What do Gwyneth Paltrow and Terry Gross have in common? Both the actress and the public radio host are married, yet they have lived apart from their spouses in the same city. Why would you get married if you don’t want to cohabitate? Paltrow and Gross have given different reasons. But they both are part of a trend that sociologists call “living apart together.”
Why Married Couples Choose to Live Apart
“All my married friends say that the way we live sounds ideal and we shouldn’t change a thing,” Gwyneth Paltrow told The Sunday Times in June 2019. While the idea might entice couples looking for a little space, there are various reasons some spouses actually make the jump and live apart by choice. Here are a few.
Paltrow and her husband, Brad Falchuk, got married in September 2018. They are both in their mid-40s and have children from previous marriages. By maintaining separate households, they’re able to keep a level of stability for their kids. On the three days a week Falchuk has his kids, he stays at his home. He then moves over to Paltrow's place for the other four nights. In interviews, Paltrow said that the arrangement benefits their kids but also keeps the relationship fresh. They basically get three nights off from married life, perhaps enough time to make you appreciate it the rest of the week.
Creative housing arrangements can help newly married couples, like Paltrow and Falchuk, navigate the needs of a preexisting binuclear family. “Nesting” is one such custody setup that would keep remarried spouses in separate homes for at least part of the week out of consideration for the kids. In a nesting arrangement, the children stay in the family home all week, while their parents (the exes) take turns living there with the kids. Diana M. Adams, a lawyer who has drawn up coparenting agreements and helps families through collaborative divorces, told us that often these arrangements are temporary, since the ex-spouses typically want to each start a new family home once they find a new partner.
Although Paltrow and Falchuk have said they had no plans to change their living arrangements, she recently revealed they will be moving in together full-time this month. "We took a year to let everybody [in the family] take it in and let the dust settle,” she told InStyle.
A Desire for Independence
Terry Gross and her husband, jazz critic Francis Davis, lived apart for the first 20 years they were together. They don’t have kids and made the housing decision simply because she preferred it. While she usually does the interviewing on her NPR show Fresh Air, Gross recently opened up about this aspect of her own personal life. On the podcast The Longest Shortest Time, she explained how the independence of living alone gave her confidence. “I learned I could live alone, that I didn’t need somebody with me at all times to validate my experience. That I could enjoy something on my own, I could enjoy eating by myself, sitting by myself, or exercising by myself, or taking a walk by myself,” she said. Gross described the proven self-reliance as powerful.
“I learned I could live alone, that I didn’t need somebody with me at all times to validate my experience. That I could enjoy something on my own, I could enjoy eating by myself, sitting by myself, or exercising by myself, or taking a walk by myself.”
Lise Stryker Stoessel wrote the book Living Happily Ever After — Separately about her decision to set up separate homes with her husband. Like Gross, she values time alone, and Stoessel told me that living apart changed her day-to-day life drastically. “In separate houses, we each are able to live according to our own schedules and preferences. No more arguing over little things,” she said. After living under the same roof for decades, Stoessel and her husband now get together several times per week at his place or hers. “We enjoy our time together and don't take it for granted,” she explained. She added that the days apart are also more peaceful, nurturing, and fulfilling.
The desire for more independence in the home might be why living together apart is more popular with older women than younger women. This earlier generation of women grew up under stricter gender norms and often were responsible for much of the unpaid labor around the house. Now that their children may be grown or they have more financial independence, living apart lets these women cement the freedom that eluded them before. While the gender imbalance with housework and childcare has decreased, it still exists today and makes living alone an attractive option for many women, regardless of their age.
Louise D.* has witnessed how separate homes has worked for her mother and stepfather, who live in England. “My mum mentioned a decade before she started doing it with my stepdad that she thought living apart was probably the secret to marital bliss,” Louise told me. Her mother’s original idea was to have two houses next door to each other. When they finally made the change, they opted for a village house and beach apartment 40 miles away.
Louise said she was excited for her parents when she heard the news. “I knew they'd really thought about it. Also, if that's what they want despite convention, and they aren't afraid to entertain the endless judgement and questioning from others, then I’m even more happy for them for their conviction and bravery,” she said.
While she hasn’t questioned her parents about their motivation, Louise guesses that they wanted a change after retiring. “My mum had always wanted to live by the sea, so she lives in the apartment, and he lives in the original house,” she said. Their arrangement actually sounds romantic, as Louise describes it: “There's always a trip to see the other person in another place coming soon, and they've enjoyed exploring a new town together.”
Real Estate Realities
The New York Times practically has a beat dedicated to the topic of long-term couples who live apart. The paper has run pieces about it in their Modern Love column and Sunday Review. A lengthy 2013 article in the Real Estate section looked into the combination of housing prices and interior design and neighborhood preferences that encourage New Yorkers to keep separate residences. In an expensive place like New York City, a rent-controlled apartment can mean more security than marriage. If you eventually break up, you still can afford to live in New York because you maintained your own space. As the Times pointed out, moving in together can provide short-term savings, but keeping your own apartment is an investment in your relationship with the city.
In a place like New York City, a rent-controlled apartment can mean more security than marriage.
