The past century has witnessed significant changes in the ways people practice their relationships. A century ago marriage was ‘in vogue,’ and people in an intimate relationship seldom lived with a partner before getting married. However, since the 1970s, there has been a trend towards pre-marital cohabitation, followed closely by a rising prevalence of cohabitation without marriage. At the dawn of the 21st century, ‘living apart together (LAT)’ — that is, a couple in a steady and committed relationship who live apart in two separate households — is a new buzzword hailed to predict the future of intimate partnerships.
In Britain, around 10% of all adults — or 25% of unmarried adults aged between 16–59 — are LAT (Duncan and Phillips, 2011). The prevalence of LAT is taken to indicate the rising ‘individualization of our times,’ as individuals actively choose to preserve their personal privacy, space, and individuality while maintaining an intimate relationship. At the same time, LAT can also be less voluntary – for example if couples are compelled to LAT due to practical constraints such as employment, education, familial obligations, et cetera.
The variety and complexity of LAT relationships raises a number of important demographic questions. How do we understand the diverse, and sometimes ambiguous, reasons behind LAT? And what does people’s intention to or not to cohabit with their LAT partners tell us about about their LAT relationships?
To answer these questions, we analysed data from an unprecedentedly large survey (Understanding Society) of people in LAT relationships. We identified a four-fold typology of individuals in LAT relationships in contemporary Britain: (1) nested young adults; (2) independent adults; (3) single parents, and; (4) seniors. Each profile is characterised by a distinctive position in the life course, and a specific set of factors are associated with each group’s intentions to convert LAT into cohabiting partnerships:
- Nested young adults (44 % of all LAT) epitomise early life ‘dating’ or ‘going steady’ relationships. These individuals are under the age of 30, are often in education, and usually live in the parental home. While only 30% of nested young adults and their partners actively opt for LAT, 70% of nested young daults intend to cohabit with their partner in three years’ time. The likehilood of cohabitation increases with the duration of the relationship. In an age of austerity and soaring housing costs, the findings suggest that the difficulty of leaving the parental home may be a key impediment for nested young adults to cohabit with their LAT partners.
- Compared with nested young adults, independent adults (32% of all LAT) have an older age profile and rarely live with a parent. In a minority of cases they live with children, and nearly 30% have been previously married. Most independent adults did not choose to LAT (61%) and, instead, many intend to cohabit with their LAT partners in three years time (65%).
- Around 11% of individuals in LAT relationships are single parents, usually single mothers. Single parents are clustered in midlife, rarely live with parents. While some of the single parents have previously experienced marital dissolution (26.2%), a majority of them hve never been married (62.3%). While most single parents are in part-time employment or unemployed, the (full-time) employment rate of their partners is substantially higher than is typical for other subgroups of individuals LAT. This indicates that LAT may be a valuable but often ‘hidden’ source of social support for economically vulnerable single parents. Around half of single parents and their partners have made a definite decision to LAT – perhaps out of concern for their children’s welfare.
- Almost all seniors (13% of all LAT) LAT are over 50 years old and most are divorced or widowed. Unlike the other groups, more than 60% of seniors have made a definite decision to LAT and only a minority of them intend to cohabit with their partners in three years’ time. Seniors who are closely attached to their local neighbourhoods and have caring responsibilities are unlikely to intend to move in with their partners. In contrast with the nested young adults, seniors who have been LAT for longer are less likely to intend to cohabit with their partners than those who have lived apart together for a shorter period of time.
A key finding of this research is that the balance of reasons for LAT tends to shift from ‘constraint’ early in life towards a more deliberate ‘choice’ as the life course progresses (although constraints and choices are often ambiguously defined and interwoven at all life stages). This suggests that LAT is a flexible relationship practice, arising from the various opportunities and constraints found in distinct constellations of life course circumstances. Although debates tend to concentrate on what constitutes LAT and what does not (for instance, young adults who are dating are often not regarded as being LAT), we emphasise the value of the insights we could gain from focusing on what people do (and intend to do) with their relationships.
Although cohabitation intentions are characterised by the demographic profiles of the four groups in distinct ways, major relationships traits are closely associated with people’s cohabitation intentions at different life stages alike. For example, the more frequently the partners see each other and the farther they live apart, the more likely they intend to cohabit.
If a fulfilled love life is key to people’s well-being, then how people are constrained and afforded (unequal) opportunities to practice their intimate relationships should closely concern people working in the areas of housing, care provision, and social welfare. The distinct cohabitation intentions across the four profiles of LAT also contain potential implications for behaviors pertaining to fertility, childrearing, and residential mobility.
This post has been jointly written by Yang Hu and Rory Coulter, Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.
Duncan, S., Carter, J., Phillips, M., Roseneil, S., & Stoilova, M. (2012). Legal rights for people who ‘Live Apart Together ’? Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 34, 443–458.
Coulter, R. & Hu, Y. (2015). Living Apart Together and Cohabitation Intentions in Great Britain. Journal of Family Issues. Advance online publication, http://jfi.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/12/02/0192513X15619461.abstract