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Together for years, but still classed as single

23 April 13

One in ten adults in Britain are in a relationship but not living with their partner - and most of those are incorrectly counted as single in official statistics, according to new research published today.

Researchers from the University of Bradford, Birkbeck, University of London and NatCen Social Research have been studying the nine per cent of British adults, most of whom are forced to tick the 'single' box in surveys because, although they are in a steady relationship, they do not live with their partner. 

The ESRC-funded research is the most comprehensive study to explore who is 'living apart together' (LATs) and why. Although LATs are a minority, they come from all sections of British society, as Miranda Phillips from NatCen explains:

"The common assumption is that people who choose not to live with their partner are either wealthy celebrity couples - such as Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton - or are professional couples forced to live apart because of their jobs. In fact, LATs come from all social classes, as well as from all parts of the country, and only eight per cent live apart primarily because of where their jobs are."

The researchers found that around a third of LATs live apart because they feel they are not yet ready to live together (although many of these hope to do so in the future). A further third choose to live apart - however few of these see this as a lifestyle choice, rather living apart is seen as emotionally safer, or a better way to manage other commitments, such as those to children, family and friends, or work. The remaining third are not able to live together due to circumstances outside the relationship itself - including financial reasons or working or studying in different places. Contrary to popular belief, only a tiny minority of couples - just one per cent - say the main reason they live apart is to maintain benefit entitlements. Whatever their reasons for living apart, nearly all interviewees mentioned the advantages of autonomy and personal space that this brings.

Professor Simon Duncan from the University of Bradford says: "Living apart together allows people to meet their needs and desires in balancing closeness and personal autonomy, and at the same time to adapt to external circumstances. It enables them to find time and space for other family or work commitments, to deal with the difficulties of finding housing, to grapple with relationship problems, or just to allow their relationship to develop at its own pace."

Although the majority of LATs are under 35, 11 per cent are 55 or over, with 19 per cent of LATs having relationships which have lasted six years or more and 41 per cent three years or more. Around two-thirds of LATs live within 10 miles of each other and the vast majority (86 per cent) are in daily contact.

Professor Sasha Roseneil, from Birkbeck, University of London says: "Nowadays very few people settle into a life-long relationship in their early twenties and stay with their partner "until death us do part". People have complex relationship histories, and they often carry with them the emotional legacies of divorce and separation. For some people, more or less consciously, living apart together is a way of dealing with the messiness of intimate life today, protecting themselves, their children and their homes from some of the distress that they have previously experienced when a cohabiting relationship breaks down. That said, most people in LAT relationships have a strong sense that they are a couple, and many are in long-term relationships to which they are deeply committed."

Although the study shows that couples who live apart are a sizeable minority, they are currently ignored by the Census and most other social surveys on which the design of public services are based. The researchers are calling for LAT couples to have the right to 'opt in' to legal recognition - for protection in case of separation or bereavement - and to be taken into account by those providing personal, health and social care services, such as relationship counselling and family support.

The findings come from interviews with 572 randomly selected people in LAT relationships, followed by 50 semi-structured interviews about people's experiences and 16 in-depth biographical, life history interviews.  

23 April 13

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