Home Alone Together
MAUREEN TOOHEY, 39, a twice-divorced hairstylist from Mahopac, N.Y., believes that girlfriends have it over wives or live-in lovers. That is why when Evelio Labarta, 37, her boyfriend of three years, hints at marriage — or even living together — she issues a swift veto.
“My last husband would lie around like Al Bundy and expect me to be waiting on him all the time,” Ms. Toohey said. “Evelio helps with the dishes and he’s grateful for what I do. When we see each other, he takes me out to dinner and doesn’t expect me to cook every night or do his laundry. And when I do cook, he appreciates it.”
She can take her time putting her 5-year-old daughter to bed, she said, without worrying that there’s a husband in a nearby room “competing for attention.”
Mr. Labarta, a driver for DHL, the shipping company, is also divorced and lives nearly an hour away in Mamaroneck, N.Y., with his aunt. He admits that his friends think he’s lucky to have a woman who is not pressuring him to live with her.
“My friends think I have a good deal,” Mr. Labarta said. “It’s a little unusual but it works.”
Actually, it is becoming a lot less unusual. Two decades after Woody Allen and Mia Farrow defied convention by living apart even after starting a family, researchers are seeing a surge in long-term, two-home relationships.
They have even identified a new demographic category to describe such arrangements: the “living apart together,” or L.A.T., relationship. These couples are committed to sharing their lives, but only to a point.
Hard numbers are difficult to come by; the United States Census does not measure these relationships. However, a survey-based British study published last year by John Haskey, a statistician who heads the Family Demography Unit at the Department of Social Policy at Oxford University, estimated that a million couples in Great Britain are currently in L.A.T. relationships. Other recent studies have found the trend on the rise in Holland, Sweden, Norway, France and Canada.
David Popenoe, the co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, a leading center of marriage and family studies, says that it is clear even from the fragmentary evidence available — “partly what we know anecdotally, partly the fact that every other significant European trend in family life has turned out to be happening in America” — that L.A.T. relationships are on the rise in the United States, too.
In 1991, Robert White, 69, a San Francisco real estate investor, and Elke Zuercher-White, 61, a practicing psychologist, made what was then an almost unheard-of choice, when they decided to marry but live in separate spaces.
Even today, Mr. White said, people often look at them as though they are “from Mars” when they explain their marriage, but they’ve never questioned their decision. “You have an appreciation for each other when you’re not constantly in each other’s way,” he said. “It’s kind of like the first date every time I see her.”
In many cases, though, L.A.T. relationships are driven less by maintaining romance than by familial obligations. In an era of increased longevity, many older couples see L.A.T. relationships as a way of avoiding complicated inheritance issues, Professor Popenoe said.
Younger couples often turn to L.A.T. arrangements after failed marriages, particularly if there are children involved. According to widely accepted interpretations of American census statistics, when people remarry after divorce, the new marriages fail at a significantly higher rate — more than 60 percent, versus 50 percent or less for first marriages.
Jeannette Lofas, a clinical social worker and the founder of the Stepfamily Foundation, a counseling organization in New York, advocates living apart, because blended families are so vulnerable to internecine resentments and power struggles.
“Although social pressures encourage stepfamilies blending, only one out of three stepfamilies survive,” she said. “I always say to people, would you go on a plane to San Francisco with your child if you had a two-thirds chance of not surviving it?”
As much as anything, though, the rise in L.A.T. relationships may be due to a growing unwillingness to compromise, particularly among members of a generation known for their self-involvement.
“In many cases Baby Boomers want to have the freedom to live on their own terms,” said the author Gail Sheehy, whose latest book is “Sex and the Seasoned Woman” (Random House). “As you age, you have more commitments and possessions in your life that you are attached to that the other person may not want to share.”
When Donna Davis, 47, a librarian in Hattiesburg, Miss., met Jim Puckett, 59, a physician, in 1990, she didn’t want to give up her apartment in town to move to his secluded rural home 10 minutes away.
“I like my quiet time,” Ms. Davis said. “Jim’s house is messy and full of all of his collected hobbies.” In their almost daily encounters, usually at her house, she said, “I feel like I get a lot of togetherness, and a lot of time to myself.”
