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 ran 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.”

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