Image: Some couples happy living apart
Krause  /  CondeNet
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived apart together, as did Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
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updated 11/1/2007 9:46:35 AM ET 2007-11-01T13:46:35

My husband and I have been married for 14 years, and we’ve never lived together. Unbeknownst to us, demographers have devised a name for our arrangement: living apart together, which refers to married couples living separately. According to 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 3.8 million married couples who don’t reside under the same roof. But even without statistics behind us, John and I figure we’re in good company. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived apart, as did Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Interestingly, the latter couple were never married but chose to be buried next to each other in the same tiny plot. Maybe once they didn’t have to share a bathroom, occupying the same space for eternity was OK.)

In the beginning, my line about our arrangement was that we were very Woody and Mia … but then a few things happened to make that quip seem not so funny. After we’d been married for eight years and we’d had our twin boys, Henry and Gus, I told people something a bit closer to the truth: Marriage and kids are one thing, but living together? Don’t rush me.

In fact, there are many practical reasons we keep separate apartments. First, we live in New York City, land of wildly expensive real estate and no space. Neither of our places costs much. Mine is small; his is rent stabilized, meaning it is too cheap, by New York standards, to give up. Plus, most of John’s apartment is taken up by his two pianos. (He’s a former opera singer.) If we had moved in together, we’d have had to spend a big wad of money on something larger, money that we didn’t have. When our boys were born and I did have more money, I expanded my apartment to include the one above me. But it was still not big enough for one piano, let alone two. And, second, neither of us likes change. I mean, we really, really don’t like change. Third, I love my downtown neighborhood; he loves his uptown digs. Why should we rock the boat?

Nothing in common
Which brings me to a far more compelling reason for our living separately: John and I have nothing in common except that we love each other and our sons. (We also share an antipathy for team sports and shellfish, a solid foundation for lifelong commitment if there ever was one.) But as far as our living habits go, we could not be farther apart. I think this situation is true for many married couples; they simply won’t admit it.

John’s apartment is a den of gloom: Jacobean furniture; ancient, loudly ticking timepieces; worn Persian carpets. I find it downright creepy; I’m convinced it harbors a ghost. John is convinced, too, the difference being that he enjoys his ghost. My apartment is light and airy, a slice of the Caribbean, or it would be if I hadn’t listened to John’s advice when I was installing new floors (dark oak). When I’m not writing, I crave noise and action, both in plentiful supply with our 6-year-olds. My life soundtrack is Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and The Roches, all of whom my husband refers to as “those bloody caterwauling idiots.” John needs either complete silence in his home or Wagner. Small children don’t allow for silence, and Wagner used to make the twins sob.

My husband is fastidious. I am the kind of person who, if I notice Cheerios on the floor (which I usually don’t), generally feels confident that someone — the children, a mouse, the dog — will come along and eat them, thus saving me the bother of cleaning them up. John can’t stand my obliviousness to mess, so he likes to set traps for me. The other day, next to my desk, there was a wad of dog hair the size of a basketball. It was impressive, if a little startling. “I wanted to see how long it took you to notice,” John said. “When I began, it was about the size of a marble. Every time I brushed the dog, I added to it.” Apparently, the hair ball had been there for two months, so you can imagine what else escapes my attention. If I had funds for a live-in housekeeper with obsessive-compulsive disorder, maybe John could move in. But frankly, if I want to hear a litany of complaints about what a pain in the ass I am, I don’t need him telling me; I only have to tune in to the voice in my own head.

When we had the children, of course, living separately became dicier. Friends said John and I would simply have to live together; after all, what would the kids think? I understand that when Henry and Gus are older, we’ll have some explaining to do. (“No, we’re not divorced, and, yes, the arrangement is weird.”) Until then, what they know is that sometimes, when they jump on my head at 6 a.m., the bitterly complaining lump on the other side of the bed is their father, who stays over three nights a week or so. And when he’s not there, no one else will be.

Living apart — and loving it
So far, the children don’t seem to think much about it, especially because Dad is always around for dinner and to tuck them in. They talk happily about their uptown and downtown houses. Once, Henry told a friend that his mom and dad didn’t live together. Soon after, I got the Alarmed Call from a mom: “Judith, is everything … all right?” You could hear the anxiety, tinged with interest, in her voice: Those people are divorcing; he already has his own apartment! How soon before she’ll be blowing her kids’ college savings on liposuction and a face-lift?

I was bugged, yet amused. Clearly, she was making the same assumption that everyone does, which is that a married couple who do not cohabitate must not be happy or ever have sex. Another fun interpretation is that we must have lots of sex, only not with each other. The notion that two people can live apart and still be in a traditional marriage, neither celibate nor throwing key parties, seems to make folks’ head explode. To which I can only reply, in my own head, “That’s logical. We have separate places, so we must never have sex. Because as everyone knows, the thing that makes for a hot sex life is proximity.”

Yet another misconception held by those who find our setup peculiar is that a person can only be as faithful as her opportunities, so when John isn’t around, I must be entertaining myself somehow (or he himself). Now I admit I’ve lusted not only in my heart but in parts farther south, but these temptations are moderated by the thought, lodged in my heart, of someone waiting for me at home, scowling lovingly.

Some people suspect that John has a commitment problem. He lost his beloved second wife of 20 years to cancer. (I’m number three.) Does he now have some deep fear of abandonment, they wonder, which he deals with by keeping me at arm’s length? Do I, an only child, have a problem with sharing? Or do we just not care enough about each other to want to be entangled?

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Entangled lives
Yet our lives are entangled, hopelessly, irrevocably and, for the most part, happily. To us, living together in the same physical space has nothing to do with living in the same emotional space. In my more hippie-granola moments, I like to think that there is a certain purity to our arrangement. I am married simply because I happen to love the guy.

Not that I never get angry, especially because I’m usually the one rushing around in the morning trying to get our boys off to school. (“Quack! Quack! Mr. Duck wants you to eat your cereal and put on your pants!” For this, I got an Ivy League education?) Indeed, there have been moments of fury: When I’m on vomit patrol by myself, or when Henry wakes me at 3 a.m. to ask, “Why do we have knees?” Yet we have something many kids with dads in residence often don’t: a father who is there for dinner, who will leave for his place only after he hears the boys snoring. He loves and worries about all of us. And he agreed to take on the burden of children in his late 60s; the least I can do is let him get a good night’s rest.

Truthfully, I can’t fathom why any couple would want to live together. It’s not as if most people feel more intimate when they share a space. (There’s a reason the courtship days are the giddiest time — that reason involves not knowing every nasty detail about each other.) I’ve never walked in on John in the bathroom. He has never clipped his toenails in bed. If you live apart from someone and trust him, you have intimacy without that incestuous feeling that comes from too much information, which can lead couples to stop having sex.

I won’t go so far as to say that our arrangement has brought us closer. John and I fight as much as, and perhaps more than, the average couple. But living apart has allowed us to stay married and remain in love. We do find each other essential; it’s just that, like many couples, we find each other deeply annoying, too. The only difference with us is that sometimes we can breathe a deep sigh of relief at the end of the day and say: I love you, honey; now get the hell out of here!

And on certain afternoons, when the children are with the babysitter, I make my way uptown, where John is waiting for me. The lights are low, and there are beverages at the ready (single malt for him, white wine for me — seriously, we have nothing in common). I look forward to these afternoons when it’s only me and the guy I fell in love with 16 years ago, afternoons that would be tough to savor if we lived together. And the best part? Afterward, when he gets frustrated that I’ve strewn clothes everywhere, I put them on, kiss him and wave good-bye.

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