‘Living apart brought us even closer’

When Joanna Moorhead’s husband landed his dream job – 400 miles from the family home – her initial response was worry. Would their marriage survive the separation? But – now happier than they’ve been for years – they’re joining a growing group of British people who’re proving that a little distance can be a big advantage

Almost three years ago, my husband moved out of our family home in London and resettled 400 miles away in Glasgow. We’d been married for 27 years and have four children. Like most couples who have endured/survived several decades together, our marriage had had its ups and downs. And I can honestly say now that Gary moving out was one of its high points.

Why? Well, not because he was leaving me – although there have been oh-so-many people certain he was doing just that (one member of my family apparently has a running bet with another that we’ll be divorced within five years). No, it’s because, for us, living apart has turned out to be the ideal way to live in our 50s. We see a lot less of one another, but when we are together we tend to get on better than we have done for years.

Journalists Joanna and Gary met while on the same university course

This isn’t, to be fair, the article I thought I’d be writing back in 2015 when Gary, who works in broadcast news, told me he’d got his dream job – in Scotland. In fact, I was worried about how we could make it work. It clearly wasn’t an option for us all to move to Glasgow at that point: although our two eldest daughters are both grown up and working, our younger girls were then aged 17 and 13, and embroiled in the English exam system, which differs significantly from its Scottish counterpart. Born and raised in London, they’ve got all their friends here and – much though we love Scotland, which is where Gary grew up and where we have spent many holidays over the years – they didn’t want to change their lives just because their dad was changing his.

Living apart together (LAT-ing) sounds eccentric, but it’s more common than you’d think: sometimes it’s couples who’ve got together when they’re older and who simply continue to keep their own bases; but it’s not unusual, either, for spouses who have invested in a home and family together to LAT part-time. Around one in ten UK couples do it in some form. Some live separately during the week and get together at weekends; others spend two or three nights apart a week, with one partner staying in the place where she or he is working.

We needed a more extreme form of LAT-ing, because Gary’s job involves running a big department and he can’t do it remotely: he needs to be in Scotland, immersed in the country and its politics. I knew what this job meant to him, and supported him completely – but it was only human to be worried about what the effects might be on our family. Would I be resentful about having to carry our domestic setup in London single-handed? Would we be able to stay properly in touch if we were both living busy lives, hundreds of miles from one another? Would we simply drift apart, without the anchor of a shared home? So when in January 2016 I dropped him at Gatwick and he headed off to the flat he’d rented in Glasgow, I did wonder whether I was saying adieu to my husband or farewell to our marriage.

Looking back, the early months weren’t encouraging. I was daunted by the prospect of running our London home alone, and it quickly became clear that Gary wouldn’t be home very often. When people asked whether he came home every weekend I snorted with laughter: we’d see him perhaps every three weeks, or once a fortnight if we were lucky. We kept in touch by phone and email, and he had text chats with the girls and joined in our family WhatsApp group.

Joanna and her husband on their wedding day

The make-or-break came on my first trip north. I arrived in Glasgow during a terrible thunderstorm, went to the wrong railway station and had to call him to rescue me. He has no car in Scotland, so we had to trudge up the hill to his flat in driving rain, him shouting at me for being so silly and me weeping at how disastrous everything was.

But walking through the front door into the warmth of his flat I felt the first stab of excitement at what this new arrangement could mean. He’d found a place in a converted former merchant’s home. I was struck by its high ceilings and huge windows, and impressed with him for finding such a beautiful flat; and the next day, when I went to see where he worked, I was impressed some more. Glasgow is so vibrant, and suddenly I could understand why he’d felt such a pull to return. I realised I loved the city of his birth as much as he did.

We discovered other things in those few days, too. For a quarter of a century mealtimes for us had been noisy and chaotic events centred on our children. Over that weekend, we probably had more meals on our own than in all of the five years previously. And on the final evening, over supper at his favourite restaurant, a modern tapas joint down the road, I told him I’d come to a rather unexpected conclusion: ‘The thing is, this suits us perfectly.’ ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’ve realised the same thing.’

As Nietzsche said, it’s not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages; and Gary and I have always been great friends. We’re not the kind of spouses who hanker after constant togetherness, with a shared social network and never a night apart. That arrangement works for some couples, but for us it would have been claustrophobic. Our marriage wasn’t an acquisition but it wasn’t a merger either – we’re more like two separate companies that operate under the same parent body. We’ve always given one another space: we’ve both done lots of independent travel, always had separate friends as well as shared ones.

