On the eve of their 20th anniversary, Sharon Hyman and her partner David Demetre decided on a change. He would move closer to her – five minutes instead of 15 minutes away by car from her apartment in Montreal.
“People were like, ‘You’re going to finally move in together,’” Hyman said. “I’m like, ‘No.’”
Over two decades together, the pair has never shared a home. Instead, they live solo and see each other a few times a week, mostly at her place.
There was never any plan to live this way for 20 years, Hyman explained, but with polar-opposite work schedules and a strong urge for solitude, full-time cohabitation never really appealed. They’ve gone to open houses, treating them like a passing curiosity. This “apartnership” felt more logical to them.
“We’re committed, we care for and take care of each other but we’ve maintained our individuality. That keeps a relationship alive,” said Hyman, a 56-year-old filmmaker whose forthcoming documentary Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart delves into the unique world of long-term committed couples who choose not to reside together.
It’s a cohort that’s long fascinated sociologists, so much so that it has its own acronym: LAT, or living apart together. LAT partners can be married or unmarried, living apart because they want to or for practical reasons, such as work. Many speak of their residential separation as long-term, if not permanent.
One in 13 people are in a LAT relationship in this country, according to Statistics Canada. Some 1.9 million unmarried adults were in an intimate relationship with someone living elsewhere according to 2011 data, the most recent available from the agency. That’s on top of 240,000 married people who live apart from their spouse in “commuter marriages,” thanks to far-flung workplaces.
Today, sociologists say it is older, heterosexual, divorced or widowed women who are most enthusiastically taking up the trend. They are dating again monogamously but not interested in moving in with their new boyfriends. Financially self-reliant and living in empty nests, these women are ready to focus on themselves. They want companionship but not the domestic drudgery of their previous unions: more dates, less dirty socks.
What most LATers share in common is this drive for autonomy and self-fulfillment. That, and a deep urge to avoid the daily grind of traditional marriage – the fights over house chores and finances, the ways familiarity can breed contempt when people live on top of each other for too long.
Even so, LAT arrangements remain unconventional, eliciting mixed reaction from family and friends. Some are fascinated and envious, others concerned and judgmental. The most conservative critics don’t view such relationships as legitimate. Commitment means living in a shared nest, they tell LATers: You’ve got to live together and compromise for it to be meaningful.
Hyman and other long-term LATers don’t buy it. They argue that they are quite deeply committed. With no practical ties that bind – no mortgage, joint finances or shared children, often – they are only in it because they choose to be. As Canada’s divorce rate hovers around 41 per cent, LATers see living apart as a hopeful alternative to marriage under one roof.
Five years in, Calgary’s Marlo Nielsen, 47, and Todd Hager, 52, don’t plan on moving in together any time soon. Nielsen, a recruiting manager, has done live-in relationships before and wasn’t keen on replicating the experience. Today, she and Hager, who don’t have children, live a five-minute drive away. They see each other on weekends, eating at restaurants, visiting farmers’ markets and casinos and playing music together.
Some of their married friends have questioned their living arrangement, wondering whether the two are “in each other’s corner.” To that, Nielsen is defiant: They are dedicated but also respect each other’s independence, giving each other breathing room during the week. “I discovered how much I enjoy having my own space and my own time to do things," Nielsen said.
Vicki Larson, co-author of the 2014 book The New “I Do”: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels advocates that marriage counsellors raise LAT with their clients as a viable option to “rearrange” their relationships, when all else is failing. “It’s not that this is better or worse," Larson said. "It’s different.”
Even so, Larson also acknowledges it isn’t for everyone. “This is attractive to people who enjoy their own company and don’t need to be around people all the time. It’s probably not going to work well for people who have attachment or trust issues, or who just don’t like being alone.” (Being financially secure and childless also helps.)
LAT also holds appeal for some who are previously separated and blending families with new partners. Michele Allinotte, a lawyer in Cornwall, Ont., lives seven minutes by foot from her partner of more than two years. Both are recently divorced and have four children, ages 7 to 14, between them. Her partner shares his family home, where he grew up, with his kids and his mother. To accommodate everyone in one home would involve finding a place with six bedrooms and an office – not feasible. Not wanting to put their kids through more upheaval, the two have no plans to move in together until their nests are empty.
Today, they meet for meals a few times a week at hers and try to ensure all of their children meet weekly and eat a meal together at least twice a month. Although Allinotte, 43, loves the pockets of solo time that LAT affords her, describing her situation is a challenge. “It is weird to explain. He’s someone I love but don’t live with. Is he my partner? Is he my boyfriend?”
The together-but-apart setup increasingly interests women in middle age and beyond, women who’ve suffered decades-long droughts of “me time,” according to sociologists. Interviewing partners in heterosexual LAT relationships separately, Karen Kobayashi, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, and Laura Funk, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba found some telling gender discrepancies.
“Men perceived the LAT as a stage,” Kobayashi said. “They talked about the eventuality of moving in together and didn’t see this as unlikely at all.”
The women, meanwhile, stressed they had no intention of living with these men. "They said they were very tired of having to care for everyone,” Kobayashi said. “They talked about not being so readily available, how that was very freeing for them.”
Wives who lived apart from their husbands because of work in “commuter marriages” discovered they had less housework to do and more leisure time at their disposal, a point not echoed by their husbands, said Danielle Lindemann, an assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Lindemann, whose book Commuter Spouses: New Families in a Changing World will be published next March, says commuter marriages are an “extreme example” of culturally shifting priorities in relationships.
“It sits at the crux of major changes in how we think about families and marriage,” Lindemann said. “There’s a shift in marriage from being focused on the unit, toward being focused on the individuals in it. Here, you have two people who are pursuing career fulfillment and self-development.”
Such commuter marriages didn’t come without criticism, most of it from family members and aimed at women. “It’s women who disproportionately feel that stigma because they’re valuing their careers at the level that their husbands do, and that hasn’t historically been the case," Lindemann said.
Younger people are also experimenting with LAT partnerships. Kira-Lynn Ferderber, 34, and Jesse McDonald, 38, have been together for more than nine years. To everyone’s surprise, the two Ottawa rappers mutually decided to move out and live separately 2½ years ago.
“It felt like we weren’t doing a relationship well,” McDonald said of the five years they lived together in Ferderber’s west end home.
There were the daily irritants: his video games, her Chihuahua, the eternal question of who does more dishes. After a bad day at work, they’d come home grouchy and dump everything onto each other.
When the opportunity came up for McDonald to move in with friends a 20-minute bus ride away from Ferderber’s place, they both seized it. “It was a huge relief pretty quickly,” he said.
Today, they still do the little things that irk the other, only apart. If there’s an argument, they have room to step back and think things through. Dishes are no longer an issue: Each feels like playing host when the other visits. Time together now feels more intentional.
Even as the move apart energized their relationship, it raised alarm bells among friends, who assumed they were breaking up. McDonald joked that they should have printed up cards explaining their rationale and sent them out to family and friends – a perverse inverse of the wedding invitation.
While LATers understand the scrutiny around their atypical relationships, they question the push that we all love in the same way.
“If you’re living with another person to please other people who aren’t there,” Ferderber said, “it doesn’t make sense.”