance’ reasons for living
apart might well appreciate the independence that these situations conveniently
allow them. Or the responses suggesting ‘choice’ or ‘independence’ may not in fact
represent a simple desire for autonomy. Respondents may in fact be exercising a
more negative choice – they might ideally want to cohabit but choose to live apart
in avoiding what they see as unpleasant situations consequent to cohabitation. Or
LATs may feel that obligations to others – such as children – shape their ‘choice’ to
live apart. All of this suggests a complexity about the reasons for LAT that is dicult
to unpick from survey evidence alone. The ‘qualied continuist’ interpretation might
not be so self-evident after all.
A key to resolving these dierences and diculties of interpretation is to examine
in detail why people live apart, which is our focus here. To do so, we use a mixed
methodology research design, based on new quantitative and qualitative evidence
from Britain in 2011.
Methodology
Sources
Our 2011 survey of people in LAT relationships in Britain2 (hereafter ‘the national
survey’) combined data from three statistically representative general population
surveys – the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) Omnibus, the British
Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey and the Oce for National Statistics (ONS) Omnibus.
Together these three surveys yielded a total of 572 people in a LAT relationship –
9% of respondents.3 These LAT respondents were asked questions about practices,
experiences, motivations and attitudes in relation to living apart, and provided
sociodemographic information.4
The national survey provides representative data on LAT in Britain, but at the
expense of depth and context. Second, therefore, we drew on 50 semi-structured,
conversational interviews of around one hour with people in a LAT relationship,
which sought to assess practices, meanings and understandings about LAT in more
depth (hereafter ‘the interview sample’). This took the national survey as a sampling
frame from which respondents were purposively selected according to the reasons for
living apart given in their survey responses. As Table 1 shows, the interview sample
roughly corresponds with the national survey in terms of reason, age, gender, ethnicity,
sexuality, household type and occupational group (although some categories are over-
or under-represented).5 This has the advantage of creating an interview sample that,
while not statistically representative, is not limited to a particular type of LAT but
instead reects the range and diversity of LAT in Britain.6
Analysis
The national survey information was coded for the statistical software package SPSS
and analysis proceeded through standard frequency distribution and cross-tabulation.
The 50 semi-structured interviews were recorded, transcribed and coded using NVivo.
The analysis of the semi-structured interviews was grounded on a close reading of
each interview transcript, identifying respondents’ discursive rationalisations of their
agency and decisions in living apart from their partner. We looked for statements in
Why do people live apart together?
327
respondents’ accounts that demonstrated either a preference for LAT (the respondent
talked about the advantages of, and/or their preference for, living apart) or constraint in
LAT (the respondent talked about circumstances preventing desired cohabitation). At
the same time we recorded stage statements (plans and ideas about moving in together,
sometimes with marriage and children) and state statements (about how current LAT
was seen as a continuing and satisfactory arrangement). Finally, we noted statements
signifying that living together was thought to be too early in the relationship, or that
LAT was situational consequent to job/study location or a response to demands of
an outside agency (such as an employer or prison).
As many participants expressed combinations of preference and constraint and/
or stage and state, we made overall judgements about each interviewee’s responses
as relatively ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. For example, more statements of one category would
make that category stronger (and fewer would make it weaker). Similarly, the way
interviewees made the statement, or the context in which the statement was made,
would aect this ‘strength’ assessment (if, for example, it was hypothetical or heavily
prompted). This assessment then allowed graphical representation of the analysis, with
qualitative plotting of interviewees’ positions on a summary diagram as dened by
preference and constraint, state and stage. We used this to visually discover and present
social clusters and associations in displaying the whole interview sample; individual
interviews were then used to illustrate these. We also plotted other social variables
on this basic grid, including the gender, class and age of interviewees, the length of
their relationship and the presence of dependent children.
