When living apart keeps you together

A man and woman hold hands through two open windows. Illustration.

For some couples, sharing their hearts doesn’t mean sharing a
home

When my friends Brittany Mytnik and Ben Nicolaysen, both 27,
come home from work, they like to cook dinner together and talk
about their days. They’re like most couples in that way. What
they cook might vary, but there’s a familiar cadence to their
routine: Nicolaysen follows the recipe in his head and plucks
ingredients from the fridge and off the wire pantry rack in the
kitchen. Mytnik plays the part of sous chef, following gentle
instructions to prep and chop all the vegetables.

But for a year, they acted differently from most other couples
in one big way: When they were finished cooking, they would plate
the hot food in his apartment and carry it upstairs to her
apartment to eat.

Visiting one night after work, we stood around chatting and
preparing stir-fry, and I asked them why they don’t stay in one
place for dinner. Nicolaysen, as the consummate chef in the
relationship, has all the equipment and food, they told me as
broccoli sizzled and popped in hot oil—in his wok, on his
stove—but they eat upstairs because Mytnik has the bigger, nicer
table and the homier decorative aesthetic.

It struck me that they were getting the best of both worlds: all
the benefits of coupledom without any sacrifice of individualism.
Put more practically, they were sharing an IP address without
having to share an actual address.

“There are two things that just about everyone wants, though
in vastly different proportions,” writes social psychologist
Bella DePaulo in her book How We Live Now. “They want time with
other people and time to themselves.”

As I looked for other Boston-area couples living close enough to
share everyday routines, while still maintaining separate spaces, I
found an entire world of people voluntarily “living apart
together.” Yet the more I read about the phenomenon, the more I
realized how inadequately the term makes space for the vast
diversity within and around it. There are many couples who live
apart involuntarily, separated by borders, jobs, or other
circumstances, and others who might wish to live apart but can’t
afford to do so.

My friends saw living apart together not as a permanent
situation but as an added transitional step between dating and the
heteronormative ideal of sharing one bedroom in one home. They held
true to that—midway through reporting this story, they ditched
their twin apartments and moved into one apartment together. But
other couples enter into similar situations with the intent of
living like this forever.

Google “living apart together” and you’ll find a dizzying
number of articles, most focused on whether this behavior is
socially acceptable or good for a relationship. Many analyze the
lives of celebrities who do it, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad
Falchuk, or freewheeling artists who lived apart, like Frida Kahlo
and Diego Rivera. These stories erase the vast number of ways and
reasons that regular people are, in this moment, living apart
together, and the fact that people have actually lived like this
for centuries—although the demographics and reasons keep
evolving. Living apart together has its tangled roots in both the
aristocracy and queer culture, and its contemporary branch
comprises couples looking to prioritize individualism and moments
of intentional solitude as features of longterm relationships, not
roadblocks to togetherness.

In the mid-1600s, an expansive and intentional divide was built
into the layout of the Palace of Versailles—one of the best-known
examples of untethered opulence in the world. On the south side of
the estate, a series of rooms called the Queen’s Apartments were
designed to overlook perfectly landscaped flowers in the palace’s
Midi Parterre. To the north were the King’s State Apartments,
with an identical layout. Queen Maria Theresa was the first to live
in these accommodations, alongside her husband, King Louis XIV.
Although the king and queen technically shared a residence, and the
king would frequently dine in the queen’s apartments and sleep in
her bedroom, this luxurious layout also allowed for vast separation
when needed.

A couple lay together on a bed in embrace. There’s a clear boundary between each partner’s space. Illustration.

Being able to separate from one’s partner within a shared home
required economic privilege. Versailles exemplifies this on an
enormous scale, but the practice is replicated in more modest terms
in large Victorian and Edwardian homes, where the man and woman of
the house might at least have their own bedrooms (while their
servants would’ve gone home to squish sometimes three generations
in one bed).

Perhaps the most practical issue this solved—whether at
Versailles in the 17th century or in a high-class British or
American home in the 19th and 20th centuries—was making sure that
a union holding political, economic, or social importance could
appear unflappable to outsiders, even in the face of disagreements.
No one ended up sleeping on the couch.

But outside of those privileged settings, living separately
isn’t a symptom of marital discord or a way to cover it up. It
has actually played a critical role in the survival of LGBTQ
relationships.

In the Detroit area in 1975, sociologist Joseph Harry set out to
do something radical for his profession: He wanted to learn about
“the love lives and social settings” of gay men, a population
that had been mostly relegated to studies that focused, often not
positively, on their s*x lives. Harry found 241 men who had been in
committed relationships for at least a year and framed a study
around comparing the inner workings of those relationships to the
familiar framework of heterosexual marriage.

What Harry knew to be foundational features in the latter
couples’ relationships didn’t seem to translate to same-s*x
couples in such full force: While “the vast majority” of
married heterosexual couples in his study lived together, he found
that only three-quarters of the gay couples participating did.

