First comes love, then comes…? These days, the answer may be a U-Haul truck. For many couples, moving in together is a key decision that transitions them from a dating relationship to a long-term committed partnership. However, a small but growing minority of long-term couples across a number of Western countries – such as Britain,1 Sweden,2 and Canada – are choosing to forgo cohabitation entirely, preferring to keep their separate homes. This phenomenon is referred to as living apart together, or LAT.
So why would a long-term, committed couple opt to live apart rather than together? Despite the fact that living with a romantic partner can be an amazing experience (disclosure: I have a live-in boyfriend and can confirm that it is awesome), research suggests that there may also be some meaningful benefits to living separately.
First, living apart may be one way to enhance the amount of novelty or excitement in a relationship. At the beginning of the relationship, couples tend to engage in lots of novel and exciting activities together – what researchers refer to as self-expanding activities.3 They get dressed up for dates, they explore new parts of the city, they try out each other’s hobbies, and they have engaging discussions with each other. However, as time goes on, it can be easy for long-term couples to fall into a routine to the point that they stop doing fun new things together, leading to boredom.
By choosing not to live together, LAT couples may have found a way to help prevent their relationships from becoming monotonous. These couples have much less time to spend together, and they have to actually plan or schedule that time. It is easy to see how this “opt-in” versus “opt-out” arrangement of spending time together may encourage these couples to put more effort into their dates, thus leading to more of the sorts of exciting, self-expanding activities that reduce boredom and increase satisfaction among long-term couples.3
As of yet, there is no research on how LAT relationships specifically relate to relationship novelty or excitement. However, we do have research on the more well-known phenomenon of long-distance relationships. Long-distance couples, who similarly have limited time to spend with each other, tend to experience more passion in their relationships than couples in geographically close relationships.4 Long-distance couples idealize their partners more, meaning that they see their partners in unrealistically positive terms (which is generally a good thing). They also spend more time reminiscing or daydreaming about their relationships, and they report more romantic love for their partners. Furthermore, these effects are more pronounced the less face-to-face time the couple members have together. Altogether, it seems that absence really can make the heart grow fonder. Living apart may be one (gentler) way to reap some of these relationship benefits.
LAT couples may further avoid a major drawback to cohabitation, which is artificially increased commitment to the relationship. Basically, living together puts up barriers to ending a relationship – it’s more difficult for couples to break up if they live together because they would have to split up their stuff, each partner would have to find a new place, and so forth. Of course, this is no problem at all for highly satisfied couples, who typically aren’t interested in breaking up anyway. But for people who might be feeling unfulfilled in their relationships, living together can work to make them feel “stuck” in those unfulfilling relationship because of the additional hassle that it would be to break up.5 LAT couples do not have to contend with this sort of constraint commitment: because breaking up would be much less of a hassle for them, they can be more confident that they (and their partners) are staying in the relationship for the right reasons.
It may seem counterintuitive that living apart from a romantic partner can have relationship benefits, which is why I’ve focused on these benefits in this article. However, none of this is meant to negate the enormous potential benefits of cohabitation. We’re social beings, and having the consistent companionship of a romantic partner can be incredibly satisfying. Moving in together is also an expression of your own commitment to the relationship, which can be very meaningful to your partner, and vice versa. Indeed, my own research suggests that we deeply appreciate our partners’ willing to invest in our relationships, in turn leading us to commit more to the relationships ourselves.6 In other words, the decision to move in together may make both partners more appreciative of each other, and more committed to each other, both of which have a whole range of positive consequences for relationships.
In sum, when making the decision of whether or not to move in with your partner, there’s no research to suggest that either choice is the “right” decision. Instead, the research identifies a number of potential advantages and disadvantages to each choice, leaving it up to the individual couple to decide which lifestyle is most likely to work for them and their relationship.
CHCH, a local Canadian television news station, recently interviewed me about LAT couples on their debate show, “Square Off.” You can watch the interview here.
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1Duncan, S., & Phillips, M. (2010). People who live apart together (LATS) – how different are they? The Sociological Review, 58, 112 – 134.
2Karlsson, S. G., & Borell, K. (2005). A home of their own. Women’s boundary work in LAT-relationships. Journal of Aging Studies, 19, 73-84.
3Aron, A., Normon, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.
4Stafford, L., & Merolla, A. J. (2007). Idealization, reunions, and stability in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 37-54.
5Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
6Joel, S., Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G, & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1333-1345.
Samantha Joel – Science of Relationships articles
Samantha’s research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?