Sharon Hyman is a Montreal filmmaker who is currently directing the documentary Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart.
My spouse and I just celebrated our 20-year anniversary of living happily ever apart.
David and I met when I was in my 30s, and having separate households worked best at the time owing to our dramatically different work schedules. But as our relationship deepened, so did the realization that this was the perfect arrangement for us. As it turns out, solitude becomes us as much as togetherness does. In fact, the two fuel each other to produce the perfect balance. David and I are there for one another in sickness and in health, through all the tough times that every person, and relationship, faces. We share a life together, but it’s life more like a Venn diagram with overlapping circles instead of one big circle.
We are what I call “apartners”: committed partners who live apart. This sort of relationship is a hot topic these days, but it’s really nothing new. Artists and lovers Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera discovered the benefits of apartnering almost a century ago, as did countless other ordinary couples throughout the ages whose names we don’t know. Society is just finally catching up in its acceptance of what constitutes a committed couple.
What I’ve discovered is that for many, this kind of relationship holds great promise, while for others, it provokes skepticism and judgment.
“Relationships require sacrifice,” the detractors argue. Well, that’s true. But must the sacrifice be measured in square feet? “You and David are really just ‘friends with benefits,’” others insist. We’ve been together for 20 years, so those are some benefits!
In my anecdotal experience, it’s women who are most likely to find apartnering appealing. For example, it is women who tell me that the arrangement sounds like the best of both worlds, and often confide, “Had I known this was an option, maybe I wouldn’t be divorced now.”
The traditional North American trajectory for love is that you meet, you fall in love and you move in together and/or marry. But this storybook-fable approach to marriage is neither universal nor timeless. Not that long ago, marriage had little to do with love. It was about property rights, kinship lineages and protection and shelter. What we think of as a “normal relationship” is really just a norm from one particular culture, in one particular historical era – an era that is pretty clearly over.
In the 1960s, there was a dramatic shift in what we expected from our spouses, fuelled by the social movements of the day. Suddenly, expectations for our partners shifted from the quotidian to the lofty heights of expecting them to facilitate our "self-actualization.” As Eli Finkel tells it in The Suffocation Model: Why Marriage in America is Becoming an All-or-Nothing Institution, “all of a sudden, it wasn’t enough just to have food and shelter or companionship. Now people wanted a partner who would make them feel like they were evolving as individuals – as evidenced by expressions like ‘you make me a better man (or woman).’”
Dr. Finkel and others suggest that “living apart together” relationships may be an antidote to these new expectations, as we remove the mundane from the relationships and focus on the essentials: communication, companionship, support and intimacy. Although many have told me I am not in a “real” relationship, I have yet to be convinced how fighting over picking up socks or taking out the garbage would add much to ours.
Detractors have often call apartnering “selfish,” but I personally find that living alone allows me to be more present for my spouse.
But that’s me. Maybe for you, living apart is not a viable option. Maybe you need to live together for financial reasons (although few ever question the financial viability of being single or divorced). Maybe you have children you wish to raise with your spouse under one roof. I do not believe that apartnering is the best choice for everyone, but neither do I believe that cohabiting is the best option, either. There simply is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all way to have a relationship, as soaring divorce rates attest.
So isn’t it time we started to think outside the box … or house? Maybe one day, David and I will choose to live together. Or maybe we will remain apartners. Either way, I feel blessed to have the choice, and that is something that I wish for everyone to have without judgment.
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