Table 1: The national survey sample and the interview sample: selected characteristics
% survey sample
(n = 572)
% interview sample
(n = 50)
Preference 30 40
Too early 31 20
Constraint 19 26
Situational constraint (job/study location etc) 12 14
Men 49 42
Women 51 58
Under the age of 45 76 56
White 85 86
Heterosexual 97 98
Children in household 24 34
Living alone 33 44
Managerial and professional occupations 29 10
Intermediate occupations 20 32
Routine and manual occupations, and unemployed 41 36
Sources: 2011 national survey, 2011 interviews
Simon Duncan et al
328
Why people live apart together
National survey patterns
Table 2 presents the distribution of reasons the national survey respondents gave for
LAT. Respondents could choose any number of reasons from 16 available options,
or give their own reason (some of which were reclassied among the pre-given
options). The distribution of these responses is shown in the ‘all reasons’ column
in Table 2. Respondents who chose more than one reason, 49% of the total, were
then prompted to choose a main reason for living apart. The distribution of these
main reasons, together with the only reason of the remaining 51%, is shown in the
‘main/only’ column in Table 2. For both we have grouped reasons into ve main
categories – too early/not ready, nancial constraint, situational constraint, obligated
preference and preference.
The most popular reason chosen for LAT was that it was too early in the relationship
to cohabit, or that the couple were not yet ready to do so. Adding in the small number
who simply had not thought about cohabitation, this implies that many LATs saw their
relationship in terms of a ‘special boy/girlfriend’ where, if the relationship proceeded,
Table 2: Reasons for LAT: Britain, 2011
Reason All reasons*
(%)
Main/only reason
(%)
Too early/not ready
We are not ready to live together/it’s too early in our relationship 41 29
We haven’t thought about living together 14 3
Financial constraint
We can’t afford to live together 28 17
It would affect my/my partner’s benefits 4 1
Situational constraint
My partner has a job elsewhere 13 8
My partner is studying elsewhere 5 3
My partner is living in an institution (care home/prison) 1 1
Obligated preference
Because of my or my partner’s children 7 5
We have other responsibilities 9 3
Preference
We are waiting until we get married/ have a civil partnership 5 3
I prefer not to live with my partner (s/he wants to live with me) 8 4
My partner prefers not to live with me (I want to live with them) 2 0
We both want to keep our homes 13 5
It’s just how things are 19 5
We just don’t want to live together 8 5
Other/none 11 8
TOTA L * 100
Notes:
Weighted bases 533, unweighted bases 572. * Respondents could choose more than one option.
Source: 2011 national survey
Why do people live apart together?
329
they would eventually cohabit. Altogether, 31% of respondents chose some expression
of LAT as a phase before cohabitation as their only or main reason. Further along
this path was the small number of respondents who were explicitly waiting to marry/
civil partner (coded under preference) – 3% gave this as their main/only reason.
Another third (30%) of respondents chose various forms of constraint impeding
cohabitation as their main/only reason, with aordability most common. These were
couples who ostensibly wanted to cohabit now, but found diculties in doing so.
Only 12% of respondents chose ‘situational constraints’ as main/only reasons (where
living apart was a response to the demands of employers, state authorities or other
organisations). This included just 8% with jobs elsewhere – in some contrast to many
popular accounts where this is assumed to be a major reason for LAT. Similarly, only
a very small number admitted to concerns about benet payments as their main or
only reason for living apart – just 1%. While respondents might have been reluctant
to admit to this motivation for LAT – and 4% did mention this in their complete
list of all reasons – this low gure undermines the ‘moral breakdown’ interpretation
of LAT sometimes found in British political discourse.7
Many respondents chose various ‘preference’ reasons for LAT, but in choosing a
main reason this was reduced to 30%. In fact of these 8% in Table 2 were what we
call ‘obligated preference’: respondents did not live together because of their own or
their partner’s children (5%), or because of other responsibilities such as caring for
older relatives (3%). This left 22% who chose more personal preference reasons for
LAT – they wanted to keep their own homes, they preferred not to live with their
particular partner, they simply did not want to live together, LAT was just how things
were or they were waiting for marriage/civil partnership (see Table 2). Finally, 8%
gave other (unclassiable) main reasons or no reason.
