When Stephanie Purcell decided to change careers from marketing to production, she soon realized that there weren’t many job opportunities in Omaha, Nebraska, where she lived with her husband. So she moved to Los Angeles — and her husband stayed in Omaha, where his career in IT security was skyrocketing. Living in two separate states “initially wasn’t something we thought we would be doing long-term,” Purcell tells Refinery29. But, two and a half years later, she and her husband are still living apart. “I didn’t want him to give up his dream, and he didn’t want me to give up mine,” she says. “So we started this lifestyle of living in two different places.”
Sociologists call relationships like Purcell and her husband’s “Living Apart Together” or LAT relationships. Research shows that the typical LAT couple is over fifty. After living alone for a time — perhaps after being widowed or divorced — they realize they thrive when they have independence and personal space, and they don’t want to give that up when they begin a committed relationship. But experts say that LAT relationships are on the rise among millennials, thanks to women’s increased independence, the rapidly globalizing job market, and the normalization of other types of “non-traditional” relationship styles, such as polyamory. (Just like all couples, some LAT couples, like Purcell and her husband, are monogamous, while others are polyamorous.) As Purcell says, “It’s not what our parents did or what our friends are doing. But it’s what’s best for us.”
Annie Cox began creating a LAT dating app called Apartner in 2016. Although she is a boomer, she has noticed millennials’ interest in LAT relationships and attributes it in part to the fact that women have more financial independence than they did when she was young. “Younger people are realizing that they don’t have to do what we felt we had to do: get married, have children, and live together,” she says. “Now, women in particular are highly aware of their ability to secure themselves financially.” She points out that data shows that women are marrying and having children significantly later, if they decide to marry or have children at all. “They are focusing on education and career, and if they want to get married and have children — and many of them don’t — they can do so later on,” she says. “And they’re no longer being ostracized by society for that choice.”
Linda Breault, who co-authored the book Living Apart Together - A New Possibility for Loving Couples, adds, “Women now are much better educated, more affluent, and better aware of their options than any other generation before. So many now have successful professional or semi-professional careers and are financially independent. That makes a difference.”
Due to the rise of social media and the increasingly global nature of the job market, couples may find that their career paths take them to separate states or even countries. Sam Laliberte and her boyfriend began a long-distance relationship three years ago, after he moved from Toronto to San Francisco for work. Eventually, her boyfriend quit his job, but the couple didn’t move in together. Instead, “we both became remote, digital nomad, freelancer types,” Laliberte says. And like the ambitious millennials they are, they even collaborated on a project for long-distance couples together: The #LDR Activity Book.
Now, Laliberte lives in Toronto, and her boyfriend lives across the country in Vancouver. “We have the opportunity to live together in the same city full-time, and we’ve chosen not to,” she explains. They have many reasons to live apart: they each prefer their chosen city, have a community of family and friends where they live, and find that it works best for their careers. Laliberte says they’d be open to cohabiting in the right circumstances, especially if they have children together, but not anytime soon. “Right now, I like living here, he likes living there, and it works,” she says. ”We have no end date in mind, and we have no intentions of breaking up.” Channa Bromley, Lead Coach for Relationship Hero, says many millennial couples are choosing to live apart for similar reasons. “It is becoming a lot more common because the world is becoming so much more accessible than what it used to be,” she says. “You have people going to different universities and staying together, and when we get promotions and job opportunities, they might not be in the same city as our partner.”
Bromley also sees a connection between the rise of LAT relationships among millennials and the rise of polyamorous and open relationships. “There’s always going to be a bit of a stigma doing something that’s not the status quo, but there’s definitely a rise in people designing their own relationships now,” she explains. “People are beginning to understand that there isn’t a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to have a relationship.” Linda, who asked to be called by her first name only, says that she and her husband, who live in separate apartments in Chicago, have found acceptance in the polyamorous community, even though they're not currently polyamorous themselves. “Most people we know think we're trailblazing, but we don't mean to be.”
