In everyday life, some people live in separate households, but still keep a couple relationship with their partner for a variety of reasons. This kind of ‘unusual’ living arrangement and relationship challenges our taken-for-granted assumption that intimacy always entails physical proximity, especially as these heterosexual relationships have been criticised for lacking commitment and, by implication, intimacy. Based on some existing research in the UK on intimate relationships (for example, see Duncan et al., 2013; Holmes, 2004; Jackson, 2015), particularly on couples’ living apart together (LAT) relationships, this article focuses on LAT relationships in the context of China where Confucian ideology and the conventional family model is highly valued.
My research explores: just who is living apart together in China; why do Chinese couples choose to live separately; and how do people, in particular women, identify themselves within LAT relationships. The idea behind this is to make comparisons between west and east within the process of globalization, with the aim of trying to understand Chinese women’s experiences of LAT relationships, in particular, and more generally the process of contributing to and extending sociological theories and research on intimacy, emotions, and gender relationships. This article reflects on my research experiences in relation to Chinese couples in living apart together relationships through interviewing 35 women, aged between 23 to 57, in China in 2016. Participants came from varied educational/social backgrounds, and for instance, were students, migrant workers, professionals and housewives.
Thinking back to the recruitment process, I utilized both social media and personal networks to recruit participants. WeChat (Chinese: weixin), for instance, often referred to as the ‘Chinese WhatsApp’, has been widely used among Chinese people, particularly the young Chinese. As a consequence, 10 women aged between 23 to 30, and who were unknown to me, before were approached. In addition, the power of personal networks has brought advantages into play in terms of approaching older people, which was initially a problem for me, given my age difference and attitudes of older Chinese people to someone younger. 21 women were recruited through my friends, father, sister, and remote relatives. Surprisingly, I found that these intermediaries played an important role in linking and building mutual trust between myself as the researcher and the researched, and in initially approaching these somewhat inaccessible people. Another four participants were found by chance. For example, Rosy (all names are pseudonyms) was recruited as I overheard her stories in a Costa coffee shop. She then introduced her friend Jiangling to me.
However, considering the sensitive topics involved in this research, and my identity as a young unmarried and well-educated student who studies abroad, I inevitably encountered problems not only in the recruiting participants process, but also during interviews. For example, on several occasions, I was treated as a ‘daughter’ or ‘pupil’ for having less life experience, and consequently felt powerless, especially when interviewing older and professional women. This was due to the fact that in Chinese culture, the emphasis is firmly on younger age groups showing respect to elders, which made it difficult for me as the interviewer to interrupt, or disagree with anything that was said.
Generally, the reasons why couples live apart together, in China, can be divided into external circumstances (for example, educational reasons/job locations) and personal reasons (for example, self-development or caring obligations). For some young couples, such as students, choosing not to cohabit with their partner was mainly because of educational/job constraints. Some young women in the study claimed that living separately offered them a space so that each party was able to feel free and ‘comfortable’. Avoiding too much day-to-day contact in these cases actually made intimacy possible. In addition, other participants told me that they were not ready to live together because of their age and uncertain attitudes to their future relationship.
As for participants aged between 30 to 40, some of them actively chose not cohabit with their partner as they did not want to give up their own established career, whereas others were forced to do so, such as military wives. Hua is a military wife in Beijing while her husband was 1500 miles away from home. She did not want to be a ‘trailing wife’ who has to give up her own teaching career to follow her husband when he was relocated due to his job. Thus, this living arrangement could be interpreted as a way of prioritizing herself, and a need for her own career achievements. However, as Hua later said, one of the most important considerations when couples lived separately was in relation to their sex lives. She talked openly about her feelings that her needs were not being satisfied, especially as they did not have any children.
However, when a temporal perspective is adopted regarding LAT relationships, more gradual changes in attitudes can be observed. At first, most people spoke of feeling uncomfortable and were unlikely to quickly get used to their lives while their partner was away from home. One of my participants, Mei, 30 years old, worked as an engineer in Beijing whereas her husband took up overseas training in the USA. According to her narrative, every day in the morning when she rose, she always asked herself ‘Am I really married’? But after time passed, she began to accept and gradually adjust to the changes in her personal life, learning to enjoy the freedom, autonomy and independence that she had gained, as life would change again in the future, when her partner came back.
In terms of practically difficulties, such as a leaking water pipe or being ill, the majority of women in this research were likely to turn to their family members, friends, or colleagues for help, as their partners were too far away for them to assistor cannot be able to manage. However, when emotional support was needed, their LAT partner were seen as more important. As one of my participants stressed, she can temporarily accept physical distance within her relationship, but she would never tolerate long distance emotional separation.
Comparing LAT relationships in China, some of the reasons for living apart are similar to those in western contexts, others are different. Such differences can be seen with the category of ‘study mothers’ for instance, who accompany and take care of their children to provide them with better living and study conditions, but at the expense of their own career development and married life. Since Chinese couples were only allowed to have one child under One-child Policy, the children, to a large extent, occupy a central position in the family. Rosy, a 46-year-old ‘study mother’ lives in the USA with her 17 year old son, while her husband works in Beijing to provide them with continuous financial support. According to Rosy’s account, she felt a sense of guilt when she knew that her son still retained some bad habits from childhood, such as thumb-sucking, which were formed whilst attending boarding school. Therefore, she wanted to physically accompany her son for a period when he went abroad to study. In this case, it could be argued that the meaning of a living apart together relationship was a way of trying to protect family members, by putting a high value on the well-being of children.
During the early stages of this research it became clear that there are people within all age groups in China living apart together. This form of relationship and living arrangement provides people a certain degree of personal space and autonomy. Living apart together is a way of being a couple that responds to the complex array of life circumstances and personal histories that people carry with them in relationships. The meaning of a LAT relationship for different ages of Chinese women is diverse. Therefore, in order to better understand Chinese women’s experiences and their thoughts regarding LAT relationships, we need to combine their personal experience with a wider social and historical context.
Duncan, S., Phillips, M. Roseneil, S., Carter, J. and Stoilova, M. (2013) ‘Living apart together: Uncoupling intimacy and co-residence’, Journal of the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences.
Holmes, M. (2004) ‘An equal distance? Individualisation, gender and intimacy in distance relationships’, The Sociological Review, 52(2), 180-200.
Jackson, S. (2015) ‘Families, domesticity and intimacy: Changing relationships in changing times’, in V. Robinson and D. Richardson (eds.) Introducing Gender and Women’s Studies (4th ed.) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Shuang Qiu is a PhD student in the Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS) at the University of York. Her doctoral research focuses on living apart together (LAT) relationships in China. She has a great interest in intimate and personal relationships, gender and women’s studies, heterosexuality and east Asian studies.