“Maintaining a separate household from one’s lover may be a
device through which the gay man can avoid awkward situations with
and questions from heterosexual friends or relatives,” Harry
wrote in his study, published in 1979 as “The
‘Marital’ Liaisons of Gay Men.
” “When heterosexuals to
whom a gay couple have not ‘come out’ visit the gay couple’s
shared residence, awkward questions may arise out of the visible
sleeping arrangements.”

Harry also noted that gay partners who were able to live
together did not seem to have relationships that lasted any longer
than those who lived apart. In other words, living apart was not a
barrier to the strength of these relationships, and in fact may
have been the reason they were able to last in spite of social
oppression and the financial strain of maintaining two
households.

It’s hard to say how far back the practice of living apart
together goes, since LGBTQ people have existed forever, yet have
historically been erased from formal studies. But we do know, as
Harry’s study notes, that at least by the 1970s
“separate-residence relationships [were] a workable adaptation to
perceived pressures from the heterosexual community.” That’s a
nice way of saying that when being a visibly together gay couple is
at best not acceptable and at worst potentially life-threatening,
building a stable relationship around separate homes is
essential.

When I entered the ground-floor Boston apartment of Shelby
Nathanson, 26, and Dan DiPaolo, 46, the most notable detail was
that the front door opened into a living room almost entirely
absent of stuff. Only once Nathanson began showing me around did I
learn that it’s because most of the stuff is crammed into her
room.

Her bed sits unmade in the middle of the floor, an island in a
sea of unsorted mail and baskets full of shoes, which I tripped
over on my way to inspect bookshelves crammed with mementos and
knick-knacks. She has lots of books; they’re just not on the
shelves. Instead, she houses them in cardboard boxes stacked
precariously around the room, as though a move is impending (it’s
not). There’s one narrow, deliberate path through the clutter
that leads directly from the side of the bed she prefers to the
door. Nathanson is the messy one in the relationship, and it’s a
prevailing reason why DiPaolo occupies the bedroom next door. All
of his books are not only stacked neatly in Billy bookcases from
Ikea, but also organized by genre.

Although they mostly keep to their own rooms, there are some
signs around the house that they’re a committed couple who spend
enough time together to rub off on one another and to share
interests. Hanging in the living room is one of their first shared
belongings: a photograph of famed witch Laurie Cabot, purchased on
a trip they took to Salem. On the back porch is a small potted
garden, their co-parenting of which yields mint, basil, shishito
peppers, and small tomatoes. And in Nathanson’s room is a touch
of DiPaolo: She writes a blog about chocolate and keeps the stash
of bars she’s waiting to try perfectly propped up on the rungs of
an old CD storage rack. They’re not arranged by type, brand, or
flavor, as DiPaolo would probably store them, but they’re also
not relegated to a wobbly heap like the rest of Nathanson’s
belongings. Meanwhile, above DiPaolo’s desk is a touch of
Nathanson: What should be a four-part grid of framed nature photos
is really three—the fourth photo keeps falling off the wall.
It’s not lying in the middle of the floor, where Nathanson would
probably leave it, but propped on the shelf above his desk, about a
foot below the other photos with which it was meant to line up.
This errant photo is the only item out of place.

The notion of people who are a couple, and supposedly a committed
couple, not wanting to live together, that is hard to fit into the
kinds of ways we’ve been socialized to think about togetherness.

In many ways, their situation is a descendant of the
aristocratic mode of living apart together. Their digs might not be
as glamorous, but their behavior is still part of a long legacy of
committed couples who need both their own space and time together.
Where a gentry couple may have clung to this living arrangement to
cover up disputes, however, modern couples, like Nathanson and
DiPaolo, relish it as a way to avoid them. In addition to their
differing opinions on how best to manage one’s belongings, they
also have wildly different work schedules, and they sleep better
when they’re apart. On a recent vacation, they shared a bed,
getting a reminder of what it would be like if they split the cost
of a one-bedroom instead.

“When you give me time to fall asleep, then I’ll stay
asleep, but if he’s already asleep, I can hear him snoring,”
Nathanson says. “Then I can’t fall asleep because I’m
alert.”

“And the rage just builds,” DiPaolo adds with a hearty
laugh.

With a one-bedroom out of the question and a two-bedroom out of
financial reach, they opted for their current three-bedroom, which
they share with a roommate; the price of each of their portions
falls somewhere between what a one-bedroom and a two-bedroom in the
area would cost them. A one-bedroom might be more affordable, but
the emotional health of their relationship has become somewhat
dependent on not sharing a room. In fact, the future of their
separate bedrooms came up the very first time I met them, at a
local coffee shop, before I’d even visited their apartment. “We
haven’t really talked about it, but I’ll be honest, I was
looking online the other day at some two-bedrooms,” DiPaolo said.
Nathanson flashed a smile. The idea of ditching the roommate is
appealing, but they’ll be hanging on to their individual bedrooms
no matter what.

