The news that Melania Trump will live apart from her husband, President-elect Donald Trump for a few months until their son Barron, 10, finished school, was shocking to many people.
While it may seem odd that a married couple doesn't live together, the Trumps' decision to live apart is actually part of a growing trend -- living apart together couples, also known as LATs, or apartners.
About one-third of U.S. adults who aren't married or cohabiting are in LAT relationships. While some are young people in long-distance relation ships because of schooling or careers, or couples who want to live together but can't for various reasons (such as military families), many include women like me -- divorced, middle-aged empty-nesters who want nothing that resembles the married life we knew. In fact, more older divorced and widowed women are choosing live apart together relationships so they can enjoy their romantic relationships without the complications, caretaking and complacency of living together.
But a good portion are married, like the Trumps -- who will be the highest-profile example of this demographic trend. Still, the number of couples who are "married, spouse absent," according to the United States census, is a lot less than the numbers of couples living together -- just a little more than 3 percent of the population.
How will they make it work? Does it help or hinder a relationship? What are the benefits? What about the kids?
Upsides of living apart
In researching LATs/apartners for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels -- which offers a living apart together model as one of many marital options couples can chose from to individualize their marriage -- I discovered that LATs/apartners feel more committed and less trapped than live-in couples. When you live apart, each person has to actively work on commitment and trust; it's not taken for granted. Nor is sex -- especially since so many couples are dealing with what they consider sexless marriages.
I also learned that many people who are in LAT relationships, or were in them for a while, say that they learned valuable relationship skills, such as trust, patience and better communication. Many also got better at time management, independence, and discovering intimacy that wasn't just about sex and touch.
Those are the kind of skills can lead to a more satisfying relationship, and relationship satisfaction can make couples feel more committed to each other. Couples who feel committed to each other are motivated to show it; they act in ways that their partner can clearly experience as loving. And they don't need to be under the same roof to act loving.
Isn't that exactly what people want in a romantic relationship?
Living apart -- good for women?
"It's of particular interest to women, who often get the short end of the stick in marriage and cohabitation. They still end up doing most of the caretaking and household chores, even if they work full time," says Montreal filmmaker Sharon Hyman, who is working on a documentary called Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart that I will be a part of as well as apartners from around the world.
"Couples, especially women, who are apartners relish the fact that to have time and space apart, and believe it may just be the secret ingredient to keeping love alive and passions growing. When you remove the petty, annoying parts out of a relationship, like laundry on the floor or who's spending too much on what, then you are left with the good stuff -- the chance to truly be intimate and present with your partner. Many believe that it actually makes them a better spouse."
Hyman has been an apartner for almost two decades and wouldn't have it any other way, although she acknowledges it may not be right for everyone.
"I am not an advocate for couples living apart. What I am an advocate for is having options. I just do not believe that there is only one way to love, no one-sized-fits-all, cookie-cutter way to have a relationship," Hyman writes in Psychology Today. "It is all about what works best for you and your mate."
What about the kids?
Of course, living apart together isn't that hard if you don't have kids or your kids are grown and out of the house; it's an entirely different thing if you're trying to raise a child or children together. Barron's schooling is supposedly why the Trumps made the decision to live apart for a while. Children add complications to the arrangement, but they aren't insurmountable.
The Trumps will have to come up with a plan that addresses how Donald will maintain meaningful connection with Barron and have everyone feel like they're part of one family. Technology makes that awfully easy nowadays.
Then they'll just need to keep communicating. Trump will want to be sure to let Barron know when he'll be home again, and assure him that they will have plenty of one-on-one time together, as well as family time, before he heads back to Washington.
In most cases, the person living apart from the family home would want to be sensitive to the spouse at home with the kids; you want to avoid the "super-parent" syndrome -- making one person responsible for all the caretaking -- as much as you can. Since that's the arrangement the Trumps already have -- and let's face it, they have lots of paid help, too -- this won't be an issue for them.
A POTUS who looks like us
Say what you will about the Trumps, but here's an upside to their planned arrangement: couples about to wed or even long-term couples who feel stuck in their marriage may look at the marital arrangement of the future POTUS and FLOTUS and decide that they, too, would like to become apartners. Since fewer of us in America are in traditional nuclear families, why wouldn't we want a president who reflects who we actually are -- beyond just a man of color like President Obama or a woman like presidential-hopeful Hillary Clinton.
Every couple is free to individualize their marriage so that it works for them, no one else. And that's exactly what the Trumps, married almost 12 years, plan to do.
Unfortunately the Trumps' arrangement will cost U.S. taxpayers money -- an unknown amount right now, unless they plan to fund their lifestyle on their own, which is highly doubtful. There may be many things to not like about Trump whether you voted for him or not, but choosing an alternative marital model shouldn't be one of them.