America’s largest demographic conference was held last week to discuss new demographic trends shaping the world. One research presentation focused on the increasing numbers of couples who choose to live apart in a committed relationship.  Evidencing the increasing prevalence of the trend, a new category called “Living Apart Together”(LAT) is apparently emerging.

LAT unions are relationships between unmarried partners who live in separate households but identify themselves as part of a couple.  The definition potentially encompasses young people who choose not to live together until a later date, elderly people who may describe themselves as in a dating relationship for companionship only, as well as middle aged people who choose to live apart because they have been married before, are set up in their own home and possibly already have children whose best interests are their main priority.

Researchers at the National Center for Marriage and Family Research estimate that up to 40% of adults in dating relationships are Living Apart Together in the United States. Similar research has found that over a third of adults in Europe are doing so. Most are over 35, own their own homes and have been married before, with researchers commenting that “LAT relationships are gaining momentum among middle-aged and older adults who may have less to gain from cohabitation or marriage,” Most LATs say that it is very unlikely, unlikely, or they do not know if they will ever marry. 

In-depth interviews have found that divorced persons often prefer non-residential partnerships because they are reluctant to give up their autonomy, want to avoid falling into habits that they associate with their previous relationship, or wish to achieve greater gender equity in the division of household work.  Yet, one ponders whether such couples feel truly fulfilled in a mutually self-giving relationship, or are they lonely or distrustful?  

Some researchers argue that the label “Living Apart Together” challenges the longstanding assumption of most Western demographic research that two people must live in the same household to be considered a couple, and that extending this observation to recognize that couples do not always live together will enhance our understanding of families in the 21stcentury.

While it’s thought-provoking to observe trends and their effect on society and our children, do we really need to bother ourselves recognising and labelling all these different categories?  Some of the research seems to go to great pains to never miss a possible category of human relationship.  Adults are free to make choices about all sorts of relationships, but the State has historically only had an interest if it is for the protection and well-being of children, as in marriage. 

Nevertheless, the effect on children, the elderly and on human happiness of this rising phenomenon is of interest.  It is sad that increasing numbers of people feel they have to settle for what can only be ‘second-best’ in the majority of situations.  Especially if it is because one or other of the couple feels they cannot fully commit because a previous failed relationship has scarred them or because children are being juggled between separated parents.  The largest percentage of LAT couples seem to be in this category.  To not marry and live together could also be seen as wasteful of resources such as housing.  On the other hand, would an increase of elderly people in ‘companionship’ relationships after their life long partner has died necessarily be a bad thing?

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...