Living apart, together

1.9 million Canadians, many 60-plus, are saying no to cohabitation and marriage


Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Janet Billon and Larry Thomas are often inseparable. They live in the same gated community in West Kelowna, B.C., and take long trips together, sometimes for months at a time. But asked if they plan to move in together, their response is a resounding “no.”

Billon, 69, and Thomas, 67, both twice married for a total of 62 years, say they’ve experienced their fair share of cohabitation, and it doesn’t have the draw it once did. “When we are in our own houses we’re happy and content. We like our alone time,” says Thomas. They both pitch in for travel and dining bills but cover their own living and car expenses. Theirs, they say, is the “ideal relationship.” “We never argue,” says Thomas. “There’s very little to disagree over because we both maintain our own place.”

The couple is part of an emerging demographic involved in “living apart together” (LAT) relationships. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 1.9 million Canadians aged 20 and over were in a LAT arrangement in 2011. It’s not a huge number, but it is growing in one category—the 60-plus—where it jumped from 1.8 per cent to 2.3 per cent from 2001-11.

Sociology professors Karen Kobayashi of the University of Victoria and Laura Funk of the University of Manitoba recently completed a qualitative study of 28 short-distance LAT couples in Canada. The average age of participants was 59 and many were previously married and had children. Their reasons for staying in LAT relationships—seeing cohabitation as unnecessary, not wanting to ruin what they have, and protecting their independence—certainly challenge old societal norms. But with divorce rates holding at 50 per cent, one has to wonder if they’re onto something.

According to the study, participants frequently recounted how friends envy their relationship, expressing a “you’ve got it all” type of awe. Whether it’s fighting over control of the TV or managing finances, many of the everyday problems that plague married couples simply don’t exist in LAT relationships.

For Cheryl Cawston, 44, and Chris Jubien, 46, contradictory working and sleeping schedules would be a headache in the same home. The Victoria couple spends weekends together and mostly text during the week. Cawston, an office manager, works nine to five, but Jubien owns his own business, meaning he constantly takes business calls. He also goes to bed earlier than Cawston.

“The differences we have, it never becomes a huge problem. If you’re there every day and have these differences, it can become annoying and cause fights,” says Cawston. Their time shared is rarely used for mundane tasks like grocery shopping and cleaning, they say, but is more like a “mini vacation.” Still, there are downsides, admits Cawston. The logistics of lugging stuff back and forth between the two homes can be annoying, and saying goodbye on Monday morning is always difficult.

Barbara Mitchell, a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies changing family structures, says that while technology makes living apart easier, there is no real substitute for face-to-face contact. “Just the presence of somebody on a day-to-day basis provides a buffer to daily strains and stresses of life,” she says. The other issue LAT couples sometimes encounter is judgment from outsiders. Jubien, for example, has been asked when he plans to make “an honest woman” out of Cawston. “Socially there’s this idea that living together gives an idea of your level of commitment,” says Carrie Yodanis, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia. A desire to fulfill those social norms and start a family is why younger couples aren’t embracing the LAT trend, says Mitchell.

For older people, however, she says it makes perfect sense. Women in particular may enjoy new-found freedom from a traditional, domestic role in past partnerships. “She may be thinking, ‘I’m enjoying this independence. I don’t have to get up and cook and clean and do laundry.’ ” As well, cohabitation, particularly later in life, brings up issues regarding wills and estates. Two-thirds of study participants had children from a previous relationship; to spare their children future legal entanglements, many of them said they were avoiding becoming common-law. (Of the minority who still lived with their kids, there was a desire to keep things uncomplicated by not blending the families.)

A lifelong florist, Norma Fitzsimmons, 91, wouldn’t give up her oceanfront property for anything. Set back from Victoria’s Cadboro Bay, the three-bedroom house is covered in orchids and tropical plants; orange and lemon trees dot the patio. Fitzsimmons lives there alone, with one bedroom set aside for when her boyfriend, Borge Noesgaard, 94, sleeps over. His two-bedroom condo is only a 10-minute drive away.

Each of them has their own interests—she golfs; he spends a lot of time on the computer, but they have a nightly dinner tradition.“If I had him here all day, I’d have to make three meals a day instead of just one,” she says with a laugh. Both widowed, they’ve been together for 16 years and say that living apart just may be the secret to a successful union. “It makes it much more exciting.”


Living apart, together

  1. This is quite common in Sweden. I think it is called a särbo type of relationship. My partner and I are much younger than the people in the story but have been together for 13 years and are not in a big rush to move in together.

