Living apart together (LAT) broadly refers to couples, heterosexual or homosexual, who have an ongoing self-defined couple relationship without cohabiting. Some couples keep separate residences, even though they both live within the same locale. Levin (2004) has suggested that the dual residence aspect of LAT couples distinguishes them from a commuter marriage where there is one main household and just a second apartment for when one partner is away. However, with many commuter couples it is difficult to say which might be the ‘‘main’’ household. Distance perhaps better demarcates LATs from commuter marriages. LAT couples may live near each other, or far apart. Typically, those in commuter couples have residences at some distance and spend time apart in order for both partners to pursue professional careers. Such arrangements now encompass not just heterosexual and married couples, and for that reason Holmes (2004) uses the term distance relationship. LAT can serve as an umbrella term for all couples with dual residences. What the terms LAT, com muter marriage, and distance relationship have in common is that they refer to situations in which the woman partner/s has some independent existence, in ways not seen in the past.
Historically, there have always been couples who have had to endure separation, mostly when the husband’s work took them away from home regularly. Such separations continue, but the husband’s periodic absences from the family home are usually spent in temporary and/or institutional accommodation, as with sailing, fishing, military service, or incarceration. LAT relationships differ in that partners visit each other, but each returns to their own residence. These new arrangements have emerged as a result of women’s increasing entry into the work force, especially the professions, and the associated financial and social independence this allows. Yet the extent of living apart together is difficult to judge.
One major methodological problem with LAT couples is measuring their numbers. Many large data sets use households as the unit of measurement and therefore do not capture couples living apart. There have been recent efforts to correct this, but estimates vary depending on different definitions of the target population. Ermisch and Kiernan’s respective analyses of the British Household Panel Survey and the European Family and Fertility Survey suggest that as many as one third of those in Europe not married or cohabiting may be having a relationship with someone in another household (Holmes 2004: 187). It is not known, however, how many of these may realistically be defined as living apart together, nor how far apart such couples live. However, Levin (2004: 228–9) has collected some quantitative data for Norway and Sweden which suggests that 8–14 percent of those who are not married or cohabiting are in a LAT relationship. This probably constitutes up to 4 percent of those populations, but may be a conservative estimate given Levin’s rather strict definition. She notes that French and German scholars suggest slightly higher figures in their own nations, but based on broader definitions. As regards distance relationships, the American psychologist Gregory Guldner, in his book Long Distance Relationships: The Complete Guide (2003), states that one quarter of non-married people in the US live in a long distance relationship (LDR). But work in this area has so far been almost wholly qualitative.
Sociological attention to couples living apart in new ways emerged in the late 1970s in the context of investigating the rise of dual career couples. Farris reported the findings from her Master’s thesis on commuting in the Rapoports’ 1978 collection on Working Couples. Kirschner and Walum discussed ‘‘two location families’’ in the first volume of Alternative Lifestyles published the same year. The focus was on com muter marriage – perhaps because unmarried couples who lived apart would not have been visible at the time (Levin 2004). The key issues have been to compare the satisfaction of such lifestyles in relation to cohabitation (Bunker et al. 1992) and to assess living apart as an attempt to achieve some balance between work and family demands. The latter is central to the first comprehensive sociological study of commuting couples by Gerstel and Gross (1984), who merged the qualitative data from their independent studies in the 1970s to give them a sample of 121 respondents, half of which had children. They looked at the costs and benefits of commuter marriage and argued such marriages illustrated that the demand of the economic system for mobile workers does not fit well with traditional family patterns of shared residence. This challenges the usual functionalist and Marxist arguments that the nuclear family suits capitalism’s needs. There are a few superficial inquiries into commuting in the early 1990s that mostly confirm Gerstel and Gross’s findings. It is not until the end of the century that a shift in focus within the sociology of family, intimacy, and relationships prompts new, more substantial work.
Although interest in work–family ‘‘balance’’ continues, a focus on changes in intimate life is now driving much theoretical and empirical work on couples who live apart. These changes are being discussed in terms of how they relate to processes of individualization and the supposed impacts on traditional family, community bonds, and relations of care. Theoretical musings on these issues by the likes of Bauman and Giddens have begun to be questioned with the aid of empirical information. The issue of Current Sociology in which Irene Levin’s article appears is a useful example of contemporary work in this line. The examination of couples living apart together, in all their forms, plays a crucial part in providing information about to what extent traditional or ‘‘conventional’’ ways of relating have become less dominant in the face of new conditions of social life prevailing at the beginning of the twenty first century. In particular it is arguably becoming less taken for granted that cohabitation, or indeed proximity, is necessary for intimate relationships. There is still much to be done, however, in terms of exploring the complex relationships between individualization, geographical mobility, sexuality, and the ways in which people love and care for each other.
Individualization has not extended equally to all groups of people. As with other ‘‘non-conventional’’ forms of relating, research on LATs can help assess the effects of a supposedly greater social focus on autonomy. However, research so far indicates that even relationships seemingly based on high levels of independence may involve inequalities and interdependence. In order to better illuminate these issues further research on distance relationships needs to pay more attention to work being done on migration and globalization. Who you can love, how and where, is likely to be heavily influenced by discourses and practices relating to ‘‘race’’/ethnicity, religion, security, home, and care. In addition, the sociology of the body and of emotions has a part to play in making sense of forms of ‘‘everyday migration’’ involved in maintaining relationships without frequent proximity. Physically and emotionally, long term pursuit of such relationships may be sometimes exhausting and sometimes exhilarating. What might contribute to tired bodies and frayed nerves, rather than wellbeing, requires investigation. Access to economic resources, gendered practices, flexibility at work, and trans port and communication networks are likely to be crucial. Other factors that might determine whether such arrangements will grow in popularity will include the numbers and status of women in the workforce, the operation of global and local labor markets, and changing ideas about intimacy, gender, sexuality, and relationships. Already sociologists exploring sexuality have made a considerable contribution to illustrating that (hetero)sexual cohabitational relationships are not the only, or indeed necessarily best, way to live love. It would be extremely useful to have more quantitative data on the extent of non cohabitational relationships in order to establish just how non-conventional such arrangements are. This would help provide a context for further qualitative research which locates LATs not just in relation to ‘‘traditional’’ relationships, but within broad social and global processes which might offer new possibilities as well as new problems for loving.
- Bunker, B. B., Zubek, J., Vanderslice, V. J., & Rice, R. W. (1992) Quality of Life in Dual-Career Families: Commuting versus Single-Residence Couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family 54: 399 407.
- Gerstel, N. & Gross, H. (1984) Commuter Marriage. Guilford Press, New York.
- Holmes, M. (2004) An Equal Distance? Individualization, Gender and Intimacy in Distance Relation- ships. Sociological Review 52: 180 200.
- Levin, I. (2004) Living Apart Together: A New Family Form. Current Sociology 52: 223 40.