Although they have periodically talked about marriage and the possibility of merging households, they have always found each other’s requirements — she wanted to modernize the kitchen in his house and enlarge his bathroom, he would have needed a music room for his piano if they had stayed at her house — more than either was willing to contemplate.
Even when there’s plenty of money to soften the discomforts of sharing a home, many seem determined to avoid them.
“I am as devoted as any husband to her,” said Marvin Frank, a private investor in Chicago, of his girlfriend of eight years, Laurie Winter. “But I like my alone time and being around my stuff, not Laurie’s.”
Mr. Frank, 48, spends one or two nights a week at his house downtown, and the rest of his time with Ms. Winter in the suburb of Highland Park, but it is his housekeeper, not hers, who irons his shirts. Ms. Winter, 47, was at first uncomfortable with Mr. Frank’s desire for a relationship “like Oprah and Stedman’s,” as he put it, but eventually she came to accept and even like the terms of their arrangement.
“He’s not changing the bulbs or paying for the mortgage but he takes me out for dinner, pays for all the entertainment and travel, buys me jewelry and treats me so well,” said Ms. Winter, an arts patron who is divorced. And when it comes to her two daughters from her marriage, now 13 and 20, she added, “I deal with the parenting issues and my kids don’t feel threatened by him.”
Carolyne Roehm, the New York socialite and author, is similarly unwilling to sacrifice control of her space. Ms. Roehm, 54, said she is perfectly happy with her extreme version of the L.A.T. relationship, with Simon Pinniger, 53, a businessman who lives 1,700 miles away in Aspen, Colo.
She is decorating his house, where she is installing plenty of recessed lighting, not something she would want in her own house, “but he’s a man and he wants it,” she said. “He jokes that you need a miner’s cap to see in my apartment because I like soft lighting.”
Ms. Roehm said she is not interested in making compromises to move in together, even if that makes her sound selfish.
“I have my own life, my own identity and want to keep it,” she said. “I like having the things I love around me.”
But the relationship doesn’t suffer from the distance between them, she said; after all, she was willing to fly out on a moment’s notice when Mr. Pinniger voiced concern about the color of his fireplace stones.
Not everyone is so sanguine about these relationships, however. Professor Popenoe, of Rutgers, acknowledges that living apart makes sense for the elderly and for divorced couples with children. For others, though, he worries that it might impair the ability “to form long-term relationships.”
Dr. Scott Haltzman, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University and the author of “The Secrets of Happily Married Men” (Jossey-Bass, 2005), agrees.
“One of the challenges of marriage is to learn how to live with a person and integrate that person into your life,” he said. “By living apart, you are losing the opportunity to gain that level of intimacy and cooperation.” That scenario, he added, assumes that other people’s needs are an imposition. Marriage presents an opportunity to learn selflessness as well as giving and forgiving, he said, whereas a long-term romantic arrangement that doesn’t involve cohabitation “glorifies individual needs.”
The most frequent complaint he hears from divorcing couples, Dr. Haltzman said, is that the participants want more time and space for themselves. “I do think this trend helps us realize that alone time is an important element” in romantic relationships, he said.
But advocates of L.A.T. relationships, like Judye Hess, a family therapist in Berkeley, Calif., see them not only as an indicator of what’s wrong in long-term relationships, but also as a potential solution. Ms. Hess, who has been part of an L.A.T. couple for eight years, is writing a book on the topic (which she has labeled “dual dwelling duos”) with her companion, Simon Friedman, 47, a computer consultant.
“Many people are trying to fit themselves into a very narrow model for long-term relationships that does not work for their personalities,” said Ms. Hess, 61. If more people saw living apart as an option, she said, “it might save them a lot of pain and breakups.”
For someone like Julianne Foley, the rewards outweigh the drawbacks. Ms. Foley, a financial services executive who lives in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., said she endured a suffocating marriage in which her ex-husband expected her to line up his shoes in the closet with their laces tied in perfect bows. She now relishes the distance in her five-year relationship with her boyfriend, a banker who is also divorced and who lives nearby.
“It used to be that I met everyone’s needs before my own,” said Ms. Foley, 46. Although it’s more expensive to live alone, the emotional costs of living with someone are too high, she said. “You can’t put a dollar value on being your own person.”