Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Is Wanting a Little Breathing Room from Your Loved Ones a New Notion?

From Po:

One of the most emailed stories of the last week at the New York Times was reported by Jill Brooke on the phenomenon of "Living Alone Together." These are couples who have his & hers houses or apartments. Some of these couples are married; some are long-term couples who never marry. It's not that they love each other any less, they insist - they just like their space. A little breathing room helps them be kinder and more appreciative to each other when together.

It's not a horrible story; it's a good story, with one fatal flaw. It's a good story because it normalizes this type of relationship. You're no longer outcasts, you LATs - you've made The Times. My own mom has been in a couple of these long-term relationships where they each kept their space, so I've grown up thinking it's fairly normal. And I'm grateful to Jill Brooke for making it more normal.

However, the fatal flaw.

Not once, in this 1,700 word story, does Jill Brooke mention that it's expensive to maintain two homes. It's an incredible financial privilege to be a couple and yet live separately. But this never crossed the reporter's mind.

In most of the country, when two people fall in love, sooner or later one of them realizes, "Hey, we could be saving a lot of money if we moved in together."

By ignoring the financial limitations most people have, the Times conveys that living like this is a brand new desire we have. In fact, a quick look at history suggests that it's not a new desire at all. We've always wanted a little breathing room from our loved ones - we just never could afford it until now.

Families have always been held together under one roof by economic limitations as much as desire. A surge in middle-class wealth after World War II led new parents to flee the urban centers (where the grandparents lived) and move to the suburbs. That was a major blow to the three-generational-family. We can wish that generations stuck together like they used to, but it turns out that people never really liked it so much. As soon as they could afford to get on their own, they did.

Then the 20-somethings moved out too. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, they got married so young that we couldn't really see, demographically, this desire for breathing room. But once marriage got delayed, you saw a huge boom in living independently - having left your parents, but not yet married.

In the 1980s, the boom in stocks and real estate helped the grandparents switch from living independently to living in style. Millions moved south from the rust belt. Farther away, more independent. Sent postcards.

Today, finally, couples are getting in on the act. Wealth continues to give voice to this desire to have more personal space.

I'm still miffed that this journalist could have written so many words on the topic, and yet she never considered that her readers around the country would wonder, naturally, "but how do they afford it?" That this question did not occur to Jill Brooke says something about the world that surrounds her. Apparently, in her world, everyone can afford it.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is obvious that these couples can afford to live in his and her places. When I read the article, Jill Brooke did mention their careers and I have several theories here.

The author presumes that the reader already knows these people can afford to live in his and her places when she mentions their careers.

I often hear of separate beds or separate bedrooms but it is surprising to hear of married people living in separate houses. Although, I remember one friend mentioned an article about ten years ago about couples who live in separate houses.

I cannot imagine this type of living situation for myself and my future husband.

I know that I will get married someday. I hope that I will live with my husband and enjoy our life together. I look forward to marrying and having kids!

7:28 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Not so fast. I come from a rather "economically challenged" family and not until a little while ago did it hit me that my grandparents (who were married for nearly 50 years before they both passed) lived nearly half that separately.

I never grew up thinking it was strange until I really started thinking about it and began to wonder how common (or uncommon) it might be.

And again, my grandparents weren't wealthy people. I come from a large family, there are nine siblings all together in my Mother's family and both my grandmother and grandfather had to work to support all of the kids. Living apart wasn't a luxury they could afford, I'm sure that's why they did so after most of the kids were gone and had a life of their own, but each worked to make it a reality. And I think their relationship was better because of it. It never took away from the connection they both had, you hardly ever saw one without the other to be honest and that's probably why I never thought it was so strange they lived in different residences. When my grandfather died of a stroke, it hit my grandmother really hard and she passed not to long after him.
It was surprising to me how connected they were given their living arrangement, but I guess all relationships are different and their relationship worked for them.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Not so fast. I come from a rather "economically challenged" family and not until a little while ago did it hit me that my grandparents (who were married for nearly 50 years before they both passed) lived separately for nearly half of that time.

I never grew up thinking it was strange until I really started thinking about it and began to wonder how common (or uncommon) it might be.

And again, my grandparents weren't wealthy people. I come from a large family, there are nine siblings all together in my Mother's family and both my grandmother and grandfather had to work to support all of the kids. Living apart wasn't a luxury they could afford, I'm sure that's why they did so after most of the kids were gone and had a life of their own, but each worked to make it a reality. And I think their relationship was better because of it. It never took away from the connection they both had, you hardly ever saw one without the other to be honest and that's probably why I never thought it was so strange they lived in different residences. When my grandfather died of a stroke, it hit my grandmother really hard and she passed not to long after him.
It was surprising to me how connected they were given their living arrangement, but I guess all relationships are different and their relationship worked for them.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Well, I was saying that families have been held together by economic constraints. But I did not mean that to conclude that "all poor families held together." In fact, extreme poverty breaks families apart, all the time. (I'll never forget reading "The Jungle.")

It's an interesting story about your grandparents. It suggests, as we've said, that there's always been some desire to keep a little distance.

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I myself have fantasized about this ever since reading that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera built two houses side-by-side and each had their own living space. It seemed very sensible at the time, though I don't think they lived in these houses for long. They also married, divorced, and remarried.

I've been married for 10 years now and my husband and I are just now moving into separate spaces but not in the positive way I'd hoped. We're instead teetering on the verge of divorce and have been arguing and growing more distant b/c our living arrangement, despit love, has never been entirely satisfying to either of us. It seems the only way we can get time to cool down and reconnect with ourselves is by defining the space within our house as "mine" and "his". We're also taking our first-ever separate vacations this year. It's hard to know at this point, whether something good will come of this...or whether it's the beginning of the end. While I remember why I liked the separate but together idea, the emotional entanglement is also difficult after living together for so long.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband and I have been married for just over 2 years and we live in our own homes - his in Maine and mine in MASS. This is mainly because he has 2 Great Danes and I have 2 cats. For the year prior to getting married, and the 1st year of marriage, we attempted to integrate the pets at my home, but while I am an animal lover, the dogs are big and messy, and my cats were too afraid. My husband's home is very dog-lived in and I am more of a neat freak.
Hence, we will probably always live separately. Yes, we knew each other's ways prior to marriage, and the idea was to get one large home conducive to everyone's lifestyle. But alas for the time being, we enjoy our space in each of our respective homes. If this was the 1st marriage for either of us, we would not be living separately, but alas, being remarried at this stage of our lives, separate homes 2 hours apart, in 2 states, with a state in between works!

7:07 PM  

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