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Birkbeck research reveals extent of couples ‘living apart together’

One in ten adults in Britain are in a relationship but not living with their partner, new research shows

One in ten adults in Britain are in a relationship but not living with their partner – and most of those are incorrectly counted as single in official statistics, according to new research from Birkbeck.

Researchers from Birkbeck, the University of Bradford, and NatCen Social Research have been studying the nine per cent of British adults who, although they are in a steady relationship, do not live with their partner.  The ESRC-funded research is the most comprehensive study to explore who is ‘living apart together’ (LAT) and why.

Professor Sasha Roseneil, from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies, said: “Nowadays very few people settle into a life-long relationship in their early twenties and stay with their partner “until death us do part”. People have complex relationship histories, and they often carry with them the emotional legacies of divorce and separation.

“For some people, more or less consciously, living apart together is a way of dealing with the messiness of intimate life today, protecting themselves, their children and their homes from some of the distress that they have previously experienced when a cohabiting relationship breaks down. That said, most people in LAT relationships have a strong sense that they are a couple, and many are in long-term relationships to which they are deeply committed.”

Celebrity couples

There is a common assumption that people who choose not to live with their partner are either wealthy celebrity couples – such as Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton – or are professional couples forced to live apart because of their jobs. In fact, LATs come from all sections of British society and from all parts of the country, and only eight per cent live apart primarily because of where their jobs are.

Contrary to popular belief, only a tiny minority of couples - just one per cent – say the main reason they live apart is to maintain benefit entitlements.

Although the majority of LATs are under 35, 11 per cent are 55 or over. Around two-thirds of LATs live within 10 miles of each other and the vast majority (86 per cent) are in daily contact.

The researchers found that around a third of LATs live apart because they feel they are not yet ready to live together, although many hope to do so in the future. A further third choose to live apart – however, few of these see this as a lifestyle choice, rather living apart is seen as emotionally safer, or a better way to manage other commitments, such as those to children, family and friends, or work. The remaining third are not able to live together due to circumstances outside the relationship itself – including financial reasons or working or studying in different places.

Ignored by the Census

Although the study shows that couples who live apart are a sizeable minority, they are currently ignored by the Census and most other social surveys on which the design of public services are based.

Professor Roseneil added: “We would like to see LAT couples have the right to ‘opt in’ to legal recognition – for protection in case of separation or bereavement – and to be taken into account by those providing personal, health and social care services, such as relationship counselling and family support.”

The Living Apart Together - multi-method analysis study combined data from three statistically representative general population surveys - the NatCen Social Research Omnibus, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Omnibus. Together these three surveys yielded a total of 572 people in a LAT relationship; that corresponds to 9% of all respondents in the British Social Attitudes survey (aged 18+). The researchers also carried out semi-structured interviews with 50 people in LAT relationships, and in-depth biographical interviews with a smaller sample of 16.

Read the full report:
Living Apart Together - Multi Method Analysis

Listen to the podcast:
Living Apart Together seminar, 26 April, Birkbeck