Perhaps surprisingly, in the survey data, social class was not signicantly related to
reasons for living apart. Constraints to living together appear to be experienced just
as much by higher- and lower-income occupational groups, and routine or manual
workers may prefer to live apart together just as much as professionals. Similarly, there
is little gender dierence in the survey responses. In particular, one reason for LAT
where we might expect gendered distributions – ‘obligated preference’ (where caring
for other family was prioritised) – in fact showed similar proportions of men and
women. However, obligated preference as a category includes living apart ‘because of
my or my partner’s children’ and more women than men actually lived with children
(33% as opposed to 15% of men).
There is, however, more signicant association between reason for LAT and age.
A large majority of the ‘too early/not ready’ and ‘constraint’ categories (as dened
by main/only reasons) are bunched into the youngest age bands below 35 years old
and, for both categories, a little over half are below 25. We might assume, then, that
LATs in these categories are mainly early on in their relationship, where living apart
is a stage before cohabitation – either hypothetically or idealistically for the too early/
not ready category, or more concretely for the ‘constraint’ category. In contrast the
‘preference’ category is spread more evenly across age bands.8 Nonetheless, as Table
2 shows, many respondents have a complex mixture of motives for living apart, and
indeed each category is represented in all age bands. Thus, some respondents in the
‘too early/not ready’ category are middle-aged or older, while a signicant proportion
of the ‘preference’ category are young. All this suggests that it is both someone’s age
Simon Duncan et al
330
and the nature of the relationship that inuences people’s reasons for LAT, rather
than factors such as class or gender.
The categorisation in Table 2, like the other recent surveys discussed above,
supports the ‘qualied continuist’ view of LAT. The majority (62% of main/only
reasons in this survey) appear to see LAT as a stage before cohabitation, either
because of various constraints to cohabitation or because cohabitation was seen as
not yet appropriate. Some respondents saw obligations and commitment to others as
precluding cohabitation. However, this still left about a fth who expressed a more
clear-cut preference for LAT rather than cohabitation – similar to the proportions
discovered for France in 2005 (Régnier- Loilier et al, 2009), Britain in 2006 (Duncan
and Phillips, 2010) and Germany in 2011 (Liefbroer et al, 2012).
However, Table 2 raises as many questions as it answers. First, as already discussed,
half of the national survey respondents gave several reasons for living apart, and their
secondary reasons often qualied or even contradicted the main reason. The contrast
in Table 2 between ‘all reasons’ and ‘main/only reasons’ suggests this complexity
well. Second, how should these reasons for LAT be interpreted? Do the ‘preference’
respondents represent people using LAT as a ‘historically new family form’ (Levin,
2004), or similarly as an ‘ideological’ alternative to cohabitation (Liefbroer et al,
2012)? This seems problematic as the ‘preference’ category includes those couples
apparently in conict over cohabitation (the options ‘I prefer not to live with my
partner (s/he wants to live with me)’ and ‘my partner prefers not to live with me (I
want to live with him/her)’. ‘Preference’ can also include ambivalence or indecision
(‘It’s just how things are’). Hence, clear-cut ‘preference’ for living apart may be even
less than Table 2 suggests.
Alternatively, ‘preference’ for living apart could be interpreted as being much
greater, as some form of preference was the most popular response among ‘all reasons’
for being a LAT. It may be that LAT gives couples greater freedom for manoeuvre
than in earlier periods or in other living arrangements; they may be using LAT as an
ongoing alternative to the choice between cohabitation or relationship breakdown.
Similarly, constraints and circumstances may sometimes provide a justication for
desired or appreciated autonomy. This may not be rationalised as a main or only
reason for LAT. Nonetheless, in Levin’s (2004) terms such respondents may be able
to simultaneously maintain autonomy and intimacy through living apart, even if this
is not explicitly expressed as ‘preference’.
To address this complexity, we go on to examine respondents’ understandings of
LAT in more depth, using the 50 semi-structured interviews.
