When living apart keeps you together

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

By Julia Sklar  Feb 12, 2020

A man and woman hold hands through two open windows. Illustration.
Illustrations by Niv Bavarsky

When my friends Brittany Mytnik, 28, and Ben Nicolaysen, 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 sex 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-sex 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.”

This is not psychological advice, always consult your licensed healthcare providers, and never disregard or delay medical advice based on information provided in this blog or articles. Our goal is to educate, guide, consult, and empower clients regarding mindfulness, design with intention, and experience to create spaces that reflect an elevated psychology of wellbeing.

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