Even couples who show no signs of breaking up enjoy having their own homes. Take husband and wife Evin Harvey and Veronica Kelleher who were together for 48 years when the NYT included them in its piece. He lived in a rent-stabilized one-bedroom home in Brooklyn Heights, while she stayed in her (also stabilized) $1,000-month walkup in Washington Place across the bridge in Manhattan. They simply had different real estate and leisure tastes, and they wanted to keep it that way.
Cheaper Than a Divorce
Regardless of rent control, two homes are generally pricier than one. But you know what else is expensive? Divorce. For some couples, getting personal space away from the relationship is what they need to make it work. Stoessel and her husband decided to do it after 23 years of marriage and enough time to realize that they had marital issues that needed to be addressed. “We are very different people. He is quite introverted, needs a lot of peace and quiet,” she explained, adding: “I'm very social, thrive on relationships with friends, going out, having fun, traveling.” Their differing needs created endless conflict and bickering. Additionally, she said her husband is very spartan, very work-oriented, and leaves his things all over the house. “I am very aesthetically oriented and need my home to be neat, orderly, and beautiful. You can imagine the problems it created,” she noted.
In Stoessel’s situation, staying married but living apart made the most financial sense. “If you get divorced, you will have to afford to live separately, and you'll be paying the lawyers tens of thousands of dollars in the bargain,” she told me. According to Stoessel, both she and her husband work and are both very frugal. “I moved out of the family home and took only a little of the furniture. Most everything else I needed I found at thrift stores or on Craigslist.” She also explained that living alone gives her husband more time to work — which he loves — so his income is quite a bit healthier as a result. Regardless of the net financial positive for them, Stoessel said they had to find a way to make it work either way if they wanted to save their marriage: “We simply couldn't live together anymore.”
Living Alone Can Encourage More Social Interaction
In his book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at NYU, writes about the paradox of living alone. Instead of making people isolated, research shows living alone makes you more social. The population of people who live alone — whether they’re married or not — is growing. In places like Manhattan and in Washington DC, almost one in two households have only one person living in them. In the US overall, 10 times the number of people live alone compared to 1950. The benefits of living alone can help explain why people who are married still choose to do it.
Living alone and being alone are not the same thing.
According to Klinenberg, dynamic cities and communication tools make modern autonomy more appealing. You can have the best of both worlds: privacy or social interactions, depending on what you’re in the mood for. You might also be more inclined to get out of your home when you live alone than if you live in a big suburban house where everyone retreats to their own room. As Klinenberg points out, living alone and being alone are not the same thing.
Not Everyone Can Afford Do It
It might be cheaper than divorce, but living apart from your spouse — if you want to — is still a privilege. Not everyone can afford it, just like many people have to live with roommates, even if it’s not their preference. It’s clearly easier for successful people like Paltrow and Falchuk to do it, or older couples who often make more money and have fewer expenses. Having access to affordable housing, either because you’re in a rent-controlled apartment or have paid down the mortgage, is also hard to find.
Living apart also becomes more complicated for married couples who have kids together. But Stoessel said she would have done it if she thought of it sooner. “The children were all grown when we did this. They were all very supportive, and in fact each of them wrote a chapter in my book, as did my husband,” she said. Would they have done this when the kids were still at home? “Probably, if we'd thought of it,” she admitted. “It would have been more complicated but might have provided a healthier environment for them, all things considered.”
Separate Bedrooms: “Living Apart Light”
If you’re married and a little privacy and freedom to be as messy or neat as you want to be sounds appealing, you might want to consider having a separate bedroom from your spouse. In the past, this was the norm for upper-class couples — as you may remember from Downton Abbey. Apparently Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip still do it. Separate rooms are great if one of you is a snorer, likes to stay up late reading or watching TV before bed, or has an unusual work schedule. For these reasons, many older couples find themselves naturally falling into separate rooms under the same roof, once their kids leave home and they have the spare bedrooms. But there’s no age requirement for testing it out if you have the space.
What About Sex?
As many long-term couples can attest, it’s not a lack of opportunity that keeps them from having sex. Ironically, it seems the more chances you have, the less likely you are to be intimate. Keeping separate rooms or homes can keep things interesting and add some romance back into a long-term relationship. And just because you have your own space doesn’t mean you can’t sleep in each other’s beds some nights.
When you live apart, you can simply treat your home (or bedroom) as your own oasis that reflects you specifically and allows you to get some privacy when you need it. Plus, if you each retreat back to your own space after sex, getting a good night's sleep will put you in a better mood and perhaps make you less likely to resent a restless or noisy partner — all benefits for your relationship.
You Do You
Living apart together is not for everyone and may appeal more to introverts than extroverts. For many, intimacy involves creating a household together and making compromises for the other person’s comfort and happiness. When you live apart from your significant other, you may miss impromptu opportunities to connect physically and emotionally. Distance can lead to more distance.
For many, intimacy involves creating a household together and making compromises for the other.
Even so, living apart while married is a great option for many. It used to shock mainstream society when unmarried couples moved in together. Now living together before marriage is no longer scandalous or even noteworthy in most circles. Perhaps the same will be true for couples who don’t live together after marriage. Louise, whose mother and stepdad are happily married and living apart, told me she’d even consider it herself: “People and relationships come in all forms, so why not living arrangements, too?”
*Identified by first name and last initial for privacy considerations.