Friday, February 14, 2014

Living Apart Together: Another Option

Getting married didn’t change my life at all. My partner (please don’t call either of us “wife”) and I still live in different cities. My house is in Berkeley, hers is in Oakland. We talk by phone every day but spend only about three days a week together. We have separate and joint friends, separate bank accounts, separate and joint lives. And it’s not just a stage we are going through. Last year we celebrated our anniversary of fifteen years as a couple.

In Scandinavian countries my relationship with Deborah is called LAT, short for living apart together.  We consider ourselves really fortunate that we are financially able to do this. Deborah is still teaching and I am a retired librarian. We both have, or in my case had, civil service jobs with pensions and health benefits, as well as life-long work histories. It is definitely more expensive to maintain two individual residences than to live together. As we both age out of our working years, who knows what the future holds? But I can unequivocally say that, for the past fifteen years, having a relationship that includes a certain degree of separation been great.

Still, this past summer we tied the knot. Both of us are sixty-something so we wanted the legal protection that marriage brings. In this way each of us are protected in case of death or serious injury. Her family is predatory, mine mostly non-existent. This year we will fill out our first married but filing individually tax return, so we’ll see more concretely what our new financial relationship entails.

The city of Oakland forced us to pay, not only 100 dollars for the marriage application, but around 80 dollars more for a ridiculous ceremony with some judge who took the whole thing far more seriously than we did. We had trouble trying to keep from cracking up with all that somber sanctity of marriage crap. And we needed witnesses so we brought along two friends, a heterosexual old hippie couple who have the same ambivalent relationship the m-word that we do. It was a contrived formality containing a dose of pathos and ridiculousness in equal measure.

It’s not that Deborah and I don’t love each other, it’s just that queer marriage, like gays in the military, is not a struggle to which either of us have hitched our proverbial wagon. As folks who want to transform society, including marriage, trumpeting its virtues is not the place I want to begin. And both Deborah and I are unimpressed by consumerist occasions that turn out to be meaningless, gift-grabbing Hallmark moments.

The marriage industry in this country is massive with tremendous financial power and influence. It is part of the reason that the sustained drive for marriage equality is finally meeting with some success. Little girls are brainwashed from birth that the most wonderful day of their lives will be their wedding day. Working-class people who are barely keeping their heads above water in this economy are persuaded to call out all the stops and spend money they don’t have for a big blowout wedding. 

So how does living apart together work for us? For one thing, we don’t have to have the same cleanliness style or personal habits. I am free to be disorganized but clean, and Deborah is free to be a total neat freak. We have a more urban home, mine, and a more suburban option. When we go to events together, we can stay at the closest place. We can stay together when friends come in from out of town and give them the privacy of their own place. We can entertain at either house or have private meetings without disturbing the other but the main advantage is, we can take breaks from each other when we need to and enjoy each other’s company only when we choose.
There is also a level of solitude that allows each of us to pursue our creative interests. I am a writer. Deborah is a photographer, collagist and ceramicist. Having separate spaces helps us each get more accomplished in our chosen work lives.

We share one cat, Luna, who lives with Deborah. That way, when we travel during the summer, we only need house sitters for one place. I love the access to cat energy as well as the freedom to leave my house for long periods of time without having to worry about a pet. During our various travels, and teachers with summers off love to travel, we do inhabit the same space and it has always gone well.

Of course living apart together has a down side. When the weather is bad it takes more effort to visit. Coming home alone from sustained time together on trips can be disorienting. But the added expense is the biggest drawback.

Friends used to continually inquire when we’d be taking that famous lesbian U-Haul trip. Today, for the most part, they have given up that line of questioning. Many couples we know, even ones who live together, no longer have one single answer for that eternal question, what did you do today?

So, I am technically married now. It hasn’t changed my life at all save for the fact that if I get seriously ill or die suddenly, my non-traditional partner who is now my spouse, will have the legal right to make decisions or to inherit my house. That gives me a sense of security. We are also about to complete our first tax return together: married filing separately.

But let’s face reality. No matter how we delude ourselves with spouses, children and flowery promises of love that lasts forever each one of us is traveling through this world alone. Still, it can be quite nice to have company on the journey. And only the two individuals that comprise a couple can decide the form that joining will take. I’m only sure that commitment is something that must be done by choice not by contract.