There is very little research on how many LGBTQ couples still
choose to live apart in 2019. We do know, however, that more
heterosexual couples are living this way, and that what this
arrangement once offered to gay men, in the way of minor freedoms
within a broken social system, it now offers to straight women.

For the last eight years, Linda Lowenthal, 53, and her partner,
Chris, 52, who asked to keep his last name private, have owned
separate apartment units, one above the other, in the same building
in Boston. After many years of Chris driving the 30 minutes from
his apartment in Arlington, Massachusetts, to Lowenthal’s
apartment in the building they now share, the pair decided the
logistics were untenable, and they started looking for a place
together. “I have to say that he was more keen on really living
together than I was,” Lowenthal, a former coworker of mine,
recalls. “The lack of privacy felt very weird to me.”

When the tenant below Lowenthal died and the unit became
available, she realized they could do something in between. They
negotiated keeping two bedrooms—Lowenthal says that Chris wanted
to use his unit for work and hers for their living quarters, but
she protested—but now use Chris’s bed to lie on while they
watch TV, and go upstairs to sleep in hers. The main time they
don’t spend together is around meals.

“I feel really sheepish about this, but we do not always eat
together. In fact, we a lot don’t eat together,” Lowenthal
tells me.

She likes to cook; what’s unappealing is the expectation that
she come home at a reasonable time to make dinner every night for
someone else. When she comes home from work, she carves out time
alone from her partner, built around cooking dinner for herself.
Even though the resolve in her voice is clear, there’s also a
tinge of guilt. “I should be more invested in having him not eat
chips and salsa and beer for dinner four nights a week,” she
says. “But, you know, I’m not.”

Two figures ascend a staircase, the front figure holding a bowl of pasta, the second figure follows holding two glasses of wine. Illustration.

The lack of “houseperson” is something that Harry saw
manifest in the gay couples he studied who were living apart—no
one person in the relationship was solely responsible for
caretaking or household maintenance—and this same trend is
clearly manifesting in Lowenthal’s relationship.

“Women might like living apart because that helps them resist
traditional female roles,” says Bella DePaulo when I call her
after reading her book. “If you’re not living in the same home
with a guy, then you’re not going to feel obligated to do the
dishes, or pick up his socks. You might not feel obligated anyway,
if you lived with him, but it’s a little easier to resist when
they’re his dishes and his sink.”

Their divided space is not what inspired Lowenthal to opt out of
this traditionally gendered role, but their separate apartments
offered a framework for her to reasonably abstain from activities
that never felt comfortable to her in the first place. It helps, of
course, that she has a partner who she feels isn’t expecting her
to take on those tasks. But then again, a partner who was probably
wouldn’t be living a life with two kitchens.

“The notion of people who are a couple, and supposedly a
committed couple, not wanting to live together, that is hard to fit
into the kinds of ways we’ve been socialized to think about
togetherness,” says DePaulo. It’s her theory about why I found
so many articles questioning the validity of living apart together,
even though so many people are out here doing it
successfully—whether you’re dividing a house, occupying
separate units altogether, or living apart only temporarily, to
ease the transition to someday fully living together.

But how many more couples might be ideally suited to these
arrangements and are simply unable to explore them because housing
costs are too high, or because it’s too hard to find available
adjacent apartments and to get applications accepted at the same
time?

Architect sisters Jenny and Anda French think part of the
problem is available housing models. Their studio, French 2D,
focuses primarily on microunits and cohousing—the latter a model
of shared living where individuals have
their own units connected to common spaces
for the community.
Jenny describes their architectural mission as “defamiliarizing
norms around how space affects perceptions of how we live
together,” and they embody the practice in the most basic way in
their own space: Their studio shares a wall with their mom’s
house, but there are no doors providing direct entry. You have to
leave the house, walk down an outside path, and come in through the
studio door. Work-life balance is built in.

But when it comes to relationship-life balance, “there’s a
huge lag time between the architecture catching up to our evolving
social relationships,” Jenny says. “Household formation around
a heterosexual marriage is basically formalized in a family
apartment.”

“We never pick that apart architecturally,” Anda adds,
referring to the industry as a whole, and balking at the enduring
presence of the so-called “master bedroom,” which would make no
sense for a couple who wants to live like Nathanson and DiPaolo.
The closest thing happening in the industry right now is still just
an idea within compact housing, where “atomized” units—really
just single rooms, maybe with a bathroom attached—could be
scooped up in various or changing formations, depending on evolving
family life. “The architecture can just be a series of cells that
you can keep recombining,” Anda says. “But I haven’t seen any
projects that actually have done that yet. That’s the hope on the
horizon.”

Until then, “we really just need more storytelling,” Jenny
says. “It’s through the mechanism of storytelling that others
are allowed to open up their understandings of how they might best
fit into a domestic situation.”

Julia Sklar is an independent journalist based in Boston. To see
more of her work, you can follow her on Twitter @jfsklar.

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
When living apart keeps you together