Understandings of LAT
Figure 1 presents the allocation of all 50 interviewees from the interview sample
along a constraint/preference and stage/state grid, as discussed in the Methodology
section. Our analysis found four fairly distinct clusters, with relatively few outliers
or transitional cases:
constraint with stage;
preference with stage;
preference and constraint with stage (obligated preference);
preference with state.
Why do people live apart together?
331
We comment on each of these clusters in turn below.
As with the national survey, there were no signicant class or gender associations
with this distribution, with one significant exception – the ‘constraint with
stage’ cluster (obligated preference) in this non-representative sample was mostly
composed of women with children. There were also some dierences according to
age – not unexpectedly more of the ‘preference with stage’ cluster (mostly ‘too early’
respondents) were under the age of 40, and more of the ‘preference with state’ cluster
were over the age of 40.
Can’t live together – constraint with stage (14/50)
These respondents understood their living apart as a temporary stage enforced by
severe external constraints to their desired cohabitation. Diculties with housing
and/or nance were most often discussed and these were usually felt as fairly decisive.
Others could not live together because of family opposition to cohabitation with their
partner (or even to any relationship) on cultural and religious grounds, or because
of the demands of outside agencies such as employers or state authorities. Most had
active plans about living together in the near future, and many talked about marriage
and children. Not surprisingly, nearly all were shorter relationships of under two
years, and were most likely to live over an hour away from their partners – in fact,
ve respondents had partners living abroad. This group represents the ‘constraint’
Figure 1: Understandings of living apart together
Note: S = situational, E = too early, X = other respondent
Source: 2011 interviews
Simon Duncan et al
332
summary categories in the national survey, accounting in total for 30% of ‘main/
only’ reasons (see Table 2).
Craig9 was a type-case example; his partner could not move in just then because
of her house lease, but she would do when that ended in a year’s time. Peter, who
envisaged joint relocation to a mid-point between their two jobs with engagement
and marriage – all within the next two years, called his partner ‘wifey’ and was called
‘hubby’ in return. Annabel and her partner could not aord a house together but were
saving to set up in New Zealand, with marriage and children to follow. Ravi really
wanted to marry his partner, but his family were implacably opposed to him marrying
someone of a dierent caste. For Katie, the overwhelming opposition to marriage
from her partner’s parents on religious and cultural grounds seemed so insoluble that
this stage was becoming a constant state, and she was left contemplating some of the
advantages of living apart. As she wryly noted: “the way he’s been brought up the
women – the woman does everything … it’s like having two children. So I do like
the days that I know he’s not coming”.
Unsurprisingly, all seven ‘situational’ respondents (where one partner was required
by outside agencies to live somewhere else) shared this ‘can’t live together’ position. In
the national survey such situational respondents accounted for 12% of the total (see
Table 2). This more obligatory living apart was not only consequent to job location
(where some element of choice exists), but was also imposed by state-enforced rules
about immigration or imprisonment. Thus, Henry cited visa restrictions on his plan
to bring his wife from Thailand, Stacey’s partner lived in army barracks, and Lisa’s
in a restricted bail hostel subsequent to a prison term. Nonetheless, some found
incidental advantages in being apart from their partner, thus Lisa noted that “if there
is a benet [from living apart] it’s still that you’ve still got your own space, you know
I still can get up in the morning and walk around with my make-up half-way down
my face”. Furthermore she was able to “see my friends or my family or do whatever
I want”. But this incidental autonomy did not override her strong wish to live with
her partner on release from bail hostel and then, in short order, to house hunt, marry
and have (more) children. Like most others in this group, Lisa did not see LAT as an
alternative family form. Geneva put this normalisation of cohabitation well: “I don’t
think it [LAT] would work long term. I don’t understand it. Don’t get it. I d- I don’t.
But because human beings are supposed to be together, aren’t they? Natural – it’s a
natural kind of biological thing isn’t it?”
This cluster presents a ‘traditional’ or ‘continuist’ position in living apart, in the sense
that we come across similar stories of constrained separation in the family surveys
of the 1950s and 1960s (Duncan, 2011). An important dierence now, however, is
that respondents could enjoy couple intimacy through LAT without undergoing
the tolerated deviancy of ‘pre-marital sex’, or the enforced separation, reported in
these earlier surveys. And, as Lisa and Katie show, women may be able to experience
greater autonomy with LAT than with cohabitation.
