Julie Burchill

The rise of ‘living apart together’ – and why I’ve stopped doing it

I know it could all be over by springtime. But I think this time I’ll stay

The rise of ‘living apart together’ – and why I’ve stopped doing it
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I’ve never lived with a man I didn’t marry: Tweedledee, 1979–1984, and Tweedledum, 1984–1995. (The names have been changed to irritate the pair of them.) So when I left my second union and moved to Brighton to chase the man who is now my third (and hopefully final) husband, I was keen to establish and keep separate households. I was quite pleased to find that not only was I having a blast seeing Daniel while maintaining a maverick social life (he didn’t want to be in a swimming pool full of drunken, shrieking girls’n’gays any more than I wanted to be in a room full of game-playing, beer-drinking men) but was apparently part of a growing social phenomenon.

A 2005 study from Oxford University found that the UK had two million ‘Living Apart Togethers’ (Lats — unfortunate name, making us sound like some tardy, overpriced beverage); poster children for this trend soon emerged in the somewhat wearyingly eccentric Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, who lived in two adjoining townhouses in north London.

They were, truth be told, a welcome replacement for and distraction from the previous holders of the honour, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, whose Lat union had started out so bravely. As the New York Times had it, in 1991: ‘They are not married, neither do they live together; their apartments face each other across Central Park. When they began to date, they would wave towels out the window as they spoke on the phone, delighting in saying they could see the other.’

O tempora! O mores! What began as a brave new sunlit experiment, a stroll in Central Park, a dream of artistic and personal freedom and fidelity, ended in swerving, perving and tears before separate bedtimes when Woody made free with Mia’s daughter — a young woman, one notes, who despite her tender years and empty pockets broached no silly modern concepts such as Latting when she bagged Allen.

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow Photo: Getty
That both Farrow and Bonham Carter (who has now separated from Burton) were somewhat indebted to their boyfriends for work in an industry which is not kind to older actresses adds an additional air of retrospect-ive desperation to both set-ups. Were semi-detached relationships what either of these women wanted, or a compromise they made with more powerful men insistent on their own ‘space’?

I’m certainly not looking for my husband to give me a job, though it doesn’t hurt that he is, by trade, a grammarian — probably the most rigorous grammarian in both East and West Sussex. (Once he punctuates one, one stays punctuated.) As a Swedish journalist once said to me with the forthrightness which is a feature of her countrywomen, ‘How convenient for you! Like a prostitute being married to an STD doctor.’ But in our 20th year together, I’ve finally moved into his flat in a gorgeous seafront square. I’m not smug; for all I know it could be over by springtime. Who’s to say whether the nigh-on two decades of hell-raising, mickey-taking and five-star sun-chasing that have made my life with Daniel such a riot will stand the test of the badly rinsed coffee cup (mine) or the atmospheric ashtray (his) — those mute witnesses of household banality which put romance in the dock daily and find it guilty of going awol?

Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton Photo: Getty
But luckily, I’m not keen on romance; I prefer fun and sex, and from what I’ve seen romance is often the bed-wetting enemy of both. Surely my dearth of female trouble, added to the separate bedrooms and bathrooms, will work towards ensuring that we get along.

And the fact that I am a lark and Dan is an owl. I have only two speeds; full-tilt and stock-still; when I’m not up all night, I’m in bed by sundown, whereas Dan works regular hours and then likes to enjoy his leisure time at leisure. I do like to burst upon my husband as a revelation each day, as Saki put it, and the different hours we keep ensure that we are not permanently in one another’s way.

I thought I’d like it, but in my second week here, I’m loving it. And if it doesn’t work out, I can move on in the springtime — to Tel Aviv or Tenerife, chasing the sun, or maybe just around the corner, though I’d still be keen on staying married. But I have a feeling that this time, at long last, I’m going to stay.