  2. Not a bad plan for certain couples who do not wish to accidentally become economically intertwined under the law. (Many people do not understand the law pertaining to prolonged cohabitation and how it can affect ownership of property even without a marriage.)

    • Best to get a simple prenup in advance. Simple one, in your name its yours, in my name its mine and in our name is 50/50 and neither can sure for alimony. Even clauses on child support, get it up front.

      If the other partner doesn’t agree, don’t live together and don’t get married.

    • Exactly. The courts don’t recognize a difference between marriage and common-law anymore. All co-habiting couples are “married” in the eyes of the courts. Therefore, if you’re planning on leaving your assets to your kids, moving in with someone might really mess that up. Your kids could ultimately lose their inheritance to your common-law partner, who could then will it all to his/her own kids. I’m sure there are some legal safeguards against this, but nothing in law is iron-clad.

  3. Human beings invented marriage. One of the stupidest things,,,

    • It was a property contract. Still is We’ve just jazzed it up with ribbons and music etc

    • In its time marriage was needed and its basis is services for support. Man goes out and hunts for food, women mend the wounds and provides sex and offspring. Its why men are generally more aggressive, and women are better care givers, its part of our genetics.

      But today, not much risk in hunting at a grocery store, no need for a woman to want a hunter other than for sexual pleasure for them both and a one night stand or fantasy masturbation will suffice. Modern society has made both traditional roles of man and woman redundant. With medieval religious myths a failing, so are marriages. Nothing encourages being together.

      I am not sure what the outcome will be but we are in the heading into or in the middle of a social revolution. Isn’t just seniors…

      While I love my wife, and we have a great marriage, I even intend to stay in as long as it lasts, you cannot assume anything lasts forever even after 23 years as a couple.

  4. The social need to cohabitation is dead. So is having huge families as average families are below 1.5% for domestic baby production forcing Canada to import the rest to maintain population. This is part of social change in modern society, we no longer have to work together so we don’t.

    As marriage is a social/economic contract. Any affluence and the need for marriage dissipates. Why go through a divorce? Many are not ever getting married to start with. Why delude ourselves in false promises to death do we part. As most are here for good times, and that doesn’t mean a long time.

    From a social aspect, we as a species in modern society are de-evolving our social abilities, every monkey for themselves. Goes along with the decay of morals, lack of ethics and declining accountability. Easier to whine for other peoples money than to earn it.

    You see this with young people, I would bet more don’t get married, others get married later in life. I even know two couples living together, no plans for marriage as they never plan on having much but are having children deliberately out of wedlock.

    Government even likes it as divided peoples are easier to manage for the government. As we are now solitary creatures, the packs have been broken, and the loyalties to others, your partners is no longer there for many.

    • This is a very correct interpretation of where we are going.
      I saw something on TV and a professor was saying they did
      some study and found the average American of 2011
      to have 1.5 friends whereas 35 years age this was around 3-4.
      More developed countries are like this and less developed
      countries are like what they where 35 years ago.

      It’s all part of the individualistic nature of globalisation as people are
      realising they can be happy without others as looking after yourself
      is a top priority and procreation optional.

    • I’m a mother of four. I’m divorced, and I’m common law. I don’t plan on remarrying. If I do decide to go that route, it wouldn’t be for me, it’d be for him. My spouse and I plan on growing old together, but marriage is so much more than a contract. For starters… marriage is expensive. Personally I’d skip the ceremonies altogether, and elope, but he wants the dance, the hall, the drinks, and all that jazz. It’s just not in our budget. Secondly, marriage means so many different things to different people. Getting married for him would mean that I change my last name, (why can’t he change his last name?) and personally.. I’ve had negative experiences with the “wife” title. I’ve been considering moving out, still remaining in our relationship, just so we can have some freedom from expectations stemming from tradition. The day I live under the rule of a man again, is the day I lay down and die. I love my hubby, but I’ve experienced first hand how a signed piece of paper changes everything.

      Also, marriage doesn’t mean commitment. The stats for infidelity in marriage are shockingly high. You either love someone enough to want to maintain your relationship, or you don’t. To me.. marriage is jut a piece of paper. It has no meaning in regards of my relationship, but it has the ability to take my independence, my individuality, and my rights away.. so I’m not sure if that little piece of paper is worth the risk.

  5. The author missed a key point about younger couples opting not to be in LAT relationships: we simply can’t afford it! My boyfriend and I have been living together for over 5 years now and are pretty much just roommates now – that’s what living together has turned us into.. we KNOW we need to have our own places, but with the job situation what it is, I don’t delude that I can ever get my own place, further pushing our relationship beyond the brink. We are dependent on each other now unfortunately, whether we like it or not, as the economic situation has set me years back financially.

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