The irony is, a healthier relationship and a better sex life may have to do with spending more time alone

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

When I heard a bout Gwyneth Paltrow’s erstwhile “living apart together” arrangement (LAT) with her husband, Brad Falchuk, early in their marriage— and how she felt it “helps with preserving mystery”—I registered the typical feeling of envy laced with derision that Paltrow so often inspires in me. “Of course she does,” I thought. But she and Falchuk aren’t alone. According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2019 Current Population Survey, there are roughly 9 million opposite-sex married couples who don’t live together and who love each other from afar for a variety of reasons. My husband, Brett, snores so loudly that I can hear him not only from a different room but from a different floor. After having three children, I’m prone to sheet-drenching night sweats. Oh, and we live with three children. These are only a few of many factors that preclude our household from being a haven of hot sex.

It’s not just the practical domestic considerations that make intimacy scarce in my marriage; it’s also the absence of mystery. Famed couples therapist Esther Perel wrote in her book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence that a sense of the unknown and unfamiliar is a cr itical component to desire: “When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.” Brett and I are busy seeking our daughter’s lost yellow mittens or our baby’s wayward pacifier because his frantic crying is causing the dog to bark, and the dog’s barking is prompting our oldest kid to scream, “STOP BARKING!” We don’t have it in us to worry about seeking anything from each other. Maybe LAT would give us space to seek the unknown.

Eli J. Finkel, Director of Northwestern’s Relationships and Motivation Lab, and author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, says that highly independent people are good candidates for LAT arrangements because it allows them “to enjoy the benefits of involvement in a close relationship without feeling smothered”. Achieving closeness and connection without having to adjust my individual preferences and habits to suit another’s sounds positively dreamy. And research shows LAT may also pave the way for a stronger bond. A study published in the Journal of Communication in 2013 suggests that couples in long-distance relationships can achieve equal or greater emotional intimacy than those who are “geographically close” due to a tendency to both idealise and disclose more to each other.

LAT can also be a viable option for blended families, since children are spared the stress of relocation or shuttling between households. Film-maker Sharon Hyman is working on a documentary about LAT and according to psychologists she has interviewed, this arrangement can in fact be healthier for certain families. There’s also a movement among women who choose LAT for career reasons, opting to live apart from their partners and children during the workweek and spend time with them at the weekends, something that may seem radical at first glance but that men have been doing since forever.

More women than men find the idea of LAT appealing, Hyman says, which is unsurprising considering the gender inequities that persist in many households. Demetria L. Lucas, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty, says that LAT may eradicate this issue: “There are chores that most people do for themselves when they live alone, but somehow, when a woman is involved in a heterosexual relationship, it becomes women’s work.” LAT could eliminate this odious “second shift” many women take on and force men to scour their own toilets.

LAT is part of a larger movement towards defining partnership or marriage on one’s own terms. Psychotherapist Joe Kort, founder and Director of the Center for Relationship and Sexual Health, and the author of LGBTQ Clients in Therapy, points out that LAT relationships were common in the LGBTQ community before it was a trend, either out of necessity in a homophobic culture or by personal preference. “Heterosexual couples are catching on, and understanding that marriage and relationships do not all have to look alike and be one way,” he says.

There’s no one-size-fits-all relationship and LAT is simply one choice among many. But regardless of living arrangement, experts agree that prioritising autonomy and resisting routine can be critical components for a flourishing sex life and a rewarding partnership. This means communicating about individual priorities and putting boundaries in place to ensure that those priorities are met. Lucas recommends “taking a day or a meal to yourself every once in a while, or even travelling solo to reconnect with your independent self ”.

For my part, I’d love to live a life free from beard-hair-clogged drains, to drop the kids off at “my husband’s house” for a few hours or days so I can reacquaint myself with who I was before I became a wife and mother. And in my fantasy, this has less to do with avoiding squabbles about dishwasher-emptying and more to do with expanding the sense of potential within myself.

"Highly independent people are good candidates for ‘living apart together’ arrangements because it allows them to enjoy the benefits of a close relationship without feeling smothered.

—Eli J. Finkel"