You don't have to be joined at the hip to have a happy relationship. URSULA KENNY meets two couples who thrive on being free agents
How many couples live happily ever after? Certainly not very many in Nineties Britain where breaking up might be hard to do, but living together - in the traditional sense - seems to be a hell of a lot harder. Our divorce rates continue to rise, and at a local level we all witness even the most apparently rock-solid relationships regularly running aground. Yes, there are exceptions but it's fair to say that the big relationships picture is currently not a pretty one.

So where do we go from here? The following couples feel they have found a way that works. Their relationships flourish, they believe, because they have learnt that less time together is ultimately more.

Emma, 31, has been with Tom, 35, for nine years and, while they do share a house and mortgage, they do not share a bedroom, telephone line or social life. Even so, they say they wouldn't be without each other.

"We've lived like this for three years and, when we looked for a house, we accepted the fact that we both need serious space," Emma explains. "Previously we'd rented a flat and driven each other mad, so when we moved we really thought about what we wanted."

And it works. "I'd recommend separate telephones to anyone. They're a really good idea. We both work long hours and this way we're not constantly taking messages for each other. It's also a matter of privacy - my mum often calls when she's a bit drunk and leaves long soppy messages. They're for my ears only." Similarly, they have separate bedrooms because, as they see it, they are able to acknowledge each other as individuals.

"Sometimes I like to lie on my own and take up all the bed. And equally, when he suffers from insomnia it's better if he's on his own. Sometimes I come in and Tom has already gone to bed, so I know I won't see him until the morning, but he always leaves me a note in the kitchen saying something like `Sorry I've gone to bed - I love you'. We try not to take each other for granted." According to Sarah Litvinoff, author of The Relate Guide To Better Relationships (Vermilion, pounds 9.99), this way of living can be a lot more romantic than "being stuck together without privacy. For some, familiarity breeds contempt. Emma and Tom's way means you see your partner as an individual who has options like retreating to their room if they don't like your behaviour."

Emma used to worry that this particular option was not necessarily a healthy one when they'd had a row. "But I now think that a lot of `conventional' couples paper over the cracks in their relationship by making up in bed, which isn't so easy for us; we don't inevitably end up together at the end of the day. We have to make the effort to talk things through. "

Emma also feels that it is important to make space for others in their lives. "Tom and I have spent one Christmas together in nine years, simply because my mother is in London and his family is in Dublin. We also have separate friends. Our relationship does involve a lot of trust. But that's what makes it so strong."

Mike Halson, at the support group Single Again, feels this sort of single- but-together relationship is a growing phenomenon. "We crave companionship but at the same time we value our independence, especially once we've experienced it." Women are settling down later. Where once the average age to marry was in one's early twenties, now they're more likely to be almost 30 before they opt for long term committment. "More women are having careers and enjoying independence and so put off relationships until later," agrees Halson. "By which time they are less willing to compromise and give up their perceived gains."

Jennifer, 33, is a designer and she and her boyfriend Paul, 40, used to live together. Nowadays they spend weekends at the house that Paul owns in Teddington, but Jennifer spends weekdays alone in her East London flat which she bought because it was near to where she works.

"My career is important to me and this started as a practical arrangement, but the end result has been that our relationship has developed in a positive way. It used to be run along very traditional lines with me feeling obligated to do most of the housework and cooking, but when I moved out all that seemed to change naturally; and we now share chores fifty-fifty. We're both much happier now because we've discovered we're better having our own space."

Paul agrees. "We have a lot in common but we're also very different and this arrangement accommodates our differences. I am much more independent now. I've discovered that I actually like to cook! I know that seeing your partner all the time is the common way, but it's not ours."

Of course, space has to be paid for, and it is no coincidence that these sorts of time-share affairs are taking place in an urban professional environment, where more women are earning the same as men. Graham Leach is a chief economist for the Institute of Directors and he feels that this trend for what he calls "a separation of assets" will flourish. He does add though that, "the interesting thing about couples who have separate mortgages is that the move comes against a backdrop of concern about stability in relationships, and I think that this is almost a prenuptial agreement, people having an eye to the future, especially women."

But Jennifer disagrees: she sees their arrangements as a step forward rather than an insurance policy. "Everything about our relationship has improved," Jennifer says. "The time we spend together is quality time. I really look forward to Friday nights and I will not do anything else at weekends because I only want to be with him. I value our time together in a way that I didn't used to and I believe that other couples could learn from us. Couples are not a homogenous unit with identical needs." Paul shares exactly the same sentiments. "We are all different so why pretend otherwise? Sure, ours is an unusual relationship, but it's a good one."

And therein lies the key to success; both partners have to want to live this way genuinely. As Mike Halson says: "As with any successful relationship, the key is shared agendas." Equally, Emma feels strongly that her and Tom's set-up succeeds because there is a balance of needs. "Otherwise it just wouldn't work. It would fail if one of us was more needy. Most `conventional' relationships that I know of seem to revolve around one person being more needy than the other. That's not what I want."

Still she is aware that there are those who will insist on seeing the way she and Tom live as a sign that their relationship is weak. "I get embarrassed when people visit our house and feel I have to explain our arrangement. They seem to find it peculiar, not a `proper' commitment." But, according to Dorothy Rowe, "It is perfectly possible to be committed and live separately. If you are living in a long-term relationship for the rest of your lives, it doesn't matter whether you are living in the same house or not. Those who fear commitment are more likely to have serial relationships."

Jennifer also knows that there are those who view her relationship with scepticism. "I do sometimes question mine and Paul's arrangement, but only because others question it so constantly. We're actually talking about marriage but that won't change the way we live at all."

She should be reassured by a study from the University of Michigan which found that "time spent apart is likely to increase your desire to spend time together." Perhaps Katharine Hepburn got it right years ago. "People shouldn't marry," she said, memorably. "They should just live in the same street."

HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES

Celebrities have had time-share affairs for years. Not only do they earn the kind of money which allows them to buy a condominium or three, they also have the sort of schedules which mean an afternoon en famille must be booked weeks in advance. Nicolas Cage owns a pad in Malibu, a home in Hollywood and a house in San Francisco. His wife Patricia Arquette doesn't live in any of them. Meanwhile, Toyah Wilcox and her husband Robert Fripp (married for 13 years) spend two days together in a good month. Other famous people find privacy in even more convoluted ways. Woody Allen insists he and partner Soon-Yi have separate bathrooms when they book into a hotel. And the Queen and Prince Philip do the old-fashioned thing and are said to sleep in separate beds. They own enough of them after all.

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