Alone together: Why some lovebirds nest apart

Despite the financial and environmental benefits, more North Bay couples are choosing to live separately

Louise and her boyfriend of nearly four years live on a quiet street in Novato. Like many couples, they spend a lot of time together, enjoy meals together and take vacations together.

They just don’t share their utility bills, garbage cans, bank accounts or mortgage.

That’s because they live in separate houses across the street from each other. By choice.

They are just one of the growing numbers of people across the globe, the country and the North Bay who have embraced what’s called a live apart together (LAT) relationship.

While it’s hard to know exactly how many people live apart from their romantic partners, surveys estimate that some 10% of adults in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are in LAT relationships. In Britain alone, nearly a quarter of people statistically defined as “single” actually have a romantic partner who lives elsewhere.

But no matter how many couples currently are in LAT relationships, social scientists are keenly aware that the phenomenon is growing. And for good reason. According to studies, LAT relationships can offer the same kind of commitment, love, intimacy, stability, equality, sex and all the other things a romantic relationship under one roof can offer while also affording each partner a sense of freedom and independence. There aren’t many types of romantic arrangements that can offer that.

Singles Going Steady: Susan Wolf, of Marin, and Scott Henry, of Sonoma County, have been a couple for years. Here they are exploring Scott’s neck of the woods along the Kortum Trail at the Sonoma Coast in June 2021.

The lifestyle is particularly popular with people in their so-called Third Age. In a 2017 critical review of LAT studies, researchers concluded that LAT relationships are an alternative to cohabitation and marriage for adults in their 60s and older.

That’s how it works for filmmaker Susan Wolf. Divorced and in her 60s, Wolf has been in a committed relationship with Scott Henry, 70, a widower who retired from a long career as a photographer and photo editor, for more than 10 years.

Both rent out their homes on Airbnb so they bounce back and forth between Wolf’s Corte Madera house and Henry’s house in downtown Petaluma, as well as spend time alone.

Neither feels a need to put a ring on it or one roof over it.

“I like the balance we have now. We’re very fluid. We can pack a suitcase in record time because we do it a lot. That’s enabled us to do a lot of things other than live at each other’s house or go back home after spending a weekend here,” Henry says. “We live together probably as much or more than we live apart.”

And, Henry says, the relationship has subtle differences when they’re at Wolf’s house versus his.

“When we’re [in Marin], it’s like you’re staying in a state park. The trails are nearby so we do a lot more hiking. When we’re in Petaluma, we go out more. It’s more of a city,” he says. “It’s really nice to have those two ways of being.”

Like many women, Wolf acknowledges that having her own place matters. “I do enjoy having my own space. It does feel empowering on a level. I don’t have to share the space unless I choose to,” she says.

“We have our time apart and so if we come together, it’s a choice. And it’s also liberating because this is my house. And when I’m at his house and he’s throwing his clothes on the floor, I don’t care because it’s not my house,” Wolf says with a laugh.

Which may explain in part why the LAT lifestyle is particularly popular with women, often as a way to avoid gendered care and household duties.

As Swedish researchers Sofie Ghazanfareeon Karlsson and Klas Borell write in their 2005 study, “A home of their own: Women’s boundary work in LAT-relationship,” having a place to call their own is particularly important for older women.

“Having their own home allows women to have more control over the degree of service they take on, such as cleaning and cooking for their partner and also gives them more control over different types of social relations and the coordination between these relationships,” they write. “[W]omen see the home as more important as a means of controlling both their relationship with their partners and their relationships with their children and grandchildren.”


“I worked hard for this,” says Louise, who prefers to just use her middle name, of the home she owns in Novato across the street from her boyfriend and his young daughter. “It’s something that’s just mine.”

Louise had a traditional marriage before. Like many divorced people, her approach to living under one roof with someone is: been there, done that. “I like that I have my own space. I feel like I did it [live together], it was fine,” she says.

Scott Henry and Susan Wolf cross-country skiing on the Mayflower Trail, near Leadville, Colorado in the Rocky Mountains in December 2021.

Still, she, too, acknowledges the joy of having that proverbial room of one’s own. “It’s so nice to have your space, your things. Nobody else is moving stuff, touching things,” she says.

Not to say that Louise doesn’t look at her financial situation every once in a while and think—this is silly. He rents while she has a mortgage to pay, and they each have utility bills and other household expenses that could be shared.

And it’s true, living under one roof and pooling resources can save couples lots of money. With a median rent of about $2,100 a month in the North Bay, cohabiting makes sense. Saving money is the top motivator for couples to move in together, according to a survey released earlier this year by

The problem with cohabiting to pool resources is that people are turning what should be a romantic decision into a financial decision.

“If you have two separate homes, you have twice the expenses but there are cost-benefits to everything,” Debra A. Neiman, a certified financial planner and principal of Neiman & Associates Financial Services in Arlington, Massachusetts, tells me. “There’re two lenses, a financial lens and an emotional lens. Minimizing the [financial] cost may not always be the best thing for the couple emotionally.”

Still, the desire to save money is understandable, especially in this economic climate.

One of the biggest myths about living apart together is that it’s only for people of financial means. On the surface that appears to be true. But all romantic couples start off living separately, whether solo or with parents, friends, roommates, relatives or some other configuration. Nothing has to change just because they found someone they want to have a romantic relationship with. They can just stay put.

As Beverly Hills psychologist Sherrie Sims Allen, who lived apart from her husband for five years before they moved in together, shares in a phone call, “You have to be able to afford your own lifestyle.”

