Women’s agency in living apart together: constraint, strategy and vulnerability

In a forthcoming Sociological Review paper Simon Duncan, Emeritus Professor in Comparative Social Policy at the University of Bradford, reports on the findings of a representative survey from Britain in 2011 and follow-up interviews investigating Living Apart Together (LAT) relationships. You can read the paper (currently open access) as an early view online here. In this feature Simon Duncan talks to Mark Carrigan, Digital Fellow at the journal, about this research and the broader significance of its findings. 

What are Living Apart Together (LAT) relationships? Why are they sociologically interesting?

Simply put, Living Apart Together (LAT) refers to intimate relationships where the partners live at different addresses. This clearly encompasses a range of different types of relationship, including for example those who have been in a committed couple relationship for some time but choose to live apart, couples who wish to live together but are prevented from doing so, or recently formed ‘boy/girlfriend’ relationships.

Recognising this diversity, some researchers try to limit the definition of LAT by, for example, excluding those with relationships of less than 6 months, or by excluding young people, or even by limiting LAT to those who have definitely and positively chosen to live apart. In our research we allow respondents to self-define LAT through the question ‘Are you currently in a relationship with someone you are not living with here?’ and hence encompassing diversity rather than restricting it by definition.

LAT is sociologically interesting because it pointedly addresses debates over the changing nature of families and intimacies in contemporary western society. On the face of it, LAT would seem to be the perfect vehicle for ‘individualised’ intimacy, the sort of situation envisaged by Giddens with his ‘pure relationship’ ideal type. In this view LAT would be a historically new form, accommodating more fluid and consensual relationships; a new way of doing intimacy where marriage and cohabitation are increasingly decentered.

But others have seen LAT as simply another stage on the well-worn route to cohabitation and marriage – after all nearly every married person will have been ‘LAT’ at some stage. And if LAT is more visible and longer lasting than before this is because LATs (those living apart), far from pioneering new forms of intimacy, are just particularly cautious and conservative. In this way LAT would confirm the social and symbolic primacy of marriage. What we found was something more complex and nuanced. LAT allowed – for most – the maintenance of a practical or ideal goal of a ‘proper family’ through cohabitation and marriage, while at the same time also allowing a pragmatic and flexible way of adapting to emotional, personal or external circumstances.

Your survey findings suggest an almost complete absence of variation by gender in LAT relationships. Why was this such a surprise?

This was surprising simply because gender is a powerful differentiating dimension, not least in domestic and intimate life. But our 2012 national survey of LAT showed little statistically significant variation by gender in practices and experiences of, and attitudes about, LAT. Nor was there any significant gender difference in reasons for LAT.

So for example men and women were just as likely to prefer LAT, to see LAT as giving them more freedom in various ways, or to see LAT as giving them emotional security or, alternatively, risk. The only major survey difference was that women LATs were more likely to live with children. The qualitative analysis later in the article does show gendering in LAT, but not in this simple either/or way.

Another surprise was more ‘tongue in cheek’. This refers to the idea in individualisation theories that it is women who are at the forefront of individualizing and democratizing practices within families. This might be true, but what I found in research on mothers and employment was that new freedoms could also be used to support and confirm ‘proper’, more traditional, gendered divisions of labour. Theorists had confused what people can potentially do with what they actually do.

Replicating this confusion, so it seemed to me, some recent research on LAT had taken off from this individualisation premise and concluded that women often live apart together because they are more modern in emphasizing individualism, personal autonomy, and detachment from traditional family roles, and use LAT to consciously escape and subvert gendered norms and so undo gender. This seemed like an assertion of ‘what ought to be’, rather than a conclusion based on ‘what is’, especially when several of these studies were based on small, particularistic, samples.

Furthermore, our previous research had found that many women LATs would ideally prefer cohabitation and marriage, often as an expression of the ‘proper family’, and some had practical plans for achieving this in the near future. Hence the ‘tongue in cheek’ bit of surprise at the apparent absence of gender differentiation – which seems to contradict this ‘individualisation’ view, and I used this as a starting point for a wider empirical examination of why and how women end up in LAT relationships.

You suggest that existing research into LAT relationships tends to overemphasise the role of reflexivity in their formation. How do people come to LAT relationships if they are not chosen in a reflexive sense?

Lots of people don’t choose LAT, rather they end up living that way. This observation from the research provided the impetus for one of the main points of my article – that there are different types and degrees of agency, as exemplified in LAT. Perhaps the clearest example are those people who want to cohabit, but are prevented from doing so by more powerful institutions or outsiders like employers, housing finance lenders, or state authorities. Some of these people therefore must exercise ‘patiency’ rather than agency – things are done to them and LAT is one outcome. Others would prefer to cohabit and/or marry, but end up living apart together as a sort of default position; perhaps they fear cohabitation because of previous bad experiences, or their partner is not suitable, or they feel prior commitments to their children prevent cohabitation. But at the same time they profess to love their partner and so LAT offers a passable combination of intimacy and protection. In this way we can see agency as both emotional and relational. Even the minority who do more positively choose LAT will, like others, often hold taken for granted assumptions about the equation of ‘proper family’ with cohabitation and marriage. All this means there are different balances of reflexive decision making, habit, tradition, patiency and constraint in different situations. Incidentally, the interview process often brings the taken for granted, or the accepted and given constraints, into reflexive scrutiny.

Simon Duncan is Emeritus Professor in Comparative Social Policy in the Department of Social Sciences and Criminal Justice at the University of Bradford. His research interests include families and relationships, living apart together, cohabitation and marriage, motherhood and paid work, teenage parenting, lone motherhood, gender inequality in Europe and comparative sociology.

Originally posted 20th October 2014.

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