Underpinning our marriage has been a commitment to our careers: we met in our early 20s on the same university course, and we both knew from the start how important
our work as journalists was to us. When, 12 years ago, I took on a passion project in Mexico that led to a book about a long-lost cousin, Leonora Carrington, who had moved there to pursue life as a surrealist artist, Gary knew it would be very disruptive, but he never tried to dissuade me from it. For years I travelled to Mexico for up to a month at a time, leaving him as sole carer for four children who were aged between four and 14 when I made my first trip. Gary understood why I cared so much about my Mexican project, and he was behind me all the way. Now I’m returning the favour by supporting him in his dream job in Scotland.

Because who said coupledom has to be prioritised over self-fulfilment? At the heart of every marriage are two individuals, and in our case we both have projects we care about. We’ve always been honest about what we can and can’t be to one another: we’re good at compromising, and we never bought into the fairy-tale view of marriage that many a partnership founders on. Also, we’re aware that if you’re in it for the
long term – and we are – there are going to be many different stages in a marriage. Sometimes you’re not very close, and work or raising children occupy much more of your time and thoughts; at other times, your relationship is more central.

One consequence of my many trips to Central America was the joy of rediscovering myself as an individual: the delicious feeling of waking up in my room in Mexico City on a Saturday morning and realising that the entire weekend stretched out with whatever I chose to do in it. Call it selfish, but to me it was the antidote to all those years of looking after four children: it replenished me, reminded me I was more than just Gary’s wife and our daughters’ mother.

Gary and I are lucky, and when I tell people our story it’s envy, not sympathy, I see in their eyes, especially when I’m talking to others who are part of a veteran partnership. We are lucky because we have two interesting, exciting cities to spend time in; we are lucky because, 30 years on from our wedding day, we’re not under one another’s feet. We’re lucky because when we do meet up we’re invariably pleased to be together – there’s nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder. And it’s surprising how attractive a partner seems when you’ve been away from them for a fortnight.

Over the past few months we’ve bought a flat in Glasgow, and this time I’ve been fully involved in choosing it, securing the deal and furnishing it. The experience has brought us closer together; it’s been a bit like going back to the mid-1980s, and the excitement of buying our very first flat. On the day we got the keys we shared a bottle of champagne on the new sofa, which was the only piece of furniture in the place. The sun was beaming through the windows, and it felt like the first moment of a new chapter.

The couple on holiday with their daughters (from left) Miranda, Rosie, Catriona and Elinor

One question I’m often asked is: what do the children make of our arrangement? And the answer is: they love it. Partly because it gives them another focus for their lives: our third daughter is now studying in Scotland and sees plenty of her dad while she’s there; the others are regular visitors to the flat, and this year we all squeezed in for a family Easter. But also, I hope, it’s because they get that we’re people who can think outside the box; we’re prepared to find a pathway that works for us. I don’t think any of my daughters is going to follow the outdated idea that, if a husband gets moved somewhere because of his job, a wife has to dutifully follow.

Our girls know we’re both committed to our family, but we don’t have to match anyone else’s idea of what family looks like. We’re role-modelling for them, too, showing that being in your mid-50s doesn’t mean a career cul-de-sac. Gary loves what he does, he’s ambitious and successful. The girls are as proud of him as I am; I hope they’re also proud of me for staying put in a city that suits me and for realising that my own dreams are as important as Gary’s. I didn’t expect him to follow me to Mexico, and he doesn’t expect me to go with him to Scotland (I may do that one day, now I love it so much – but only when it’s right for me).

Lest all this makes me sound as though everything is perfect in my world, let me assure you: it isn’t. Family Sunday lunches have to be earlier now so that Gary can get the last flight back to Glasgow; and we’re both often a bit sad as he heads off alone for another week, leaving me on my own on the sofa in London. Most of the time our house is filled with daughters and their friends, but occasionally I’m there on my own, and it feels a little bit lonely. But nothing is perfect, and right now this works for us. Mutual respect, not getting in the way of one another’s fulfilment and making time for fun seem to me to be a pretty good basis for a mature, modern marriage.

Discover the joy of living apart together – even under one roof

  • Look for individual interests and revel in them. Finding fulfilment as an individual makes you a stronger person within your partnership, as well as giving you more interesting topics of conversation when you’re together.
  • Once your children are old enough to leave home alone overnight, grasp the opportunity to travel à deux with your partner. And when you’re facing one another across a restaurant table, remember to talk not only about your children but about the rest of your lives.
  • Talk to your partner about his or her individual ambitions, and share your own. Don’t be afraid of projects that might change your focus for a while: your marriage has its foundations, and can withstand periods of flux and change.
  • Find ways to view your partner from a different perspective. Go along to hear them giving a talk; offer to accompany them to a work occasion. Often we lose sight of their achievements, and seeing them in a new light helps us to appreciate them afresh.