Not cohabitation just now – preference with stage (10 /50)
These respondents preferred to live apart just now, but saw their relationship ideally
developing further into cohabitation, sometimes with marriage and children. Most
in the ‘too early’ category, who did not think themselves emotionally ready to live
with their partner, were located in this group. So Tom, for example, “wouldn’t want
Why do people live apart together?
333
to live with someone straight away, to be quite honest. ’Cause you need to get to
know the person … ’cause it is a very big commitment when you start living with
someone … at the moment we’re getting to know each other” [even though] “there’s
no reason why … she can’t live here, there’s plenty of room.
Three women in this group were partial exceptions. While not feeling ‘too early’ in
the relationship to live together, strong feelings of emotional defence and/or insecurity
meant they also preferred not to live together just now. These respondents illustrate
the ‘not ready’ element of the ‘too early/not ready’ option in the national survey
(Table 2). Gemma, while enjoying holding more relationship power through being
a LAT, also feared losing her assets to the Child Support Agency with cohabitation.
Hannah enjoyed the autonomy LAT provided but, recovering from a searing divorce,
was “keeping him at arm’s length, … I’m trying not to get too close ’cause my heart’s
trying to be sensible, and you know, not fall in love too deeply and just make the
same mistakes that I did before”.
Michelle was even more self-protective, for her rst partner had “emptied my house
and … left loads of bills, debt”, while a succeeding partner had become violently
possessive and nally attacked her, damaging her eye. Not surprisingly, Michelle had
“kind of learnt from my lessons and … I don’t want to lose everything in my house,
I don’t want to be possessed, I don’t, and I don’t want to be beaten up [small laugh],
by someone who’s meant to love me. Um so, yeah, I’ve just, kind of become a bit
wary”. Consequently, she did not live with her current partner, even though it was a
“good relationship” and they had a son together. Nonetheless, Michelle “would love
to live with him and have a perfect family, and I ght myself”.
Unsurprisingly, nearly all these respondents were in shorter relationships of under
two years, and most were under the age of 40 and without dependent children. They
represent the large ‘too early/not ready’ category in the national survey, accounting
for 31% of the ‘main/only’ reasons for LAT in Table 2.
This group ostensibly shows a ‘continuist’ position where LAT is part of being
early on in the relationship, resembling the ‘special girlfriend or boyfriends’ that
Gorer (1971) found in his 1969 survey of people under the age of 40 in England.
Then, 44% of ‘the unmarried’ had such a partner, with half of these ‘on terms of real
physical intimacy’ (Gorer, 1971: 213). However, in 1969 few were aged over 25 and
60% already had a day for their wedding xed, whereas for the 2011 LAT group the
average age had increased (in the national survey, 57% were over the age of 25) and
future cohabitation was less assured (in the national survey, 46% did not expect to
be living together within two years). Living apart together as ‘special boy/girlfriend’
nowadays might be more exible and longer term, with marriage or even cohabitation
less likely to be the desired goal than for those engaged and waiting to marry in 1969.
‘Oughtn’t to live together’ – preference and constraint with stage (7/50)
This group showed more of a balance of preference and constraint in living apart. In most
cases, this was because of obligations felt to dependants, usually a child but in one case
to an inrm mother. (While several other respondents did provide some care for older
parents living elsewhere, and this might complicate things, in itself this was not seen as
precluding cohabitation.) Most of these interviewees were women who had dependent
children and were previously married. They represent the ‘obligated preference’
category of the national survey, accounting for 8% of ‘main/only’ reasons (Table 2).
