Here is the marital advice that a consultation with an “intimacy” counselor to the staahs can get you: The imprimatur to live apart from your significant other for the health of the relationship. This was the non-traditional guidance that Michaela Boehm reportedly gave Gwyneth Paltrow, who made headlines earlier this month with the news that she lives separately from her husband Brad Falchuk, spending only four nights a week under the same roof. Well, today, The Daily Beast interviews Boehm, who herself lives apart from her husband and explained, “I am a believer that the more space is taken between people, the better or stronger their erotic bond can be.”
The media frenzy over Paltrow’s recent announcement follows a spate of trend stories in recent years about what sociologists have preciously dubbed “living apart, together.” The coverage of, and resulting conversation around, living apart reliably gawks at these arrangements. Weird. Oh-kay. Huh. But there is also, unmistakably, the intrigue and envy.
Back in 2003, O Magazine published an essay with the title “The Occasional Husband,” in which a writer contemplated the pleasures of living apart from her husband four months out of the year while he taught as a professor in another state. At the time, the best argument for the arrangement felt like a woman’s escape from life within a family sitcom: “I don’t do anyone’s laundry or dishes,” the author wrote. “I don’t have to consider the question ‘Have you seen my glasses?’ at absurdly short intervals.” Fast-forward to 2017 and Glamour profiled “happily married couples who choose not to live together,” instead emphasizing the joys of independence.
Over the years, the concept has in the New York Times alone inspired a Modern Love column, a trend story, and a hearty debate on the opinion pages. Frequently, celebrity examples are invoked: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo famously lived in separate houses linked by a bridge. Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton similarly connected their houses with a spiral rooftop staircase.
These recurrent “apart, together” stories, which necessarily tend to focus on people with aspirationally unusual means, tell us less about a significant demographic trend than they do about a broader vicarious, wishful interest in the idea of HAVING SOME FREAKING SPACE GOD DAMN IT. We all want more time, more separation. That might mean a fantasy of separate houses or neighboring apartments—or just a little corner of a room untouched by that other human being with whom you share a bed and exchange farts every night. The middle-class manifestation of “living apart, together” is just the “she shed” and “man cave,” trends that communicate in over-the-top gendered stereotypes the sometimes suffocating, self-destroying effects of cohabitation.
These effects are not just bad for the soul, but also for boning, says Boehm. “It’s all very wonderful,” she told The Daily Beast of living together, “but one day you’ll be sitting next to each other on the sofa in sweatpants, eating chips, watching Game of Thrones. No one wants to get it on after that, right?” I might disagree, but point generally taken.
The observation that cohabitation can be a bummer not just for any sense of individuality or autonomy, but also for one’s sex life, isn’t unique to Boehm. Therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, has written extensively about how the prosaic realities of domesticity can kill sexual desire, how “love seeks closeness, but desire needs distance,” how our construction of romantic intimacy “reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure.” As she wrote in her book, “[T]oo much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter.”
If you’re rich, you can forgo the reams of marital advice books and complicated work of creating separation within a too-small shared home and just go ahead and buy another one. You can build a literal bridge.