Blended Families, Step Parenting

Trends – Living Apart Together

My husband and I are onto something . . .

As a widowed divorce lawyer, I was uniquely aware of how difficult it is for blended families to combine households. So when my new husband and I decided to get married, I was concerned about how a widow with 4 children and a single-dad with joint custody of three children could possibly live together. The solution was easy: don’t.

Old problem; New Solution

We’re not alone in our conclusion that living apart is an elegant solution to an age-old problem. A paper published by Princeton University in 2008 studied “Live Apart Together” relationships and concluded that “a greater number of break-ups of second unions, as well as the abundance of media reports about couples in Live Apart Together relationships may have contributed to the rise of this more independent form of relationship.”

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Living Apart Puts Kids First

We realized quickly that unless we found (and could even afford!) an 8-bedroom home, cohabiting would necessarily require us to install everyone in shared rooms and bunk beds-something we wanted to avoid in an attempt to give everyone their own retreat from a hectic household.

We concluded that it was better for adults-with “adult” coping skills-to sacrifice waking up side-by-side every day than it was for our seven children to sacrifice their bedrooms, their privacy, their personal possessions (“No that’s MY iPod!!”), and their budding relationship as life-long step-siblings.

So, now instead of asking “When can they leave?” my kids are eager to see their step-siblings and ask “When are they coming?” and “How long can they stay?”

“You’re Not My Mom!!”

As a widow, I am my children’s only parent. They need time and attention from me alone without a step-parent’s constant presence. My step-children, on the other hand, only have access to my husband one-half of the time under his divorce decree. We felt it would be unfair to his children to make them compete for attention with my kids during that precious “one-half” of their time.

Living apart gives us each just enough elbow room to raise our children under our own unique rules and in a way that honors or respects the children’s other parent, while still giving them all the benefits of a loving and involved step-parent.

Marriage ala carte!

Living apart allows us to “cherry pick” all the good parts of marriage while mitigating the hard parts. My husband does hours upon hours of yoga. He also obsesses over baseball . . . all at his own house. Living apart means he doesn’t have to compromise his “alone time” or temper interests and attitudes that could become invasive and annoying if I was exposed to them 24/7.

Separate but Equal

Living apart creates a relationship of true equality: I do the dishes at my house; he does the dishes at his. The day-to-day responsibilities that may become lopsided and that may cause resentment between cohabiting spouses are naturally and equally divided between us. The result is that our marriage is almost entirely devoid of conflict. We do not squabble over who “forgot to stop at the grocery store” or who “never takes out the trash.” To each his own.

Cautions and Caveats

Despite its benefits, a “Live Apart Together” relationship is not for everyone. There are certain caveats that must be considered for such an arrangement to be successful:

You have to live in proximity and have similar lifestyles

The houses need to be close enough to allow each partner quick and easy access to the other and should be similar in terms of style and value-it would be an unworkable situation if one family was living in a shack in the countryside while the other was living 15 miles away in a suburban mansion.

You have to value independence and personal responsibility

You must be the kind of person who likes and needs to be independent and who values autonomy. If you are lonely, clingy, or the kind of person who is insecure and indecisive, a live-apart lifestyle will leave you feeling isolated and uncertain.

You can’t be the suspicious or jealous type

When your spouse goes home for the night, there will be 8 or more hours of his time that is unaccounted for. When you don’t see him off to work in the morning, and are not there when he comes home at night, you must be the kind of person who can trust he is the same person when he is with you as he is when he is not. If you cannot handle some physical and emotional distance, this lifestyle is not for you.

It is more expensive-but not cost-prohibitive-to live apart

You will have two cable bills and two mortgages and two electric bills, etc. But, you would have those anyway if you had never met each other. Combining households can mitigate and mainstream certain expenses, but the intangible costs of cohabitation and the taxes on your relationship with your spouse and children must be part of any cost-benefit analysis.

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Kelly M. Dodd is a partner at Stafford Rosenbaum LLP in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she practices exclusively in the area of family law.

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