Simon Duncan et al
334
Obligations to children were felt as much – if not more – for teenagers as for young
children – the parental house was ‘their home’. For example, Stephanie had “to sort
my daughter out rst, she comes rst really” and arrange her leaving home into
independent life. So adding to her worries about getting ‘it wrong the rst time round’,
cohabitation would have to wait for a year or so. Such obligations were particularly felt
for children seen as disabled. Thus Carrie did not “want to rush into it [cohabitation]
because my son suers from ADHD [attention decit hyperactivity disorder], and he
doesn’t deal with change very well. So um, I just want to take it, each day as a t- at a
time. I’m not saying it will never happen. I do hope it does happen.”
These obligations to dependants sometimes extended to the other partner, usually
a man, who worried about upsetting their partner’s children if they lived together. As
David put it: “the last thing a 16-year-old lad wants is somebody coming into their
life and pretending to be dad.… They come rst every time and their feelings come
rst”. Nor did obligations to children necessarily disappear with their adulthood.
Five older respondents raised worries about inheritance issues if they lived with their
partner, although this was felt as a reinforcing background to a given decision to live
apart for other reasons.
These interviewees mostly saw living apart as a temporary stage before cohabitation,
although for Ben this wait was indeterminate when ‘the crunch’ would only come
with his mother’s death. This group also appears ‘traditional’ in the sense that not
living with a partner because of obligations to others was reported in the 1950s and
1960s family surveys (Duncan, 2011). What is dierent, however, was that now such
individuals could maintain an open and intimate couple relationship, through LAT,
while still taking care of existing obligations. In particular, in contrast to this earlier
period, women are now able to mobilise the nancial resources to do so.
‘Won’t live together’ – preference with state (19/50)
All interviewees in this group preferred to live apart, in the sense that they talked
about the advantages of, and/or their preference for, living apart, even though most
could cohabit relatively easily in the absence of major external constraints to living
together. All saw this as a continuing state, although some admitted to hypothetical
or ideal-stage ideas about cohabitation. As most lived less than 20 minutes away from
their partner, this position was also more practical – they could easily see their partner
regularly. Most were in longer relationships of over two years. Nearly all were aged
over 40, including all ve of the total interview sample who were over 60, and most
had been married before. In addition, almost all of the small minority who said they
were not in love with their partner (ve out of six sample respondents), or in love but
not committed (two out of three), were in this group. This group parallels the overall
‘preference’ category in the national survey with 30% of ‘main/only’ reasons (Table 2).
Autonomy and independence were major issues for most in this group, for example
Helen became “annoyed after 10 days” when her long-distance partner stayed with
her: “I’m used to having things done my way, rather than sharing space. It’s awful,
absolutely awful, I know it’s really selsh. She felt “like I’ve got my cake and eat it”
– so even if her partner moved up from London to Edinburgh, she would still prefer
him to get his own place. Or as Nicola put it: “You can do what you want when you
want, you don’t have to ask…. I like my own space. … he’s got a bigger house than
mine but I don’t like his house as much as I like mine so…” Perhaps it was some
Why do people live apart together?
335
sort of traditionally gendered ‘payback’ for her autonomy that she did her partner’s
ironing and house cleaning every week. Andrew, the only person in the interview
sample who explicitly saw LAT as temporary before separating and moving on, took
autonomy further: “as a bloke…, it’s quite a good situation. Because I can do what I
want…. And have the best of both worlds.
At rst sight, then, this group appears as a non-traditional relationship or ‘new
family form’ version of LAT – these interviewees were not planning or wanting to
move in together, they particularly valued autonomy but also desired intimacy, and
they were not especially constrained from living together had they so wanted. This
is a position rarely, if ever, reported in the 1950s and 1960s family surveys (Duncan,
2011). Rather, LAT enabled these respondents to ‘have the best of both worlds’, as
Andrew put it.
However, a closer look at their motivations for living apart reveals a more nuanced
and complex picture. First, three young interviewees felt that it was too early to move
together; LAT was an early stage in their lifecourse that was not leading to anything
else. Second, for six respondents it was not so much the case that they wanted to live
apart – rather, more negatively, they did not want to live with their current partner.
