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Successful Aging: Love advice for when you and your partner live apart

Q. I am 75 years old and have a relationship question. I am in love with a woman who lives two thousand miles away. She has a deep affection for me but prefers to live alone – without me. Needless to say, I would like to move in with her. We both are widowed. Any advice? E.S.

Dear E.S.

You have identified a new kind of later-life relationship called Living Apart Together, or LAT, an intimate relationship without a shared residence. Because of the doubling of the divorce rate among the 50-plus and longer life expectancy, these new partnerships are becoming more popular.

Jacquelyn Benson, an assistant professor in the College of Human Environmental Sciences at University of Missouri, studies the experience of those in Living Apart Together (LAT) relationships. She is quoted as saying in Kaiser Health News (2018) that “Older adults see this as a lifestyle choice, not a relationship of convenience.”

Benson studied 25 older adults, 60 to 88 years, and identified several motivations for this type of partnership. Some wanted “intimate companionship” while maintaining their own homes. Others wanted to keep their existing social circles, usual activities and finances. Divorced or those in previous unhappy marriages didn’t want to tie themselves down.

Some women had cared for sick parents or husbands and did not want to have caregiving responsibilities or running a household again. One interviewee indicated she had “a been-there-done-that” attitude. “I took care of my husband, reared my children and now it’s my time.”

Another complication is when a partner’s adult children don’t recognize the LAT relationship. A case was noted of an older woman who learned her partner was placed in a nursing home without consulting her; she was completely excluded.

A few studies have focused on the quality of LAT relationships. One study found individuals in these relationships are less happy, with partners being less supportive to one another compared to married couples. The overall quality of the LAT relationship is reported not to be as strong as it is for marriages.

These findings make sense. Marriages have the intention of being lifelong commitments over many years; that may not be the case of LAT relationships. It’s difficult to compare marriages of 50 and 60 years when partners experience lifecycle events together and share the highs and lows of life. It’s the birthdays, anniversaries, camping trips, graduations as well as the loss of a job and death of parents. It would be no surprise for these long-term marital relationships to be stronger than shorter LAT relationships that lack the shared history.

Positive individual stories give us hope. In Benson’s study one participant is quoted as saying, “Our plan is to take care of each other until one of us is gone or we go into a nursing home.” Another said, “He comes over at 5:00 p.m. every evening and leaves here about 9:00 p.m. Then I have two hours by myself — my private time.” “We really like our space our time alone; we don’t need to be together 24 hours a day.”

I spoke to several women who live solo in their 70s and early 80s. Some had a special man in their life; others did not. Many had spent time as care providers to their husbands and did not want to repeat that role. Others valued their freedom to come and go as they please. And others did not want their home environment to change.

Here are some quotes that were part of our conversation:

“Why ruin a good thing?”

“I don’t want someone telling me what to do or interfering with my daily activities.”

“My closets are small and there is no room for his oversized recliner chair.”

“I don’t want to be a nurse with a purse.”

“I don’t want to explain or defend my way of doing things and how I spend my money.”

E.S. Thank you for your question. There is no easy answer to your dilemma. Perhaps spending more time together would work. You also might consider courting a woman who is open to living together…or accept the relationship. Good luck and try to enjoy what is.

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