I always say that the fastest way to ruin a relationship is to move in together. Nothing kills the spark of romance like discovering that your significant other is a secret hoarder who takes 45 minute showers and puts their clipped toenails in the potted plants. And yet cohabitation is widely accepted as a necessary step in “real” coupledom. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that science supported my side.
The idea isn’t new. The ancient Romans thought that sleeping in the same bed would ruin a marriage, and the aristocratic class in Europe almost always kept separate bedrooms for the lord and mistress of the house. (When one of them wanted to have, uh, marital relations, the custom was to have a servant deliver a written request summoning the other.) Even today, in our intensely pro-cohabitation culture, there are plenty of hidden dissenters – a 2005 survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that a quarter of all couples sleep in separate rooms.
But if separate beds and rooms are good, it stands to reason that separate residences are even better. I stumbled on this relationship miracle a decade ago, when I had a two-bedroom apartment in Shaw so criminally cheap that moving out was out of the question. (Many of my girlfriends accused me of being more devoted to the apartment than I was to them.) But I quickly noticed that my long term relationships in which we kept separate residences had far fewer problems than the ones where we’d lived together. A little research revealed that others had come to the same conclusion. One couple reluctantly began to live separately when one of them got a job out of town, and then soon found that they were unable to go back to the compromises of cohabitation. Another split from the pressures of living together, and then rekindled things when the husband bought the house next door. Although the two houses are mirror images of each other, their aesthetics couldn’t be more different – her walls are covered with hundreds of decorative ceramic plates, and his is sleek and minimalist. Looking at their houses, it’s obvious why living together was a disaster.
Psychologists say there are many reasons that living apart might be good for a relationship. One is that living separately, as opposed to together, changes the relationship from “opt out” to “opt in.” When you live together, everything is, by default, a joint activity, which means that if your significant other puts on “Law and Order: SVU,” that’s what you’re watching too, unless you opt out. If you live separately, any shared activity has to be planned and coordinated – opted into. These activities are likely to be what psychologists call “self-expanding” – active, stimulating experiences like going on a trip or touring a museum. These kinds of activities make people happier and more fulfilled, which transfers over to the relationship. And studies of long distance relationships have found that people in LTRs report much higher levels of romantic love and idealization of their partner than people in cohabitating relationships. Absence literally does make the heart grow fonder.
Of course, many people move in together because it makes financial sense. It’s probably no coincidence that many of our famous examples of couples who live separately are celebrities with money to burn – think of Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter with their adjacent multi-milliondollar London townhouses, connected by a tunnel. Living separately is, at the end of the day, a luxury. And considering the economic trend lines, it’s probably going to become even less common that it is now. The future probably looks more like the pair of local couples who went in on a house together and plan on raising their children communally. (Free childcare!) It’s not even a salacious foursome thing; they’re literally just married-couple roommates. In the future, you’re going to have three, not one, significant others moving your toothbrush and losing the remote in the couch cushions. Wait, is this why millennials refuse to move out of their parents’ house?