This reects the national survey option ‘I prefer not to live with my partner (s/he
wants to live with me)’ with 4% of ‘main/only’ reasons (Table 2). Neither Wendy
nor Janet would countenance living with alcoholic partners, Sharon disliked her
clinging and emotionally insecure husband but although separated felt a continuing
obligation to him. Gary was more forthright – the problem was that “we argue too
much together … when she gets a drink in her and … I’ve had a drink, then we just
start arguing I just hate- I just want her away”.
Maggie was repelled by her partner’s ‘hardcore’ green lifestyle (his lack of washing,
no central heating and sporadic toilet ushing). Like Sharon, she also thought her
partner looked down on her as ill-educated and intellectually inferior. Some of these
respondents with this ‘negative preference’ for LAT consequently held on to idealised
desires for cohabitation – if only Wendy’s partner would “stop the drink and I would
love him, so that we could be together”, or Maggie’s partner would oer “marriage
and central heating” (the latter particularly important for medical reasons). LAT was
a decit position for these two respondents – ideally they would rather be married.
Indeed, Maggie saw marriage as “the top”, without which “society will go downhill”.
Third, three others in the group were less antipathetic to their particular partner but
sought emotional security as well as autonomy through LAT. This perhaps reects
the 5% in the national survey who picked ‘it’s just how things are’ as their main/
only reason for living apart (Table 2). So while Julie valued her own space, did not
want to end up “running around tidying up after him” and certainly “could not be
doing with mongy men”, she mainly used living apart to protect herself against any
repeated indelity. Similarly, Charlotte and her partner “both had us ngers burned….
We both ended previous relationships with literally nothing … I lost everything”.
As she continued: “I don’t want to lose him, so he’s not moving in basically.” We
are left, therefore, with only eight interviewees who, like Nicola and Helen, more
clearly preferred to live apart for positive ‘lifestyle’ reasons centred on autonomy and
independence.
Simon Duncan et al
336
Conclusion
At one level both the analysis of the national survey and of the interview sample
can be taken as supporting the ‘qualied continuist’ view of LAT. Most people who
live apart together appear to do so because it is too early in their relationship to
live together (although they imagined doing so later on), or they are constrained by
external circumstances or agencies from achieving their desired cohabitation, or they
feel prior emotional and practical obligations to others, which prevent cohabitation.
All these circumstances would have been recognised in the 1950s and 1960s. For the
majority, LAT is seen as a stage before cohabitation. While a minority do prefer to
live apart, many do so for ‘negative’ reasons such as reservations about their partner,
or fears about repeating bad experiences of cohabitation. If only things were dierent
they would ideally cohabit, even get married. Only a minority express a more positive
preference for LAT as a relationship form, and for most cohabitation remains as a
practical, aspirational or idealised goal. Overall coupledom remains pivotal, and in
the interviews living apart was hardly ever discussed as an alternative ‘ok for now’
relationship.
There is therefore little explicit evidence of Giddens’ (1992) ideal-type ‘pure
relationships’ (where the relationship is only continued while satisfaction lasts), still less
of Bauman’s (2003) temporary and commodied ‘liquid love’. This may be a surprising
result considering that, if this sort of relationship were to exist, it would probably be
most likely among LAT couples. While LAT may in principle lend itself to the pure
relationship model, it does not necessarily follow that this is actually practised. Similarly,
Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002) have suggested that it is professional women who
are particularly involved in individualisation processes. But as we have seen, there is
little class or gender association with reasons for LAT, except in the traditional way
that separated and divorced mothers are left living with children. Indeed. only three
women interviewees mentioned LAT as a means to avoid traditional divisions of
labour (and this was never a major stated reason for living apart). More often women
described how they carried out the domestic labour services or childcare for their
male partners traditionally performed by wives (and men traditionally contributed
DIY, dog walking and washing up). In these ways individualisation theorists confuse
what people can potentially do (create individual self-projects) with what they actually
do (relate to others in more taken-for-granted ‘traditional’ ways).
