Roselinde van der Wiel writes about commitment in ‘living-apart-together’ (LAT) relationships and the factors underlying this commitment.
In the past decades, new relationship types have arisen that suggest that commitment is of less importance in modern, individualized societies. ‘Living apart together’ (LAT) is one such relationship type. LAT refers to longer-term, monogamous partners who consider themselves a couple and are regarded as such by others, but who live in separate households. It does not refer to those in short-term and casual relationships, to married people, to (full-time) students, to those living with their parents, and to those who cohabit but maintain a second residence in which one partner lives part of the time.
Questions regarding commitment in partner relationships play a significant role in the debate about the individualisation of society. Despite the relevance for this debate, our current knowledge about LATs’ commitment is very limited. Existing studies touching on this topic fail to provide a detailed investigation of the underlying factors of commitment in LAT relationships.
The extent to which partners in non-traditional relationship types, such as LAT relationships, are committed to each other, in the sense of being emotionally attached and wanting to maintain the relationship, is highly debated. On the one hand, it is argued that individuals in these relationships are less committed than cohabiters because their relationships mostly lack structural investments such as a joint mortgage or children. On the other hand, it could be that their relationships involve higher levels of commitment compared to married couples, precisely due to the lack of formal, legal and structural barriers to separation. “The only thing keeping them together is their desire to stay together”.
How do people in LAT relationships experience commitment to their partner, and why so? To answer this question, 22 semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with individuals in LAT relationships in the Netherlands. In the interviews we spoke about motivations for living-apart-together, commitment, satisfaction, alternatives, investments, social support, future plans and relationship history.
Although experiences of commitment were diverse, most participants in this study were emotionally highly attached to their partner, which could largely be attributed to their feelings of being satisfied with and having emotionally invested in their relationship. However, participants’ commitment to maintaining their relationship in the future was less strong and clear-cut. Their stance on this was relatively open, emphasizing the large margin of uncertainty when it comes to the future and the central importance of relationship quality and satisfaction above all. The following quote exemplifies this:
I am actually only committed to what feels right for me. […] If it would be that something that feels right for me and feels right for him means that we are not together, then that is where my commitment lies, really. So in that sense I am actually not committed to the relationship. Because for me that’s not something, that’s an empty shell so to say. If you start working a relationship, yeah, what is it that you are working on? – (Hester, age 20-35)
The notion of a life-long partnership was generally not valued very highly. Older participants had been taught a different reality by their relationship experience, often to their own regret, and younger participants were only interested in a life-long partnership on the condition that that partnership remained satisfying for life. For example, Astrid could never believe in “forever” again because of what previous experiences had taught her:
With my ex-husband, when I married, I thought, with him I will stay forever. But that idea is now in rags for good. […] This is now forever a matter of ‘we’ll see’. – (Astrid, age 35-55)
In this sense, it may be right to speak of a reduced “willingness to create and honour life-long partnerships”, although we would suggest phrasing it as a reduced belief and interest in life-long partnerships in the case of those in a LAT relationship. These experiences of commitment seem to be well captured by the notion of “pure relationships”, in which autonomy and emotional commitment are centralised, and which are entered and maintained purely for the sake of love and personal satisfaction. Indeed, satisfaction appeared to directly contribute to commitment, but also indirectly via perceptions of possible alternative relationships and willingness to invest in a relationship:
We are good together, and so there is no alternative feeling. […] Look, at the moment that you’re not good in a relationship, you look at other men. – Saskia (age 55-70)
Extrinsic investments, social support and quality of alternatives were generally perceived to play no or only a minor influential role. Only several older interviewees acknowledged the contributory role played by extrinsic investments on commitment, by avoiding it for that reason. They limited the consequences of separation by living separately, but also sometimes by avoiding minor investments, like Mark did:
You know, I don’t want to put my [tv] remote there [at her place] and that if we break up that I then have to… Look, those things, I don’t want that. – Mark (age 55-70)
The younger study participants had idealistic views on relationships, and cohabitation and children were clearly part of their vision of the future, even though marriage mostly was not. Those who were older and more experienced in life and love tended to have a less idealistic and more practical conception of relationships, sometimes to their own regret. They lived apart to avoid perceived downsides of married life and to enjoy their regained freedom and independence, and/or to limit the consequences of a potential separation, which, they had learned, can be a realistic scenario. For that reason, they did not want to marry again, and they saw LAT as an arrangement for the unknown or very long term. For example, Robert said:
She [partner] then makes those plans of “later when we live together”, and then she knows that in my mind the word ‘Never!’ immediately pops up. […] I would not choose to give up those things so quickly anymore. Or give up, I do leave room for, you know, there has to be an escape. – Robert (age 35-55)
Either intentionally or not, most older participants found themselves less oriented towards the future of their relationship. They had learnt to be accepting of their partner’s negative personality traits, saw few attractive alternative relationships at their age, frequently avoided to invest much in their relationship, and cared less about social approval. LAT was a strategy to avoid commitment for several older participants who feared to commit again after one or several painful separations.
The results show that motivations to live apart mostly revolve around personal independence, career development and self-protection, or as Funk and Kobayashi say, “living apart for the self”. Even when external circumstances motivate LAT in the first place, such self-motivations often play an important additional role. It therefore seems appropriate to regard LAT as a more recent display of the Second Demographic Transition, which is described as being characterised by an increasing emphasis on individual autonomy and self-fulfilment.
Roselinde van der Wiel won the NIDI Master Thesis Award in 2016 for her research on LAT relationships (supervised by prof. dr. Clara Mulder and dr. Ajay Bailey). She is currently studying at the European Doctoral School for Demography and is affiliated with the University of Groningen and the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute.