Living apart together

Written by Joanna Webber for Australian Seniors

In recent decades, there’s been a subjective shift in society’s understanding of what defines a family. Many of the accepted norms, like falling in love, getting married, having children and living happily ever after, are not working out for an increasing number of us. No longer is a family limited to two heterosexual parents and their biological children.

Researchers have identified a new form of family that’s on the rise: couples in intimate relationships living separately. Demographers call it Living Apart Together (LAT) and it’s more popular than you might think. Research by the University of Melbourne estimates that in 2019, more than 1.5 million ‘single’ Australians had an intimate partner who happened to live somewhere else.

“It may not be for everyone, but it does have its benefits, especially for older couples who might be set in their ways and don’t want to change,” says psychologist and relationship counsellor Melissa Ferrari. “They can maintain their independence, lifestyle and social circle, while enjoying all the benefits of a caring, supportive relationship.”

All the advantages of autonomy with the pleasures of intimacy may sound attractive, but there are drawbacks. Two houses to look after, two sets of utility bills and all that driving to and from each other’s homes can be expensive. “It is usually older couples who can afford it,” says Melissa. “They’ve been married, raised kids, paid off mortgages, and now, for one reason or another, they find themselves single. Many desire intimate companionship but don’t want to tie themselves down.”

Many LAT couples see it as a lifestyle choice rather than a relationship of convenience; living apart keeps the passion alive. For seniors, LAT relationships offer companionship without all the responsibility. Many older people who have cared for sick parents or partners before want to avoid that burden again.

What if something goes wrong?

“Making clear agreements is vital,” says Melissa. “Even though you’re living in separate households, is the relationship monogamous? How often do you want to see each other? What happens if one of you needs to stop working or is diagnosed with a serious illness?”

“These are things that need to be talked about upfront. Couples get into trouble when one has one idea, while the other has a totally different expectation.”

It’s also a good idea to brush up on any legal and financial implications. The longer LAT couples spend together, the more they may unwittingly fall into the category of ‘spouse’, even if they don’t live in the same home.

“The mistake most people make in relationships is that because it feels so good in the beginning, we think everything will take care of itself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t,” says Melissa. “A mature approach is to see a solicitor and ask about any legal complications. It’s important to agree on a plan before something goes wrong, rather than after.” 

Together apart

Alex Ruschanow and Judy Wolff have been living apart together for more than 25 years. Their homes are within 6km of each other in Ferntree Gully, at the foot of Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. Judy, 70, is a retired librarian and amateur circus performer, while Alex, also 70, is a retired tradesman and keen banjolele player.

Judy’s Story

I was at a local folk music club one night when Alex came over and sat next to me. He started talking quite loudly over the music, which I thought was so bad. During the break he offered to give me some music recordings and his phone number, but I told him I wouldn’t be calling him. I was newly separated and didn’t want to get involved.

After that I think it’s fair to say that Alex pursued me for a year. He would come to the library where I worked and sit in the corner reading newspapers. Eventually he invited me to a concert. I agreed and that was that.

I don’t think there are any drawbacks to our arrangement. There have been a couple of times when we could have chosen to move in together, but both times we declined. I was very happy living with my two children who were young then. I didn’t want to complicate things for them.

Alex calls me at 9am every day. We meet up about three times a week and on the weekends. If I’m driving past his house, I always drop in. I do it on autopilot now. We are not soulmates, but we are great mates. He has a lot of interests that keep him busy. I’m an amateur circus performer, and he always comes to see my performances.

A few years into our relationship, Alex discovered he had a heart condition and had to go under the knife three times. His personality changed a bit after such long surgeries. There were some emotional and physical side effects. We still bike ride, but we can’t bushwalk together anymore.

Honestly, I never considered we would be lifelong partners, but we are. Every time we meet, it’s an outing. It’s something we look forward to rather than just coming home to each other. If I’m away, he will always phone to check I arrived safely. That means a lot to me. Alex is my anchor. In many ways, we are each other’s anchor. 

Alex’s Story

I pursued Judy more than she did me. At first, she didn’t seem too keen at all. I’d seen her in the local library, but we first met at a folk music club. I felt we had things in common. We had similar tastes in music and political views. 

We are very different personalities, though, and we’ve had very different upbringings. Being a tradie, you don’t get much subtlety with me. But I also play music and do a lot of spoken poetry in the local theatre and Judy always comes along.

I’ve never married but I did live with a partner for 13 years. We had a house together but no children. Sadly, I ended up being my partner’s carer for the last three years we were together and that was hard. I wouldn’t ever want to go through something like that again.

When we first met, Judy’s two kids were living at home with her, and I always kept back a bit. I didn’t want to intrude. They’re in their 30s now so it’s different. We all go on holidays together. I’ve had lots of health issues and Judy has stuck by me. She had COVID and I took her meals. It’s good that we live close. During lockdowns we were just inside our curfew zone, so we could still see each other.

This arrangement suits us. The benefits outweigh all the rest. I’ve got someone in my life who has stood by me through three open-heart surgeries as well as a cancer scare, so that’s all that matters. I’m not looking for anybody else.  

Fast Facts: Australian couples living apart

More than 1.5 million ‘single’ adults reported having a partner that they did not live with in 2019. 

About 78% live within an hour’s travel of each other.

Approximately 89% see each other at least once or twice a week. 

More than 22% see each other six-seven times a week. 

Source: The 2021 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. 

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