However, these continuations do not mean that LAT simply maintains traditional
ways of moving between between singledom and cohabitation, or that social change
is not signicant to the understanding of why people live apart. As Weeks (2007: 7)
suggests, ‘the continuists want to stress the recalcitrance of hidden structures, but in
doing so forget the power of agency and of the macroscopic impact of subtle changes
in individual lives’. First, LAT now provides a more accepted and, for many, a practical
and satisfactory response to changing circumstances. People can more easily adapt to
unfavourable situations and overtly enjoy couple intimacy, even if desired cohabitation
is not possible or appropriate just now. That it is both economically and culturally
possible for women to live by themselves, or with their children, and to openly having
relationships with partners with whom they do not live, represents signicant social
change. In the family surveys of the 1950s and 1960s, similar stories to those told by
the constraint interviewees often ended in separation, singledom, or later marriage,
often seen as second best, to someone else. Similarly, ‘too early’ special boy/girlfriends
Why do people live apart together?
337
can extend and develop courtship through LAT, practising non-residential intimate
and sexual relationships that would once have required marriage to acquire social
legitimacy.
Second, as the interviews showed well, LATs can more safely manage their
emotional and practical lives when cohabitation seems risky, or when they do not
want to live with a particular partner, or feel prior commitments to others. Again,
in the 1950s and 1960s similar situations often led to prolonged singledom or
separation. In these cases LAT is not so much a matter of combining intimacy with
autonomy, as combining intimacy with safety or intimacy with obligation. Third,
nearly all interview respondents saw at least some advantage in living apart because
of the greater personal autonomy, space and freedom it aorded. For example, many
women interviewees, echoing 1960s’ feminism, described the advantages of increased
personal autonomy from their male partners. For most this autonomy was more of
a circumstantial, if pleasant, by-product of being apart, where living together in a
family home remained the ideal. Nonetheless, experiences of how relationships can
be conducted have changed, and expectations of autonomy may persist beyond LAT
into cohabitation. In this way, LAT can open up new possibilities and expectations
in personal relationships and family life.
LAT is not simply a new family form, but nor is it just a stage in courtship or
marriage, or a simple reaction to constraints. Rather, LAT is better characterised as
exible pragmatism. As a category, LAT contains dierent sorts of relationship, with
dierent needs and desires around personal autonomy, emotional management, couple
intimacy, other family commitments, and how to respond to external circumstances.
Potentially, living apart from a partner allows greater exibility for individuals than
co-residential relationships. This exibility gives people more room for manoeuvre
in conducting their relationships. LAT therefore combines elements of both ‘new’
and ‘continuation’ or ‘tradition’ as people draw on existing practices, norms and
understandings in order to adapt to changing circumstances. In so doing they both
rework and reproduce established ways of doing relationships.
Notes
1 Corresponding author.
2 Britain includes England, Scotland and Wales.
3 Living apart together was self-dened in response to the interviewer question (addressed
to all who were not married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting): “Are you currently in a
relationship with someone you are not living with here?” In two of the surveys (the BSA
Survey and NatCen’s Omnibus), married, civil partnership and cohabiting respondents
were subsequently asked: “Can I just check … does your partner live here or somewhere
else (please include your spouse or partner if you are not currently living with them)?”
4 Questions were the same for all three constituent surveys, although small numbers of
questions were simplied or omitted for the ONS survey (taken last), where responses
to the two earlier surveys had shown little variation.
5 The interview sample over-represents preference LATs, and those who are older, female,
living alone or with children, and in intermediate occupations, while under-representing
the too early, younger, male and professional).
6 We also took a ‘psychosocial’ sample from the survey, of 16 dierent respondents, with
whom we carried out in-depth biographical narrative interviews (not used in this article).
Simon Duncan et al
338
7 Iain Duncan Smith, the British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, cited LAT as
a means to benet fraud (Radio 4, World at one, 27 November 2012).
8 The category ‘obligated preference’ was too small for meaningful statistical analysis, and
was therefore included in the larger ‘preference’ category. For the same reason, we added
‘situational’ respondents into an overall ‘constraint’ category.
9 All names are pseudonyms.
Acknowledgements
Thanks to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), grant number RES-
062-23-2213.
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