On Living Apart Together

By

When my friend Cleo’s relationship ended recently—the second ending in as many years—she said, “I just want to fall in love and settle down, so I can ignore my relationship.” I laughed, but her comment hit home: it spoke to the dilemma my partner and I confront as we make plans for a life together and furnish separate homes 1,660 miles apart. Can we make a lasting love that won’t offer the luxury of ignoring one another, as cohabitating couples can? Can we settle down together, apart?

When I first came out twenty years ago, there was a popular joke around Park Slope: “What does a lesbian bring to a second date?” Answer: “A U-Haul.” We met; we married. In that context, my preference to keep an apartment of my own seemed downright subversive.  “You’re just like a man,” friends said when I was in my twenties and thirties and leaving relationships every few years. They meant that I was untrue to my sex, betraying my female gender by being disinclined to domesticate. They saw the list of lovers (five years with Wendy, two with Morgan, two and half with Cyn, three with Maureen) as an indictment. To hear them speak of it, serial monogamy was a step away from serial killer. Truth was, I wanted to settle down, but my relationships always foundered on the question of cohabitation and distance: How much was healthy, how much was too much?

When my first relationship with a woman ended, after we’d lived together for five years, I was devastated. I had crossed from my twenties to my thirties with Wendy and realized too late that I’d grown into my partner as much as I’d grown up with her. When she left me for an ashram in the Catskills (it’s tough to be dumped for God), I panicked over small things. How would I navigate unfamiliar cities (she had been the brave one)? How could I have Sunday brunch alone in our usual Park Slope café? I mourned for a solid year and vowed not to date, then I moved to a new city to start graduate school and made a decision: in the future, I might love and settle down, but I would never again live with a partner. The separation—even as it had been free of legal complications—was too hard. It had been gutting.

livingtogetherapart2

That vow was tough to keep. For years after I left Park Slope, whenever I fell in love, living arrangements became a point of contention. My partners took my reticence to move in together as a rejection of intimacy. We’ve come to equate intimacy with cohabitation, but is that really the case? It seems to me that familiarity can breed contempt (as the old saying goes), or if not contempt, then worse—casual disregard. A sense of having figured out the other person, no longer pondering the mystery he or she is.

Still, I wasn’t looking to set up separate homes far from my current partner when I accepted a job offer in Colorado this past spring, which would take me half a country away from the house we’ve happily shared in Virginia for the last two years, even though living apart had long been my ideal. (Four blocks seemed a perfect distance. Close enough, but not too; sociable but still honoring solitude.) I chose the job in Colorado precisely because it’s a place that we both love and want to live; it seemed a place we could share. But my partner’s job has proved less mobile, so we’re apart.

I miss my beloved daily, miss shared laundry and the Sunday Times, waking together, slipping into bed at night to talk and read before sleep. And let’s face it: separation carries risks. Despite the statistics that bespeak a population increasingly living alone, living apart goes against some fundamental tenet of our contemporary American notion of love.

Gay marriage has gained acceptance faster than marriage without shared digs. I’m struck by how agitated people become when presented with the possibility of committed, monogamous, non-cohabitating union. And I wonder if this is because it hits a nerve—that deep down a lot of people might like a little more room (an apartment or a house) of their own. What exactly threatens us about shared lives without shared homes? Is it a loss of control? An epidemic lack of trust? Or is it fear of the effort involved, as Cleo’s comment suggests, that we won’t be able to ignore our relationship and get on with our lives?

I’ve loved living with my fiancée, but it’s easy to grow complacent when cohabitating, or worse, to push against my beloved, instead of reaching out for. I’m aware that living together may have worked for us precisely because my partner is gone most every day at work while I stay home to write. Were we both around the house, we’d likely get nothing done—we’d hang out, watch Netflix, read to each other from the Economist, eat and drink and make love and nap. Basically, we’d become cats. (When my partner snores, the sound is charmingly purr-like.)

