“My wife and I tried two or three times in the last 40 years to have breakfast together, but it was so disagreeable we had to stop.”—Winston Churchill
Soon after returning to the Philippines in 2005, I read an article in the Inquirer about a long married couple who built separate houses for themselves on the same property—the husband at the top of the hill and the wife in the valley below.
The details of the article are hazy today, but I recall that the couple was apparently happily married for many years and remained so, and that the design of their houses was a reflection of their individual identities, tastes, interests, temperament and idiosyncrasies, and not the state of their marriage.
It brought back a vague recollection of authors Margaret Drabble and Arundhati Roy as well as actress Helena Bonham Carter living away from their husbands while remaining married to them for many years.
It also reminded me that much had been written in the American and British press about what was sensed as a “trend”—married couples who keep separate households, but are otherwise monogamous and committed to their relationship. The trend became official when it was conferred its own acronym of LAT (Living Apart Together).
This “trend” might have been noted after the 2000 US census revealed that 3.5 million married couples checked the “live apart” box. I couldn’t determine if another choice such as “separated” was offered.
Reasons for such living arrangements were not asked, and understandably so, as the answers could not have been conveniently checked off in a box.
A couple of long-time friends who have been together for over 25 years, monogamous and loving, but who have always lived in separate homes, explained it best—“You can share a life without sharing a roof.”
Years ago, I might have found this arrangement aberrant. If two people are in love and committed, why wouldn’t they want to be with each other always? Now, well into the 30th year of a second marriage, I get it.
One of the answers might be found in a memorable scene of a favorite film, “Heartburn” (a thinly veiled autobiography of the late Nora Ephron), where a married couple played by Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson are in bed and in the throes of sexual passion, which in the ’80s could only be depicted by sound: the rustle of sheets, the grunts, groans and the obligatory scream.
When it’s over, a sweating, panting, disheveled Meryl turns to a similarly exercised Nicholson and tells him she’s been thinking about hiring a different building contractor for their new home, to which he replies, “Yes, I was thinking the same thing….”
An awkward chuckle of recognition rippled through the theater, although long married friends said later that this was just the “normal arc” of romantic relationships.
A recent article in Inquirer refers to a study by health provider PhilCare, revealing that Filipinos who are widowed or otherwise separated, annulled or divorced have more sex than married couples. The study revealed that those separated (for whatever reason) from their spouses have sex nearly twice as much as their married counterparts.
Is this a problem, or just part of the “normal arc”—or is the normal the problem?
Couples living separately who were interviewed gave many reasons, but most expressed the belief that it enhanced their relationship and prevented the kind of resentments, irritations and annoyances that wear away at the romance and passion that brought them together in the first place.
They somehow knew that the mystery, the surprise and the magic of those early days could be shattered by the realities of open-mouth snoring, farting in bed and other transgressions such as messy bathrooms, constant tardiness, endless repetition of the same old stories, squabbles about money, and all the mundane details of daily life that turn once loving and passionate couples into sniping roommates.
This is most strongly felt by couples in a second relationship, who have seen this movie before and don’t want a rerun.
Even priests who have seen enough marriages go sour now warn besotted couples during their wedding ceremonies that there will come a time when “sawang-sawa na kayo sa isa’t isa,” or loosely translated, you’ll get fed up with each other—so be ever vigilant.
How, indeed, do couples remain vigilant in a situation designed for “fed-upness” (my apologies to the grammar police).
Familiarity does not really, as the old saying goes, breed contempt—it breeds something worse: boredom. As the trenchant Dorothy Parker once wrote, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Curiosity—the original slippery slope.
Notwithstanding the couple mentioned in the first paragraph, few have the wherewithal to maintain separate households, nor is that extreme really necessary. For Winston Churchill, it was simply being able to have breakfast alone. Some private time, a personal space—a section of the house, a separate bedroom or a separate vacation might provide sufficient relief.
Two friends of mine no longer vacation with their husbands, one because the trips become one long, endless argument about everything, and the other because she ends up being her husband’s yaya—which has led to that very fast growing segment in the travel business: the all-female holiday.
Sensing this trend, property developers (at least in the US) are building homes with separate bathrooms (bathroom habits being particularly toxic to romance), and so-called “man-caves” where men can indulge their most objectionable habits. Women have opted for spa/yoga rooms where they can get away or simply be left alone.
I don’t doubt that there are couples who are happily joined at the hip, and I drink to them; but I think even they would subscribe to that oldest of sayings about the benefit of absence.
Why are more couples doing this? The answer may be as simple as this: because now, they can. And, it may not be all bad for either sex. Movie director Taylor Hackford, the lucky man married to actress Helen Mirren, talked about their successful movie careers and said, “But part and parcel with it is that we’re separated a lot. And that can be frustrating because I love being with her. But it also can be quite exciting when we come back together.”
When they come back together, do you wonder if they’ll be thinking about their building contractors?