Why living apart can be key to staying together
Amid reports that actress Julia Roberts is living apart from her husband, we report on the couples who thrive on their separate lives
Published 14/04/2016 | 02:30
I'm leaving my husband today. He's been winding me up by not rinsing the dishes properly and persistently stacking things on top of my expensive non-stick pans. I in turn have been riling him by refusing to bin empty toilet rolls and filling the Sky Planner with reality TV.
So the car is packed and I'm off up the road to my parents' house. In a few days we'll miss each other and by next week we'll be back together again… until next month.
We've become part-time members of the LAT club. Living Apart Together, a trend now so common it deserves its own acronym, it refers to couples in a relationship but not necessarily living with their partner. It's hard to quantify how many Irish couples are LATs - you'll not find a box to tick on the Census - but research in the UK has found that around 9pc of the adult population fits the bill with similar figures reflected in research conducted in Australia and Canada.
The main reasons given by those in a LAT scenario are a desire for their own space and career demands that require them to spend time apart.
Recently Grazia magazine reported that Hollywood actress Julia Roberts was allegedly considering separate homes for her and her husband, cameraman Daniel Moder, in a bid to save their marriage amid rumours of frequent arguments.
The story hasn't been confirmed by Roberts' camp, but the idea of introducing some space in the relationship in an attempt to get closer might not be as counterintuitive as it initially sounds.
"It's my experience that a 'successful' relationship is one where the two people in it have boundaries and have the ability to function well and healthily while apart as well as while together," explains Cork-based counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O'Reilly.
"They're not solely dependent on each other for comfort, company or friendship. When we become enmeshed with our partner we can become bored at best, dependent or controlling at worst.
"Time apart can be a great way to nurture the two separate selves that make the couple and it can be exciting and interesting to be apart and then come together again."
Separate homes could also mean fewer fights over things like loading the dishwasher (correctly), taking out the bins and cleaning out the fridge - no small matter when you consider that more than a quarter of young couples report arguing over housework several times a month. For couples with kids, studies show that the most common area of contention is chores and responsibilities.
In our case it isn't actually household gripes causing our frequent sojourns, but work. Our home is in Dublin as is my husband's employment. But with a 20-month-old to contend with, and no budget for daycare, the easiest way for me to work from home is to do so from my parents' home in Belfast where the free crèche of granny and granddad is happily on hand and I can write in peace.
Dodging arguments over the cleaning is just a bonus. I get to earn some money for the household coffers, he gets to spend his evenings playing football/going out with his mates/watching Daredevil guilt free. We have time to miss each other, remember what we like about each other (not just what irritates us) and always look forward to reuniting.
For seven years, writer and broadcaster Maia Dunphy and her husband Johnny Vegas conducted their relationship from separate homes in Ireland and the UK.
"We never had a plan, we met, started seeing each other, lived in different countries, saw each other when we could and that was just the way it was," says Maia.
"We were both so busy that it just worked. I also think that when you meet someone when you're a little bit older and established with your own respective homes, jobs, friends and social lives, it's an easier type of relationship to fall into."
The arrangement suited her independence and also kept their relationship fresh.
"I have friends who have been together since school and rarely do anything apart - and who am I to say couples who have never spent a night apart are wrong - but that set up would never have suited me," she laughs.
"I always wonder what they talk about. With Johnny and I we would always have lots to catch up on. It was exciting, you never get the chance to take each other for granted and every weekend feels like a mini holiday."
They only moved into their London home when their baby son was born last year, a change in set up that has brought its own challenges. "Moving in together after seven years hasn't been easy," says Maia. "I think he'd say the same. All the quirks and idiosyncrasies that people usually come to accept or iron out in the first months or years of a relationship are compounded.
"If we hadn't decided to start a family, I think we would have stayed in a long distance set up."
And why not? Research on couples in long-distance relationships has shown that they view their partner more positively, report feeling more romantic love for their partner and spend more time thinking fondly about their relationships.
Certainly after a week or two at my mother's, it's not my husband's ineptitude with stacking my non-stick pans that I'm thinking about.
The ideal of the 'you have your place, I have mine' philosophy was famously championed by Sex and the City's Big character in more than one episode, with Mia Farrow and Woody Allen's separate homes on Central Park lauded as a perfect example of the set up.
Talking about living in separate sides of a co-joined property with Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter said "our relationship is enhanced by knowing we have our own personal space to retreat to."
"It's not enforced intimacy," she explained. "It's chosen, which is quite flattering - if you can afford it."
"If we all had the money to buy adjoining houses like Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, I think a lot of people would secretly admit that sounds like the perfect marriage," agrees Maia. "But they probably shouldn't be my poster couple for this argument given they separated recently."
Aye, there's the rub. When Burton and Carter split it was widely reported that separate homes had turned into separate lives. Woody and Mia's relationship was similarly doomed, even Carrie and Big decided they shouldn't spend regular time apart. Is it simply a case that the old adage is true: absence makes the heart grow fonder… too much absence makes it wander?
"I don't believe that," says Sally. "A wandering heart is a choice and a symptom of something else going wrong, needs not being met. In my opinion it's entirely possible to have a working relationship while apart -but we do need 'togetherness' to be a couple. Permanent 'apart-ness' is less likely to be nurturing and more likely to be separate lives."
In other words, if you find you're really much happier spending time on your own, then perhaps you shouldn't be together at all. Sally reckons the important thing is to regularly communicate with each other and check you're still on the same page.
"We're all more mobile now and women are more likely to have a life outside the home and outside their relationships," she says.
"If two people are honestly happy spending time apart and then cherish and enjoy fully their time together in the context of a safe and trusting relationship - then great! Their choice is no less valid than a couple who choose to be together 24/7."
How to make a LAT relationship work
• Carry out a regular relationship 'check-up' to assess whether Living Apart Together is working for you. "It's worth having frank discussions about any practical changes that might need to improve the relationship and what can be done when you're together to support the relationship," suggests counselling psychologist, and writer at Two Wise Chicks, Sally O'Reilly.
• Don't let your 'single' behaviour intrude on together time. "It's easy to fall into old habits - like coming home from work and going straight to Facebook - instead of using the time to nurture the relationship," says Sally.
• Don't get put off by other people's views of a 'normal relationship'.