Others suggest that LAT relationships may be more accepted among the queer community. Sam Branman and his husband are what he calls “New York long-distance, but not real long-distance” — he lives in Park Slope in Brooklyn while his husband lives six miles away, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan. When I ask if he’s faced any pushback on his relationship from his friends and family, which many of the women dating men I talked to expressed, he jokes, “Honestly, I barely interact with straight people, so no.” Branman is a designer and his husband does drag, so they both need a lot of space to store their stuff — plus, they just prefer their own neighbourhoods and apartments. “A big part of it is my job,” Branman explains. Because he works from home and has “a massive amount of sewing stuff,” it doesn’t make sense for him to move into his husband’s small apartment. “And I don’t want to live in Hell’s Kitchen,” he adds.
Some parents find that LAT relationships make the most sense not just for themselves but for their children. Jay, who asked to be credited by his first name only, says that he and his girlfriend are both single parents, and while they’ve discussed living together, they’ve decided against it. “We both have children in different schools and it would have been too disruptive, plus we both like our autonomy,” he explains. And while both Purcell and Laliberte mentioned that they might move in with their partners if they have children together, Relationship Hero's Bromley says that isn’t the case for all LAT couples. “What a child needs is to know they’re loved, they’re supported, they’re encouraged,” she says. “It can be empowering for the child to see their parents designing a life that works for them — and it shows them they don’t need to stick to rigid societal norms.” Finances are also a factor — “This is not a choice unless you have financial independence,” Breault, author of Living Apart Together — A New Possibility for Loving Couples, says. But while you might think that LAT relationships are automatically more expensive than cohabiting, that’s not always the case — Branman, for example, says that because he has roommates and his husband’s apartment is rent-controlled, living together wouldn't really change their finances.
While LAT couples — particularly older ones — have been the subject of some newspaper and magazine articles in the past few years, most recently in the Wall Street Journal, the term “LAT” is still not very well known. Cox, who created the Apartners dating app, says that she saw a spike in interest in LAT relationships when Gwyneth Paltrow said that she and her husband Brad Falchuk were living apart (they have since announced they're moving in together). When I’ve brought up LAT style relationships with friends and on social media, people have mentioned two celebrity couples: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, who famously lived on opposite sides of Central Park in the ‘80s and early ‘90s (until their romance ended disastrously when Allen began a relationship Farrow’s daughter Soon-Yi Previn and allegedly sexually abused his and Farrow's daughter Dylan), and Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, who lived and co-parented in adjoining houses before amicably separating in 2014. Most recently, the Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco made headlines when she announced that she and her husband Karl Cook don’t live together, though she added that they plan to move in together after building their “dream house.” “We are not together every single day. It works well for us,” she told E!.
Very few people in LAT relationships actually know the term LAT — even most experts I talked to said that they’d learned the term after beginning their research. The lack of awareness of the term, Cox says, can make finding someone who wants the same type of relationship harder. “People will say, 'I don’t want to be with somebody all the time,' or 'I want my own personal space,' or 'I’ve been married before and I don’t want a partner around all the time,'” she says. “They don’t know what to call that type of relationship.” She believes that as awareness of LAT relationships grows, more people will choose to be in them. “People don’t know that they want it, because they don’t know what to call it.”
Of course, not everyone will thrive in a LAT relationship. Bromley suggests that those who are interested in a LAT relationship try it out in the short term — signing a one-month lease instead of a one-year lease, for example — before going further. “This will work amazingly for some, and for others it will detrimental,” she says. “There’s no right or wrong, just whether it’s right for each individual person and relationship.” Everyone I spoke with stressed that, for a LAT relationship to work, prioritizing communication is necessary, as is a sense of personal independence. As Purcell says, “We always joke that we’re together not because we have to be, but because we choose to be. We’re together because we like the other person, not because we need the other person.”