For some couples, distance is key to closeness
Husband and wife find joy living apart — together
By Judith Newman
My husband and I have been married for 14 years, and we’ve never lived together. Unbeknownst to us, demographers have devised a name for our arrangement: living apart together, which refers to married couples living separately. According to 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 3.8 million married couples who don’t reside under the same roof. But even without statistics behind us, John and I figure we’re in good company. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived apart, as did Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Interestingly, the latter couple were never married but chose to be buried next to each other in the same tiny plot. Maybe once they didn’t have to share a bathroom, occupying the same space for eternity was OK.)
In the beginning, my line about our arrangement was that we were very Woody and Mia...but then a few things happened to make that quip seem not so funny. After we’d been married for eight years and we’d had our twin boys, Henry and Gus, I told people something a bit closer to the truth: Marriage and kids are one thing, but living together? Don’t rush me.
In fact, there are many practical reasons we keep separate apartments. First, we live in New York City, land of wildly expensive real estate and no space. Neither of our places costs much. Mine is small; his is rent stabilized, meaning it is too cheap, by New York standards, to give up. Plus, most of John’s apartment is taken up by his two pianos. (He’s a former opera singer.) If we had moved in together, we’d have had to spend a big wad of money on something larger, money that we didn’t have. When our boys were born and I did have more money, I expanded my apartment to include the one above me. But it was still not big enough for one piano, let alone two. And, second, neither of us likes change. I mean, we really, really don’t like change. Third, I love my downtown neighborhood; he loves his uptown digs. Why should we rock the boat?
Nothing in common
Which brings me to a far more compelling reason for our living separately: John and I have nothing in common except that we love each other and our sons. (We also share an antipathy for team sports and shellfish, a solid foundation for lifelong commitment if there ever was one.) But as far as our living habits go, we could not be farther apart. I think this situation is true for many married couples; they simply won’t admit it.
John’s apartment is a den of gloom: Jacobean furniture; ancient, loudly ticking timepieces; worn Persian carpets. I find it downright creepy; I’m convinced it harbors a ghost. John is convinced, too, the difference being that he enjoys his ghost. My apartment is light and airy, a slice of the Caribbean, or it would be if I hadn’t listened to John’s advice when I was installing new floors (dark oak). When I’m not writing, I crave noise and action, both in plentiful supply with our 6-year-olds. My life soundtrack is Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and The Roches, all of whom my husband refers to as “those bloody caterwauling idiots.” John needs either complete silence in his home or Wagner. Small children don’t allow for silence, and Wagner used to make the twins sob.
My husband is fastidious. I am the kind of person who, if I notice Cheerios on the floor (which I usually don’t), generally feels confident that someone — the children, a mouse, the dog — will come along and eat them, thus saving me the bother of cleaning them up. John can’t stand my obliviousness to mess, so he likes to set traps for me. The other day, next to my desk, there was a wad of dog hair the size of a basketball. It was impressive, if a little startling. “I wanted to see how long it took you to notice,” John said. “When I began, it was about the size of a marble. Every time I brushed the dog, I added to it.” Apparently, the hair ball had been there for two months, so you can imagine what else escapes my attention. If I had funds for a live-in housekeeper with obsessive-compulsive disorder, maybe John could move in. But frankly, if I want to hear a litany of complaints about what a pain in the ass I am, I don’t need him telling me; I only have to tune in to the voice in my own head.
When we had the children, of course, living separately became dicier. Friends said John and I would simply have to live together; after all, what would the kids think? I understand that when Henry and Gus are older, we’ll have some explaining to do. (“No, we’re not divorced, and, yes, the arrangement is weird.”) Until then, what they know is that sometimes, when they jump on my head at 6 a.m., the bitterly complaining lump on the other side of the bed is their father, who stays over three nights a week or so. And when he’s not there, no one else will be.
So what do you think -- is near absence a key to a successful relationship?