Live Apart Together, or LAV, relationships are growing, especially for those in their so-called Third Age, meaning 60 and older.

In her late 70s, Mary Chase, a writer and media producer, has done that by living at Cabro Community, a communal community in Novato, for 18 years. John, her partner of 16 years, lives on the Central Coast, and they have traveled back and forth in their electric vehicles on the weekends to spend time together.

“John and I feel like we have the best of both worlds. For 40 years he’s lived deep in the woods, off of the grid, a very simple but wonderful life and he didn’t want to leave his property, which is absolutely gorgeous, and I didn’t want to leave the fun and the family of living at Cabro,” she says. “It just works for us. I miss when I’m away from him and vice versa. I think it’s great for the relationship.”

Although the 5,000-square-foot house on 13 acres that the Cabro Community called home for 28 years sold in July, Chase and another member of Cabro decided to rent a house together, also in Novato, and invited two other women to join them. That way, she’s able to afford her own lifestyle while enjoying her romantic relationship.

Living with friends to make ends meet can be easier than living with a romantic partner because people generally don’t have the same demands and expectations from friends, nor do they share the same bed.


But it isn’t just a better financial situation that makes some LAT couples question what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone around the house who can help fix things, says longtime Marin County journalist Nikki Silverstein, who has lived apart from her boyfriend for 19 years— she in a one-bedroom condo in Sausalito that she’s owned for decades, he in a studio apartment in San Francisco. Both had lived with previous romantic partners before, and Silverstein expected that eventually they would share a space.

“There are times I want a full-time partnership in the house, when something breaks, or things go awry. But then there are those times when it’s so nice to have the place to myself, especially when we’re together and I’m feeling we’re getting on each other’s nerves and I need some space, it’s really nice to have two different places to retreat to and have a little alone time,” Silverstein says.

Another concern people have about couples living in separate spaces is that it’s wasteful.  Whether you’re living in a 300-square-foot studio or a 3,000-square-foot single-family house, each has its own appliances as well as heating and cooling systems.

If you’re a family of three or four in that 3,000-square-foot house, they are sharing resources and that can be better for the environment. But if that family often flies for work or vacations, drives a gas-guzzling SUV, dines on beef a few times a week, and has remodeled their perfectly fine kitchen to keep up with new décor trends, their carbon footprint will likely be much higher than two solo eco-minded dwellers in a LAT relationship who walk, bike or use mass transit; shop at consignment and resale stores, and are vegetarian.

As one albeit small study on the environmental effects of living single indicates, the lifestyle of the people—whether alone in a studio or with others in a large house—matters. “Conclusively, singlehood and solo living cannot be automatically considered as environmentally unfriendly,” the researcher from Masaryk University determined.

The LAT lifestyle isn’t popular just with older couples like Wolf, Henry and Chase. It’s attractive to people who have children from previous relationships. Attempting to meld families in one household can be challenging for some couples, especially if a child is neurodiverse or has special needs. So, living apart together is a way for couples to put the children’s needs first, while still honoring the couplehood.

Louise, in her late 30s, is happily childfree and isn’t interested in “mommying” someone else’s child. Although she and her partner spend more time at his house—all his daughter’s things are there so it’s easier, she admits—having a place to escape to feels important.

“After an extended time with a young kid, I get to go home and it’s quiet, it’s clean and it’s kind of like, ahh,” she says with a laugh.

The LAT lifestyle is popular with women who wish to avoid gendered care and household duties.

Because LAT relationships aren’t all that common, many people just don’t understand it. If you love someone, wouldn’t you want to live with them—and maybe put a ring on it?

At first, Silverstein experienced lots of raised eyebrows and questions from people she knew.

“When we were in our 40s, it was always, ‘When are you going to get married?’ and then it was, ‘Why don’t you move in together?’” she says. “At 60, people don’t ask a lot of questions.”

Everyone understands the societal romantic script when you’re in your 20s and 30s—meet, date, fall in love, marry or live together and have children, even though more and more people are not marrying, not having children or having children without marrying. When you’re middle-aged and older, when many people already have raised children; are divorced, widowed or single by choice or chance; often have their own homes, and have deep ties to their community, there is no romantic script to follow. But many older people don’t necessarily want to uproot their life to move in with a new romantic partner or get a new place together.

In their 2001 paper “Dual Dwelling Duos: An Alternative for Long-term Relationships,” Berkeley therapist Judye Hess, in a LAT relationship for more than two decades, and Petaluma psychologist Padma Catell, an adjunct professor at Dominican University of California, acknowledge that society’s expectations about what relationships “look like” doesn’t work for everyone.

“As therapists we are confronted every day with people who are dealing with relationship problems. It seems that many people are trying to fit themselves into a very narrow model for long-term relationship that does not work well for their personalities,” they write. “Believing that there is only one healthy way to have long-term relationships, and repeatedly failing at it, leads to a lot of pain and to repeated feelings of failure for one or both of the partners.”

A LAT relationship expands that narrow romantic model.

Although Silverstein would prefer to live with her partner, she admits she loves how being in a LAT relationship gives her a chance to breathe.

“You don’t have to check in all the time. You don’t have to be back at a certain time to have dinner on the table. Your life is your own essentially. It’s like the best part of both worlds. You have a committed relationship and at the same time, you have the freedom and independence,” she says. “When you’re together, you get to focus on the quality time and when you’re alone, your time is your own.”

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