Do couples living apart hold the secret to everlasting love?
This is the first story of a five-part series on how alternative relationships are reshaping love in Canada. Each day this week, we’ll explore a different union model, from sexless and arranged marriages to mixed orientation and polyamory. Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #SOTUCanada.
They’ve been in a committed relationship for 24 years, yet Marilyn Bronstein, 70, and David Scribner, 63, have never lived in the same city, let alone house. She’s in Montreal and he lives in a small community in Vermont.
“Two weekends of the month, from Saturday to Tuesday, he comes here, one weekend I go there and the other weekend we’re on our own,” Bronstein says. “When David comes here or I go there, I find it’s a very focused time where I can really make him my first priority and pay attention to him.”
WATCH BELOW: The State of the Union series takes a deep dive into five alternative relationship models and uncovers the changing face of Canadian love.
Bronstein and Scribner are a couple “living apart together” (LAT), which is a relatively new relationship model in the eyes of Statistics Canada. The 2011 General Social Survey estimated that 1.9 million Canadians were couples living apart together. These are people who are in committed relationships but who choose to live in different homes, whether that’s in the same city or a different one.
The majority of LAT couples were aged 20 to 24 (31 per cent) and 25 to 29 (17 per cent). In many cases, their situations were dictated by work or school arrangements, or financial constraints that prevented them from moving out of their respective family homes.
But what’s most notable is that LAT is a growing model among people 60 and over. In fact, over 80 per cent of the young couples planned on living together one day, while only 30 per cent of those over 60 said the same.
An Ipsos poll exclusively commissioned by Global News surveyed 1,501 Canadians and found similar results. Of the sample group who identified as married or living common law (53 per cent), six per cent lived in separate homes, two per cent of whom were married.
When asked how they felt their living arrangement affected their union, 40 per cent believed that living apart makes their relationship stronger.
LAT allows for autonomy — especially for women
“It’s not unusual to see these unions where people continue to live in their separate neighbourhoods because they have good lives and it leaves room for personal space,” says Brandie Weikle, founder of The New Family, a website and podcast about family diversity. “Being with one person all the time can [be a grind] that goes from you can’t get enough of each other to being irritated by every little thing this person does.”
“[LAT] provides insulation against this kind of thing and allows more autonomy for each person.”
There’s also a reason why it’s especially appealing to people in their senior years today, particularly women. In a lot of cases, once these women find themselves divorced or widowed, after decades of caring for husbands and children, they’re reluctant to take on the mantle of caregiver once again.
“Because women traditionally do the bulk of work in the home, a woman who is now in her 60s and has been working, running a home and raising kids, is tired; she’s done it all,” says Dr. Marcia Sirota, a board-certified psychiatrist and founder of the Ruthless Compassion Institute.
“She doesn’t want to take care of anyone else. If she has a partner, she’ll find it preferable to live in separate homes where there’s no expectation that she’s the homemaker.”
Bronstein can attest to this based on the reaction she gets from new people she meets when they learn about her relationship. While her early years with Scribner would often elicit questions of “when will you move in together” from family and friends, now the reaction she gets from strangers is entirely different.
“Lately, strangers, especially older women will say to me, ‘Oh, that sounds great. I’d like that kind of arrangement. Does [David] have a brother?'”
It’s this attitude in particular that proves LAT is turning gender stereotypes on their heads. Namely, that women are the ones who are always pushing for commitment in all its traditional trappings.
“In society, we have this myth that women want commitment and men don’t want to be pinned down,” says Sharon Hyman, a Montreal-based filmmaker who is working on a documentary called Apartners: Living Happily Ever After Apart. “But in reality, it’s always the women who are commenting, ‘If only my husband would agree to [LAT].’ It’s almost never the men.”
Hyman, 55, has been in an LAT relationship with her “apartner,” David Demetre, 62, for 20 years. They live a few blocks away from one another in Montreal.
WATCH BELOW: Two per cent of married Canadians live in separate homes, new poll says.
She scoffs at the suggestion from friends that she and David are merely “friends with benefits.”
“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “Emotional space and physical space are different — you don’t have to share physical space to have that emotional commitment. We’ve been through everything together, including losing parents. It’s exactly the same as being married or living together. We have the same responsibilities and obligations.”
