Demographic and Personality Traits of People Who Prefer Living Apart Together (LAT) Relationships
Existing LAT Research and Reasons for LAT
What does the empirical research on LAT tell us? There aren’t a lot of studies and most studies are from Europe. The most comprehensive study of LAT was conducted in the UK between 2010 and 2012. It found that approximately 9% of people surveyed were LAT for various reasons, e.g., they preferred it (30%), it was too early in the relationship to live together (31%), financial constraints (12%), situational constraints such as school or work prevented them from living together (19%), etc.
What demographic information do we know about people in LAT relationships? The largest age demographic of those LAT were between the ages of 16–24 (43%) most of whom couldn’t afford to live on their own, e.g., living with parents. But given that the four different reasons for being in LAT relationships in the UK study were fairly broad, the study found that people in LAT relationships were distributed fairly evenly across socioeconomic classes. The study also found that in terms of race/ethnicity, LAT relationships are largely representative of the population as a whole. Last, a more recent published study in the US found that the prevalence of LAT relationships among same sex couples was similar to heterosexual couples.
The 2010 UK study grouped LAT relationships into four broad reasons. The first two are external reasons: financial constraints and situational constraints. The other two reasons depend less on external reasons and are more closely related to internal reasons: too early in the relationship to live together and simply having a preference for LAT. Exploring the two external reasons would involve economics and research into what amounts to long-distance relationships (LDRs). I’m not an economist and more research has been done on LDRs than LATs. So I won’t explore the people who chose either of these reasons any further here. While it would be interesting to further investigate what leads people to conclude that it’s too early to move in with their partner, for the remainder of the discussion here I‘ll focus on the remaining reason in the UK study for being in a LAT relationship: people who expressed a preference for not living together, including wanting to keep their own homes, prioritizing other responsibilities, or children, or “just not wanting to live together.”
Characteristics and Personality Traits of People Who Prefer LAT
So what else does the empirical research tell us about people who prefer LAT to living together. We know from the UK study that income, age and having children matters. First off, people in LAT partnerships must earn enough money to live on their own. But the people who were in the group that preferred a LAT relationship were spread across all age groups, unlike people in LAT relationships because of financial constraints, who were mostly under the age of 35. In addition, despite being represented across all age categories, most people in the LAT preferred category already have children. This suggests that people find there’s less reason to live with someone if you already have kids, e.g., people who might not want to have more kids, people who might not want to mix families, etc. Last, in follow-up interviews some people said they were in the preferred category because of fears about living with a partner given past bad experiences.
One common finding from many LAT studies is that middle-aged and elderly people view LAT as a way to balance aspects of a shared, intimate life with autonomy and independence. In other words, people who choose LAT tend to value time to themselves in similar proportion to time with their romantic partner. Now I want to explore whether there are certain personality traits in people who prefer LAT relationships.
In order to do this, I’ll use the Five Factor Personality model. According to the five factor personality model our personalities are a combination of five fundamental personality traits: openness (to experience), extroversion, conscientiousness, (emotional) stability and agreeableness.
Each of these five factors comes on a range from high to low. For example, someone who tests low for extroversion tends to have lower social engagement. We call such people introverts. Introverts need less social stimulation, and more time alone than extroverts.
So is there any connection who prefer a LAT relationship and whether they test high or low for any of these five personality traits? One trait that one might think would be associated with preferring a LAT relationship is testing low(er) for extroversion, i.e., introversion. That is, people who are introverted tend to spend more time alone, and therefore values autonomy more than someone who tests high(er) in extroversion. But I think this misunderstands introversion. While it’s true that introverts need less social stimulation, and more time alone than extroverts, this does not mean that introverts are antisocial, especially in small groups or one-on-one situations like living with a romantic partner. So just because someone’s an introvert doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll prefer or be more satisfied in LAT relationships.
Another trait that we might think is associated with preferring a LAT is openness to experience. In fact, sometimes openness to experience is called “intellectual autonomy”. But intellectual autonomy is different from practical autonomy, which is what LAT relationships really provide. It seems plausible that someone who values intellectual autonomy, and therefore tests high in openness to experience, wouldn’t necessarily have a preference for living together or apart.
Some research (here and here) suggests that one of the big five traits is strongly associated with people who would prefer a LAT relationship: conscientiousness. Research shows that partners who are co-habitating report higher relationship satisfaction when one or more of the partners tests higher for conscientiousness. People high in conscientiousness tend to be more organized, neat and careful. People low in conscientiousness tend to be less responsive to their partners, more likely to be condescending, bicker and less likely to hold back offensive comments. These traits also tend to overlap with low agreeableness. That is, people who are disagreeable tend to be more argumentative, uncompromising, selfish, etc. The UK study found that people in LAT relationships don’t report the very high levels of practical, emotional and financial support as married couples living together, i.e., 92%. But of all people in a LAT relationship, people in the preference category reported receiving the highest level of care from their partners when ill. Perhaps the change in level of practical and emotional support between married couples living together and preference LATs reflects what some contemporary relationship authors like Esther Perel claim, i.e., that it’s unrealistic and unhealthy for people in relationships to expect our romantic partners to provide us with all of our practical and emotional support. In general, the results from the UK study were mixed when it came to the intensity and various forms of support for their partners. Overall, the evidence from the UK study suggests that care from a partner is significant for some but not all people in LAT relationships. For these reasons instead of saying the people in LAT relationships test low for conscientiousness and agreeableness, it probably more accurate to say that most of them don’t test high for conscientiousness and agreeableness.
In conclusion, there’s empirical evidence suggesting that there are demographic characteristics and conceptual personality traits that are associated with people who might tend to prefer LAT relationships. The profile for these people looks like the following: (a) middle-aged or elderly (b) value autonomy and independence as much as their romantic partners (c) where one or more partners doesn’t test high for conscientiousness or agreeableness. The most interesting question to ask such people, which isn’t available to my knowledge, is how they rate their satisfaction level and compare it to people living together.