The Realities of Living Apart Together

by Jennifer Richardson

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

I hear my husband's voice bellowing at me from the other room. He's irritated about something, but the exchange is vaguely comforting as he's not in the other room but another country, his voice being carried over the speakers of my laptop. For most of 2016, my husband and I have lived apart, a reality that is the product of my decision to carry on working in Berlin this year. My husband likes Berlin OK, but he prefers to spend his time in England and California, the places where, respectively, he and I are from and where, together, we have bought homes. There is a longer and more nuanced version of this story — there always is — but for now, these are the salient facts.

Some more facts: as of writing this in August, my husband and I have spent on average about one week together per month. That's looked like a handful of long weekends plus four, two-week stints. The longest we've been apart in a single stretch was seven weeks at the beginning of the year. We are not alone in our aloneness. According to the US Census Bureau, 3.6 million married Americans live apart from their significant others. Sociologists have even given us our own acronym, LAT, for Living Apart Together.

That my husband and I have ended up in this situation is not really a surprise. We often used to quip about our mutual admiration for the rumored living arrangements — houses next door to each other — between Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton. In England, our tiny cottage is adjoined on one side with another identical cottage, and one of our favorite sports is fantasizing about buying it and emulating the Bonham Carter/Burton arrangement. If it came up for sale we would be tempted, despite the fact that Bonham Carter and Burton have since split. It's also subsequently come to light that their separate houses were actually adjoined, a mistake we wouldn't make ourselves. Unlike the Bonham Carter/Burtons another key to this living arrangement is that, by choice, we don't have kids.

Read more: It Takes a Village to Raise a Child & I Have a Very Tiny Village

Perhaps then it will come as no surprise to find out that I rather like spending time alone. It's a skill I acquired in my early 20s when I moved to Singapore for graduate school. At first it was terribly lonely, but it forced me to learn the art of taking myself out to dinner with a good book, and I've never looked back. Today I also excel — as does my husband — at taking myself to the 11:30 a.m. show at the movies and being unreasonably bitter when some other loner decides to do the same thing. Very little beats a morning at the movies with the entire cinema to yourself.

Still, we are a little uncomfortable with the comfortableness of our current arrangement. Most friends and family assume our choice to live separately for now is more dictated by work than it is, and we don't bother to correct them. The friends that know us very well take our setup in their stride.

One of my husband's childhood friends, a true eccentric, recently told him he finds the whole thing "very civilized." I don't know Sven very well, but I did spend a pleasant weekend with him a couple years ago when he stayed with us in the Cotswolds. He arrived bearing a pipe as a hostess gift (on a subsequent visit he presented my husband with a monocle) and wore tweed from head to toe the entire time. His wardrobe befitted his genial manner, including when he brought his laptop out to show me some short cosplay films he had made with his transgender girlfriend. What kept the whole thing from being entirely uncomfortable was that it was readily apparent that Sven was both equally pleased and embarrassed by his work — just another fellow insecure artist. There was something decidedly tender about my little private screening. Sven and Nancy have been together for years now, and I take his characterization of my living arrangements with my husband as the highest compliment.

There are, of course, disadvantages to our situation, which brings me to the topic of sex. What about it, you might reasonably ask. I, however, am far too prudish to discuss such matters here, even if the format of this kind of writing is commonly referred to as the personal essay. Suffice it to say we are over the courtship period of our relationship and yay, technology, even if Skype is mostly employed to crack myself up by showing my husband my boobs while I eat cereal or iron a shirt. When I asked my husband what he'd be comfortable with me writing about our sex life in this piece he suggested I debunk the idea that men in their 50s are still horny as "total bollocks."

With all my free time not having sex, I mostly use the time to do things I wouldn't normally do with my husband, either because he loathes these things or are they are inherently loner activities — you can interpret which is which. This includes buying and wearing my first pair of Birkenstocks, spending hours on the weekends writing and reading, taking baths in the morning, and watching films starring Greta Gerwig, preferably at the 11:30 a.m. show. I also do things I would normally do with him — go out to eat, drink wine, watch films without Greta Gerwig — and that's when I miss him most. Things he does on his own that he wouldn't do with me except under sufferance include watching Game of Thrones and superhero films. Every time he WhatsApps me that he's off to watch another episode of GoT, I breathe a sigh of relief I'm not there. 

One of the unexpected pleasures of our life apart has been the development of an epistolary relationship. While we talk over Skype, we tend to use it more as a means to mimic being together. A typical morning video call includes stretches of silence while I put on makeup in Berlin and he drinks coffee in the Cotswolds. The real communication happens in writing, not delivered via snail mail, but typically over WhatsApp — short typo-strewn snatches but also longer vignettes from our daily lives, like the 333 words I sent him this morning describing an interaction between a drunk, a toddler, and a mom outside a neighborhood coffee shop. Being alone has given me the gift of time and space to be more observant and a reason to write things down. Doing so is a way of bringing my husband into my world even though he's not here.

At the end of this year we will be back under the same roof, but I hope our 21st century pen pal relationship remains. I still plan to send my husband dispatches from my daily life, even if they're coming from the other room.

 

Jennifer Richardson is the author of a travel memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has recently appeared in the anthology, A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis, as well as Full Grown People, Fiction AdvocateExBerliner, and Remedy Quarterly. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.