I appreciate the charms of cohabitation—the great marshmallow fluff of domesticity—but like marshmallow fluff, I find cohabitation ultimately unsustaining as a regular diet. Or rather, like marshmallow fluff, living with my beloved is a treat that can leave me, if I’m not careful, unfocused, less productive, a little vague, if cheerful.

***

livingtogetherapart3

Living together was once a sign of rebellion, but it has become the conventional choice, for married couples and un-, the ur-sign of serious commitment, even as increasing numbers admit to a preference for living apart, enough to spawn an acronym: LAT—Living Apart Together. It’s estimated that some 10 percent of couples in Britain are LATs, and living alone is on the rise. According to the Economist, nearly 15 percent of American adults live by themselves today, up from 4 percent in 1950. By 2020, almost half of all households in Sweden are expected to contain only one person. In a controversial op-ed in the New York Times last spring, Meg Jay suggested that living together can actually harm a couple’s chances for long-term happiness: “Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages—and more likely to divorce—than couples who do not.”

The truth is, as much as I long for the comforts of a shared life, I like myself better when I live alone. I love living with a partner, but I’m not always at my best when I do. I slip into lousy habits: ice cream dinners and champagne toasts, premature ends to the workday (as soon as my beloved walks through the door), incredibly annoying tiny voices and pet names and rabbit jokes. I gain ten pounds and lose my edge. When my beloved is around, I want to be together. Nothing else seems as important. When pop-memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert wrote of being “a cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle,” I knew (to my dismay) exactly what she meant.

Living alone, I drink less, sleep less, eat less, exercise more. I see more friends. I listen to more music—Angélique Kidjo and Haydn, Pablo Casals and k.d. lang. I was not surprised when I heard on NPR my first weekend in Colorado that music stimulates production of the “love-hormone” oxytocin, just as an orgasm does.

Of course living apart comes at a cost. We have a heavier carbon footprint, for one. And it takes an emotional toll. Whenever I tell friends or family about my move West, their first question inevitably is about how my partner’s handling it. They suspect we’ve broken up, or soon will. They think our separation is a Sign.

For weeks before I moved to Colorado, I moped around our shared home speaking in idiotic tiny voices, saying, whenever my partner rounded a corner, “Don’t go!” as if I weren’t the one who was leaving. Two weeks before I left, my partner started parroting this, phoning me at odd times from work to leave that same two-word message. When I returned to Virginia for a visit last month, I wrapped my arms around my sweetheart and said, “Funny, it seems like you never left.” It wasn’t funny, but it was a way of talking about the strain of distance without getting stuck there. And I love my partner more for not getting stuck there either, for not making it a choice between absolutes—us or elsewhere—for making room for distance, for helping make our love spacious as that enormous Colorado sky that we both love.

 ***

livingtogetherapart1

A week or so after I moved to Colorado for my new job, my fiancée told me that a beautiful young brunette we know had offered condolences about my move.

“That must be very hard for you,” she’d said.

My partner explained that this is what love between equals looks like. The story was meant to be reassuring, I knew, but it wasn’t. My partner and this woman had what I would call “history,” and at a recent party, I’d sensed the woman eyeing me as she might a rival. The woman’s own relationship appeared troubled, and my partner’s reply seemed too abstract. I know that a philosophical defense is a flimsy bulwark against loneliness.

The fact is it’s harder to maintain intimacy (and fidelity) at a distance. Staying in touch by phone or Skype (especially in different time zones) takes scheduling and effort. We have to work to stay involved with each other’s lives. While cohabitating couples must also make an effort to connect, it’s easier to fake, to rely on daily-ness to stand in for actual connection. Living apart, whether a few blocks or a thousand miles, we have to actively choose one another, each day, each week, each month. When we say our vows this September, those vows will bespeak a choice we will be practiced in making. When asked if I want to commit to a life together, I’ll know without a doubt: I do.

***

Rumpus original art by Alexandra Lakin.


EJ Levy’s debut story collection, Love, In Theory, won the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award and a ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Best American Essays, and the New York Times, and has won a Pushcart Prize. More from this author →