This story was originally published on March 30, 1977, under the title “Unliving Together: Reaching Out for Psychic Space.” It is being resurfaced as part of the Weekly Classics series.
Excerpts from a recent census point out a fact of contemporary life that came as no surprise to most of us: the number of unmarried adults of the opposite sex who live together has doubled since 1970. Of course, a far-reaching survey like a national census tends to demonstrate what has been rather than what is. In the lengthy period between collecting the data, collating, extrapolating, and distributing it, trends that were not apparent at the point of collection may have surfaced and spread. And one trend that may not be reported until the 1980 census is the Unliving Together Arrangement.
That awkward phrase sums up the relationships between a growing number of couples, in Seattle and elsewhere. I observed it first here, in a man of 33 and a woman of 29 who, as they describe it, are “pair bonded in every way but one, where and how live.” The couple, both professionals, have in fact lived jointly; after six months together in a small house, they departed for separate residences. The woman talks about the new situation:
“We are still the Significant Other for each other. We have a primary relationship, we share the same things we used to. We are monogamous, we are sexually tied to one another, we reserve our most private and, yes, romantic moments for each other. We even still have a joint checking account and savings accounts. We travel together, we are viewed as a couple by our friends. But I am buying my own house, and he is remodeling a house he just purchased.”
Why the separate addresses for this woman and her Special Friend? She says, “We each have a need to retain our separate identities, our separate space. You can’t do that in one house, under one roof. It comes down to things like how our biorhythms differ, our attitudes about the degrees of squalor we
will or won’t tolerate, all that. But what is paramount is our individual need to be able to shut out the world and get in touch with ourselves, individually. To have some kind of psychic space where nobody can intrude.”
In New York City, a freelance writer and his teacher/ lover live in apartments less than two blocks away from each other. He says, “I don’t have the need to relate to other women. That’s not why we live separately. But I have the need to be alone. And you can’t be alone in one apartment, no matter how considerate of each other you are.” She says, “I love the feeling that this is my space, absolutely my own and no one else’s. In terms of the relationship, it gives me real, not symbolic power over my own life. I need that to stay with him. I need to be a separate person, to hold onto myself.”
In Marin County, an architect lives in a two-bedroom Mill Valley apartment; his Special Lady, as he calls his lover, lives in a small house she purchased three years ago, across town. “These days, ‘we may be showering together more, because of the drought,” she says, “but we still spend only three or four nights a week together. The rest is our own separate time.”
On Mercer Island, a sales executive lives in a “swinging singles” apartment complex. But his swinging is confined to one woman, a divorcee with two children who lives in the house she and her ex-husband bought together. Isn’t there enough room” here for your lover to live with you? I asked, and she replied that yes, there was. Are you concerned about setting a bad example for your children? I questioned. No, I’m not, they see me in his bed or him in mine, she said. Then why do you live apart? I wondered. “I don’t want my kids growing up thinking a family unit is complete only when there’s a man living with a woman,” she states firmly. “Because that’s a lousy fantasy to lay on a child.”
In Seattle, a lawyer says, “I lived with my parents till I went to college. I lived in a dorm in college with a hundred guys. In the army, well, you know what that’s like. This is the first time I’ve ever lived alone, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I need it; it’s my reward for being gregarious all my life and never learning to be alone with myself. The first few months were awful. Now I’ll never live with another person again.”
His lover, who is pregnant with their first child, echoes his words: “Even after the baby is born, we’ll live separately. And we’ll probably get married, too—it’s easier for the child. And alternate which of us lives with the child, so neither of us feels too hemmed in.”
In the course of research for a book on nontraditional living arrangements, I must have talked to 40 couples who are experimenting with this living arrangement. Although their words differed, their basic statements were remarkably similar. “Learning to live alone and like it is real self-reliance,” one woman told me. “It’s been a struggle all my life to maintain my own identity. I need it, so I can share myself willingly and openly with people I love. It’s my retreat, my one place that always welcomes, shelters, and soothes me. It’s the way I take care of myself. Because I’m worth it.”
There are economic disadvantages in the Unliving Together Arrangement; two may not be able to live as cheaply as one. The woman in Marin County has a response to this: “I’m building an investment in the future with my house. And even if I weren’t, I’d be making an investment in the present. In my own psyche.”
None of the couples I interviewed saw their living arrangements as a return to the less sexually permissive times gone by. “I’m not doing this because I think it’s immoral for adults to live together unmarried,” says a friend in New York. “That doesn’t really matter to me, or anyone else I know. I’m not doing this for anyone else but me. Creative selfishness, I call it. We’re still mates and lovers in every sense of the word but this one. But this is the cutting edge of maturity, as I see it: the ability to be your own person, to build a matrix of your own and operate out of that.”
Says the Marin County architect, “Living alone sharpens and hones personality. Not many of us can afford a desert island. And personally, I wouldn’t want one. But a front door I can close and lock is my desert island.” His lover clarifies this. “When I close myself in, that’s what I’m doing. I’m not shutting him out, although that may in fact be the effect. I am doing something for me, not reacting to something he has or has not done. Until two people realize that, they can never live separately and maintain the closest love relationship that is possible.”
The Unliving Together Arrangement isn’t making headlines in the census extracts now. The economics of a UTA make it unlikely that the trend will go much beyond the privileged classes. But it exists and appears to be gaining in popularity. The reasons are rooted in many other areas of social change; the women’s liberation movement, the increasing density of urban existence, human-potential movements and fads, collapse of traditional sexual standards.
“A closing in, not a shutting out,” the friend in Mill Valley said. “A positive step, not a negative one.” Togetherness in the traditional sense appears among an influential segment of the population to be on its way out, and privacy, the last refuge of the soul, on its way in.