They did consider moving in together at one point — and he did move in for eight months when Hyman was dealing with an ongoing health condition — but in the end, they decided that their current arrangement made more sense.
She says it also allows them to avoid what Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, has dubbed The Suffocation Model. In his research, Finkel uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to show how modern marriage has evolved into a union with nearly impossible asks.
Maslow’s hierarchy is depicted as a mountain with five stages: physiological needs, safety, belonging and love, esteem and self-actualization. The theory goes that in the past, marriage was a union of necessity that covered the basics (economic, social and physical security), but as society evolves and people become more able to provide those necessities for themselves, a union has to reach the higher levels of needs in order to succeed. Except those are much harder to attain.
READ MORE: A sexless marriage can work
“Now we’re at very high-level expectations and it takes a lot of work, but we have less time to put in relationships,” Hyman says. “That’s a real advantage of living apart: we each take care of those lower level things on our own. When we do spend time together, we can work on those higher level needs because it’s more quality time.”
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’
For most married and common law couples, part of the appeal of cohabitation is knowing that you’ll come home to (and climb into bed with) your spouse every day. But for LAT couples, the opposite is the real draw.
“I accept as human nature that we’re always going to have desires,” Scribner says.
“But if you get a desire satisfied, another one takes its place. I’d rather be in a state of desire for her than have her there all the time. Maybe I like that bit of frustration of not seeing her as much as I think I’d want.”
And if there are any doubts about how deep his desire runs for his partner, consider that on one occasion, Scribner was so excited to drive to Montreal that he forgot to pack his clothes.
“I fear a constant live-in relationship; of it sort of turning into this grey, bland moderate state of relating rather than me being so anxious to get up there,” he says. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
When the kids aren’t alright
There are other mitigating factors that might steer a couple in the direction of LAT — namely children. In Bronstein’s case, her children were very reluctant to accept another man in her life after the divorce.
“At the beginning, my kids were very unaccepting of my having a boyfriend or a lover, and David was very intolerant of noise, so he would sleep at my friend’s house when he came to town,” Bronstein says. “Even years after the kids moved out, he still wasn’t sleeping over when he was in Montreal.”
In the course of doing interviews for her documentary, Hyman says she has spoken to many LAT couples who chose their arrangement to accommodate their children — and it wasn’t just because the kids were resistant.
“One subject never had kids of his own, but he goes [to his partner’s house] every night to help her kids with their homework. He’s very committed to them, but she likes that he goes home at night and she has the time with her kids. It’s very precious.”
In fact, she says, experts sometimes believe this is the best scenario for the family.
“I’ve spoken to psychologists who have said they wished more of their clients would entertain LAT because it’s problematic to blend families. In some ways, it’s more stable for kids to stay in the same arrangement and not have a new adult introduced [into the home.]”
In other instances, LAT can prevent legal ramifications.
“Some LAT couples do it for financial reasons,” Sirota says. “It makes their children’s inheritance simpler.”
Love lasts, but LAT may not
Of course, this type of arrangement isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain personality to be able to strike a healthy balance between living alone and making room for another person from time to time.
“This is for mature adults who have their stuff together in life and don’t require another person’s presence 24/7 to feel fulfilled,” Weikle says. “You need to be open to the fact that your relationship doesn’t have to be everything to you. Someone can be a key person in your life and not be in your presence every day.”
But it’s also not necessarily a scenario that can last forever — eventually, circumstances may force a couple to move in together. Bronstein and Scribner know that cohabitation is in the cards (once Scribner retires), although they haven’t worked out the details yet. But they both recognize that eventually, age and all the trappings that come with it, will push them into the same space.
The same goes for Hyman.
“We both have health issues, and as we get older, there might be a time where we would need each other more physically,” Hyman says. “Then we’d be extremely lucky to have one another.”
These are some of the findings of an Ipsos poll conducted between July 13 and 16, 2018, on behalf of Global News. For this survey, a sample of 1,501 Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed online via the Ipsos I-Say panel and non-panel sources. Quota sampling and weighting were employed to balance demographics to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to Census data and to provide results intended to approximate the sample universe. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ±3.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Canadian adults been polled.
— Illustrations by Laura Whelan
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.