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The Case for Living Apart

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When I was in my 20s, a girl I worked with had parents who divorced, remarried, divorced again, then finally solved the "can't live with, can't live without" scenario by buying two huge flats, next door to each other. And there they lived, happily ever after, wandering in and out of each other's places when they felt like it, retreating to their own, private space when they didn't. At the time, idealistic, fiercely jealous (my parents didn't live happily ever after thanks to an affair) and possessive over my then husband, the thought of living separately from someone I loved struck me as positively ludicrous, unromantic and, quite frankly, plain sad.

Now, I wonder if there's something of a case for living apart - and know several couples who've proved it can work. Take Mandy. She's been with her man for 13 years and they still have separate places. He's a neat freak, she's a self-confessed domestic slob and neither wants to change. It struck most of her friends (me included) as a fairly trivial reason not to take the plunge. Three years into their relationship, when still neither of them showed signs of wanting to get married or cohabit, we all secretly figured one or both had commitment issues or they simply didn't love each other. Mandy ignored us, faithfully attended all our subsequent weddings, "we're moving in together" housewarming parties - and is still happy with her man more than a decade after the rest of us have divorced or angrily chucked ex-lovers things into bin bags, shut the door and found ourselves back at square one again. Meanwhile, she's renovated her place, with his help, and tripled the value of her property. They're currently doing the same with his flat. The logical next step would be to sell up, make a killing and use the proceeds to buy a gi-normous mansion that's big enough to include a messy "hers" area and immaculate "his" space. But no. "It works as it is," she says calmly. "Why take the risk and ruin a perfectly good relationship?"

Some people suit living together and if you can possibly manage it, it's clearly preferable even if just for cost reasons. But to live happily together, without resentment, you need to be good at respecting differences, able to stomach each other's idiosyncrasies and put up with the weird habits all of us have and think we don't. You need to be tolerant of each others' annoying friends, intrusive family members and pets that pee all over your carpets. You have to be able to allow each other "me time" without interpreting it as a passive-aggressive sign they're angry with you, that you're unlovable or they're secretly hankering after Jai, the hot, newly single thirty-something that Kate has, rather annoyingly, adopted into your group. (After all, you can't keep tabs on each other if you live apart, making it ridiculously easy to enjoy one-night-stands, even sustain a long-term affair.) It takes a mature, responsible, tolerant and forgiving adult to live happily with another - which is why so many marriages and cohabitated couples fail miserably. Most of us aren't any of those things, however much we'd like to pretend we are.

Couples with kids, of course, have no choice. It's hard enough parenting without shuttling your kids to and fro between Mum's house and Dad's place and explaining to teachers that everything is just fine and you are together and happy, just live apart, while they lift an eyebrow and wave a crayon drawing in your face that little Johnny drew of his family, showing two houses and him in a car on the way between the two. But if you don't have kids and are strong, confident, trusting and independent, living apart may just suit you - for a while at least.

As an agony aunt for more than two decades, I think one of the most common mistakes couples make is trying to rush to the finish line. Especially when they're still in the delusional honeymoon period and their brains are so flooded with love hormones, they have no idea who each other really is because all they see are projections of who they want each other to be. In the first six months, most of us would cheerfully Velcro ourselves together, such is the longing to spend every moment together. But if you really do want the traditionally happy ending which results in you sharing your lives - and a home - you'd be well advised to resist the urge and wait.

Living together sounds terribly romantic but in reality, it's hard. Bloody hard. A lot of couples try it, hate it and split. Often, it's because they've found out they're incompatible (nothing like living with someone to accelerate finding that out!). But in some cases, it's not that the couple aren't suited, it's just that they don't work well together when forced to do it 24/7. In those cases there's a strong argument for keep the relationship going and living apart for a bit, rather than forcing yourselves to fit the norm. Just as we've adjusted the traditional model of marriage to take on varied forms (gay marriage, civil ceremonies etc) because one size doesn't fit all, maybe we need to rethink the 'must live together if you're in love' concept as well. Just think of all that cupboard space!