Being together and living apart – a new dynamic for the 21st century

What is the typical family unit today? Mum, Dad and 2.4 children? A single Mum with kids? A cohabiting couple? The answer is yes to all of these, and in many cases, you can also throw in additional factors such as stepchildren, new partners, same-sex couples and numerous variations on and combinations of the above themes.

In other words, there is really no such thing as a typical family unit. We all have our own individual circumstances, and in many cases, they are on the complicated side.


As if that wasn’t complex enough, the most recent census data has shown a new type of dynamic that has become more common than you might think over the past decade, and that is the phenomenon of “Living Apart Together” (LAT) or as Canadian director Sharon Hyman, who is currently creating a film on this very topic, has pithily put it, “Apartners.”

You might think that this is a phenomenon largely reserved for the rich and famous. Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter famously lived on opposite sides of the globe throughout their relationship, and although they split in 2014, the fact that they stayed together for 13 years can probably be seen as a vindication of the lifestyle, given the fleeting nature of the typical showbiz marriage. Singer and TV star Toyah Willcox is another who famously lived apart from husband Robert Fripp for the first 20 years of their marriage, only seeing each other a few times a year.

Yet you might be surprised to learn that some nine percent of UK couples who are either married or in a long-term relationship do not live under the same roof.

Types of LAT couples

The reasons behind couples adopting this lifestyle are as broad as you might expect. The world has become a smaller place, and it is not just celebrities who can have work commitments on opposite sides of the globe. Our increasing tendency to globe-trot also means that it is more and more common to for your partner to be from another country – sometimes family commitments, such as an elderly relative, demand extended periods apart, and these situations can easily run on for years.

Living apart together does not always mean being separated by thousands of miles, however. The Guardian recently ran an article discussing a couple who have been happily married for 25 years, have twin sons together and have never lived permanently under the same roof. According to them, their vastly different tastes would have meant far too much compromise for a happy home, and they say the lifestyle has made for a happy and successful marriage.

Can it really work?

As with so many things in a relationship, what you choose to do is often less important that why you choose to do it. If there is the belief or suspicion on either side that it is due to a lack of commitment, then it is certainly doomed to fail.

Making it work demands complete trust and a good ability to communicate openly with one another. In that respect, it is actually a very brave and confident thing to do. Typically, it works better for more mature couples who have “been there and done that,” in past relationships and know that they operate better when living alone.

It is certainly not something to be recommended if it is simply a case that you feel you are “getting on each other’s nerves” and need your own space. Better to try a less dramatic way of achieving that, such as each making time for your own interests and hobbies, or even taking separate holidays or short breaks.

If after that, you still feel stifled by one another, it is hard to see how the relationship will thrive if you start living separate lives.

Absence makes the heart grow stronger?

We all know how exciting the early weeks and months of a relationship can be. Inevitably, as the months turn into years and you spend every day with your partner, not to mention their toenail clippings and other unglamorous personal factors, the excitement level reduces.

Some years ago, Dietrich Klusmann of the University of Hamburg conducted a survey of 2,500 couples, which showed that while sexual desire is more or less equal on both sides in the early stages of a relationship, it typically begins to reduce on the part of the female partner after the first year, and as time goes by, it continues to do so. There was one notable exception, which was that for those who do not live under the same roof, the level of desire remains much greater and more intense for longer.

In some respects it sounds like a bad joke – how do you liven things up in the bedroom? Stop living with your husband or wife. But intuitively it makes sense that if you are not constantly in each other’s company, you will feel more intensely about the times that you are together.

A pragmatic consideration

There is another reason why at least maintaining separate homes could be a pragmatic solution if you can afford to do so, particularly for unmarried couples. I have mentioned before that those who are cohabiting do not have the same rights and protection as a married couple.

That means that in the absence of some formal cohabitation agreement, one or other party could end up facing real hardship and even homelessness if the relationship breaks down. Having separate homes and assets could prove to be a real lifesaver under these circumstances.

Of course, most of us do not have Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Cater bank balances, so the thought of maintaining a second home “just in case” is often the stuff of fantasy. Under these circumstances, a cohabitation agreement is an absolute essential to give both yourself and your partner a safety net.

If any of the above has struck a chord and you would like assistance, advice or information about cohabitation agreements or any related matters, my team and I would be delighted to help. Give us a call us on 020 7381 8111, or get in touch via email at

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