How Does Commitment Work in Living-Apart-Together Partnerships?
Studies in a range of Western countries have shown that about 10% of all adults are in a relationship in which the partners do not live together. This is often seen as an expression of the individualisation of societies. However, little is known about how commitment in these so-called living-apart-together (LAT) relationships actually works. This is explored in a new study by Roselinde van der Wiel, Clara H. Mulder and Ajay Bailey by using an extended version of the Investment Model of Commitment. Based on this model, the authors distinguish four theoretical determinants shaping commitment: Individuals’ satisfaction with, alternatives to, investment in and social support for their relationship. Using these themes, 22 semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with individuals in LAT relationships living in the Netherlands in 2016.
The results show that although experiences of commitment are diverse, most people living in LAT relationships are highly attached to their partner emotionally, which can largely be attributed to satisfying aspects about their partner or relationship, and to being emotionally invested in their relationship. However, participants’ commitment to maintaining their relationship in the future is not as strong and clear-cut. They emphasise the large margin of uncertainty when it comes to the future and the central importance of relationship quality and satisfaction above all. The notion of a lifelong partnership is generally not valued very highly. Instead, relationship satisfaction seems to be central for individuals in LAT relationships, together with emotional investments. Not only is satisfaction described as directly contributing to commitment, it also influences perceptions of alternatives (e.g. singlehood or a different partner) and the extent of people’s investment (e.g. emotions, efforts) in their LAT relationship. Extrinsic investments (e.g. material ties, mutual friends), social support of their relationship (e.g. by family and friends) and the quality of alternatives to their relationship were generally perceived to play no role or only a minor one in regard to their feeling of commitment.
The authors show that the way in which people in LAT relationships experience commitment, and perceive the determinants and the option of being in a LAT relationship, is centrally shaped by one’s life course stage. Younger participants have idealistic views on relationships, and cohabitation and children are part of their vision of the future, even though marriage mostly is not. Those who are older and more experienced in life and love tend to have a less idealistic and a more practical conception of relationships, sometimes to their own regret. Whether LAT is perceived as a stage or state in the union formation process also seems largely dependent on an individual’s stage in the life course: For older participants, LAT is often a (semi-)permanent state without clear intentions to “progress” towards co-residence or marriage. Younger participants see living apart as a more temporary arrangement, a stage, even though they do not necessarily intend to live together in the foreseeable future.
The authors conclude that although emotional attachment appears to be high among people in LAT relationships, they may have a relatively limited belief and interest in lifelong partnerships. In a context of great relationship instability and increasing emphasis on personal development, autonomy and satisfaction, LAT may become a long-term prelude and an alternative to co-residence for many. Similar to how growing relationship instability can be linked to increases in cohabitation as a strategy of risk avoidance, it could also result in more people opting for LAT in the future, either temporarily to ensure partner compatibility or permanently, being doubtful about long-term commitment – possibly even as a context for fertility.