Last year, I visited a friend I don’t see often, and as we were getting ready to call it a night, she asked about my partner. I told her we were doing great. She asked if he was still living in a different state than I was, and I said he was. She asked if we were planning to move to the same city. I said no. When I asked her why she looked sad, she replied that she just wanted me to be happy. I said that I was, that living apart was our preferred arrangement — we were choosing it.
There is a name for people who are in a committed relationship but don’t live together by design. It’s called apartnership. Sharon Hyman, whose documentary about this subject is called Apartners: Living Happily Ever After Apart and has been living separately from her partner for almost 20 years, coined the term “apartner.” On the film’s website, Hyman cites the fact that up to 40 percent of Americans sleep in separate bedrooms and 10 percent live separately from their partners, and in the film, she explores why this is seen as such a taboo, why we’re so stuck on the myth that couples who don’t share a bed and/or a house are not as committed to one another.
My partner and I have been together for more than 10 years, and we’ve never lived together. When I say that, I mean, we’ve never consciously created a home with the intention of living in it with one another. We’ve spent months together, and at the end of that time, I return to where I live, and we can both go back to having our own spaces where we can make art. Our abilities to maintain our individual space is deeply important to both of us, and it’s contributed to the longevity of our relationship. Neither of us wants to have children, and we don’t feel the need to get married, so living together also isn’t something that’s urgent. If we do decide that we want to, we’ll talk about it, but as Hyman says in her piece for Psychology Today, “I feel that we are blessed to have the choice.”
In the time during which I’ve been in an apartnership, I’ve learned a few things. One is that sleeping with another person is difficult. It can be lovely, but it’s also something that needs to be discussed so it can be effective for everyone involved. It requires communication that might not be prompted in other situations, conversations about how much touching we would each like before and during sleep (i.e., if we were touching and I pulled away, it doesn’t mean I don’t like touching you, but that I need to be cold when I sleep and hugging generates too much heat).
Apartnership can mean that you put off working through issues that you might normally discuss if you were around one another more often. Or can it? You could argue that living together can lull folks into a sense of security and deescalate the situation depending on what it is. In other words, every relationship is different. I will say that my partner and I have addressed things like sex and money and long-term plans because they come up when we’re together.
Since we don’t live in the same city or the same house, how will we handle money when we are together, especially when it’s longer than a week? The same applies to sex — how often do we really want to have it? Have our needs and desires changed since the last time we saw one another? How do we want to spend the time we have face-to-face since we know that quality and quantity don’t necessarily equal one another? It’s also about seeing what we’re each like in times of transition, especially since for me, those can often trigger anxiety and depression, and figuring out how best to support one another through that.
Ultimately, whether or not apartnership is for you isn’t really the issue. It might be, or the desire to be apart might be a sign that your relationship isn’t in great shape. The point is you should have the option to explore what works for you and your partner and think about why it works without being told it’s bad and you’re wrong for conducting your relationship in this way. Apartnership for me has been a really healthy and genuine means of being with my partner, but it has to be right for both of you. Don’t fall for the notion that every relationship has to look the same way or else it isn’t “real.” As much as you can call your own shots, go for it.