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Interview: Living Apart Gives Older Women Freedom


Dr. Karen Upton-Davis

Dr. Karen Upton-Davis

Over the last few decades, women have obtained greater work opportunities and increased financial independence. Many claim these gains in the public sphere have not translated on the domestic front.

That may be changing.

A new Australian study has found that living-apart-together (LAT) relationships lead to increased autonomy for women and have the potential to change women’s lives for the better.

The qualitative study used data obtained from in-depth interviews with 20 financially independent heterosexual women over the age of 45, who had chosen a LAT relationship.

Karen Upton-Davis reported her findings online in the Journal of Gender Studies (Vol. 24, No.1, 2015).

To learn more, AHB caught up with Dr. Upton-Davis in the school of population health at the University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.

Ruth Dempsey: So what is a LAT relationship?

Karen Upton-Davis: LAT stands for Living Apart Together. A LAT relationship involves being in a committed, intimate relationship with someone who lives in a different household.

This often means couples live alone in separate houses. But LAT partners may also live with children, other relatives or in residential care, for instance.

In western countries, around a quarter of the supposedly single adult population are, in fact, in a relationship with someone with whom they are not living. About half of these people are under 25. We might think of them as dating, but the other half are older, many in their senior years. Especially for older adults, the LAT relationship is not a stepping stone to marriage or cohabitation but, instead, an arrangement of choice.

RD: Why did you focus on women over 45?

KUD: I had several reasons. For one, the research had shown women over 45 were more likely to be in a LAT relationship through choice rather than circumstance.

These relationships also tended to be more settled and to last longer than they did for younger women.

Also, older women’s reasons for choosing a LAT relationship were different from those of younger women. I wanted to understand why.

RD: What did you find?

KUD: Women in the study told me the choice to LAT had evolved in response to the situation in which they found themselves. At the start of the relationship, most were open to living together. But, as time passed, and the relationship seemed to be working well, the women reassessed their options.

In fact, women discovered that LAT had surprising appeal:

  • they enjoyed spending their money the way they wanted without needing to be accountable to their partner
  • they liked being able to spend time with their children, grandchildren and friends without having to deal with the extra dynamic of their partner’s involvement (this was particularly the case for the women who still had children living at home)
  • they could go on separate holidays (one had just come back from a month in Tuscany with her girlfriend)
  • they were able to have the house the way they liked it, and
  • if there was conflict or irritation between partners each of them had a place to retreat to.

In short, the participants thought that LAT provided an opportunity to enjoy the positive advantages of a relationship such as intimacy and connection, while avoiding the less desirable aspects such as doing someone else’s housework, perpetual care-giving or the challenge of conflicting values.

RD: How did the choice to LAT affect women’s view of themselves?

KUD: These were confident, capable women. They had risen to the challenge of paying bills, dealing with everyday practical issues and coping with crises. This wasn’t always easy, but once they had met the challenge they felt very good about themselves.

They told me that this confidence enhanced the bond with their LAT partner. And despite different addresses, even after many years, there was a spark between them. They looked forward to spending time in each other’s company.

On the other hand, many of the women believed the relationship would not have lasted had they lived together because there were aspects of the other person they found difficult. However, given they spent limited time together, these areas of incompatibility could be accommodated.

As one woman put it, "You can put up with most things if you know it’s just for a short time."

RD: How did their families respond to the relationship?

KUD: That’s a good question. Responses from family members were mixed.

One participant said her sister thought that her LAT relationship was sad and unresolved. Another woman’s mother kept asking the couple when they intended to live together.

Other participants thought their LAT status had made no difference to their family relationships.

RD: What about co-workers?

KUD: Once again, responses were mixed. Some said they didn’t tell their work mates because they thought they wouldn’t understand.

And others said their colleagues thought they had the perfect setup and wondered how they could convince their current live-in partners to LAT.

RD: The couples kept their finances separate. Is that right?

KUD: Yes, almost all participants kept their finances separate, most saying that they did not know the details of their partner’s financial situation nor vice-versa. Each paid their way, splitting equally the costs of holidays and general living expenses, for example.

RD: Some suggest LAT partners may be less committed to each other in the event of serious illness. What did you find?

KUD: The jury is still out on this one. I found a degree of reluctance by participants to think about what would happen if one or the other needed to be cared for. Most said they would be happy to provide care in the short term or even in the longer term if the caregiving was contained rather than all encompassing.

Nearly all the participants had provided long-term care to a family member in the past. At the time I spoke with them, they were enjoying the freedom from those responsibilities.

RD: You say LAT has the potential to transform women’s lives. How so?

KUD: The women in the study reported the LAT experience provided greater scope for autonomy, encouraged satisfaction with the relationship, reduced the burden of care-giving and opened up spaces of freedom.

In short, the gains that women have made over past several decades in the public sphere with greater educational and workplace opportunities and increased financial independence have not translated to similar gains in the home front. LAT promises transformation in the domestic sphere.