Nigel Featherstone and his partner have been together for more than 15 years, but they happily live in separate houses. Who says full-time cohabitation is the answer for every couple?
You can always trust bank advertising to make clear what’s considered normal, the desires we’re all meant to have, the standard way of being. Stuck in a bank queue recently, I looked beyond the tellers to the large, multi-paned ad board on the wall. On it was a man and woman looking comfortable in their expensive white-and-beige clothes, beside them a pair of magazine-beautiful children, behind the family a brick-and-tile home in perfect repair, a white picket fence out front. And I thought, why would anyone in their right mind want any of that? All those rooms of the house filled with the sounds of the kids running up and down and around and everywhere, all that housework, the constant state of negotiation, so much communication and companionship but so little peace and quiet, next-to-no time alone.
Of course, many people (most?) do want this, but not me, not on your life.
I’ve been with my partner for 15 years. For five and a half of these years, we lived together in a cute 1960s house, a pretty garden, a car and matching car-loan, a Dalmatian named Willow and a very naughty cat named Sam. No picket fence, thank God, otherwise we would have looked as though destined for a bank advertisement. But, as it happens to most of us, we hit a road-block, we split up. Only to get together again ten months later. I now owned the house—actually the bank did, through the mother of all mortgages—and my partner now owned a place on the other side of town.
Immediately we decided not to jump straight back into cohabiting, we’d take things slowly, just find our own way this time, play by our own rules. Wednesday would be our “date night” and we’d spend weekends together; sometimes we’d take a trip interstate or even overseas. But the rest of the time would be our own—our own time in our own homes.
And it worked. You bet it did. We’re both independent souls, we like privacy and a little solace; neither of us needs constant company, though we do like being in a partnership.
But then came another change; relationships are nothing if not constant wretched change. Two years ago, wanting to get rid of the mortgage, I moved out of the city to a regional town an hour away where housing is cheaper and the supermarkets really do try to keep prices down. But despite this new and expanded distance, our relationship continues to work. Surprise, surprise: We spend even more time together.
Being a fiction writer, I have a deep hunger for silence. Silence to read, to dream, to think, to plan, to craft, to re-craft, over and over until there’s something decent on the page. I love time and space to be moody and miserable and difficult (I can annoy myself, I really can). I love walking around the house in a daze. I love lighting the fire late in the afternoon, pouring myself a glass of wine, and listening to the most melancholic music imaginable. I love wearing misshapen tracksuit pants and Ugg boots that saw better days long ago, T-shirts with food-stains, jumpers with so many holes it looks like I’ve been shot at. In the afternoons I love taking breaks by wandering around the pocket-sized garden with a watering can in hand and nothing on my mind. I love knowing that I won’t have to go out into the public; hopefully no one will drop in, nor will the phone ring.
I enjoy having canned soup for dinner, and spending an hour watching current affairs on TV before pouring another glass of wine and reading on the couch into the night; or going to bed early, very early, as soon as it gets dark, kids still playing outside in the street. I adore waking up to a hushed house, just me and the dog and—outside—the chortling chickens and the chirp-chirping of the sparrows on the corrugated-iron roof. I adore watching the first moments of a new day as the sun fills the house and to be able to pause to take this in, to marvel at the clarity of the light, how it shows up the dust on the floorboards but being able to leave the brooming till another day.
Another day of silence, of dreaming. Back when I was little then not-so little, my two older brothers called me The Dreamer, and things haven’t really changed, it’s just that I’m making a career out of it these days, well, a kind-of career.
Then, however, comes Wednesday lunchtime. I fill my backpack with the best clothes I’ve got and put the pack and the laptop and i-Pad mini and the dog into the car. I drive south to the city, to my partner and the house there. I look forward to this drive; it marks the transition from one way of living to the other, the two parts that make up our whole. And I look forward to seeing him; my time in his house is much less intense. He cooks good dinners, we watch movies and TV shows, we sleep together, we wake up together, we share the bathroom together. Come Friday, I go home, my partner driving behind in his own car—it’s the same make and model as mine except his is blue and mine is black. For the next two days the tables are turned: I cook for him, and we watch movies and TV shows, we sleep together, we wake up together, we share the same bathroom together.
Sunday morning arrives and he departs for his place, and slowly but surely I ease myself back into the writing life.
This is the way we do it. We’re not single for half the week then a couple for the other half. We’re together all the time, it’s just that there are two houses, one in a city, the other in a country town, and for half the week there’s distance between us, that’s true—technically we actually live in different states, probably in more ways than one. But in the distance and difference is closeness.
A friend once said to me, “So, then, yours is not a real relationship,” which was offensive, and it hurt. My partner and I are in a constant state of communication, be it by email, text or phone; then, of course, there is what we can say to each other face-to-face. Sometimes I think we spend more quality time together than many cohabited couples. When we’re together we really are together. Then there’s the joy of having two houses in our lives: mine is a slightly wobbly 1890’s worker’s cottage in a street of slightly wobbly 1890’s worker’s cottages; and his is a newish duplex on the edge of the suburbs.
More importantly, despite all the years that we’ve known each other, there’s this: Remember how good it was to be young and everything was about “going out” or, as others called it, “dating,” how you couldn’t wait to the weekend to see the object of your affection, your heart a fizzy mix of longing and anticipation? That’s what it’s like for us. We’re in a constant state of coming apart and coming together, and in this is a magnetic energy. It’s motivating, sometimes even intoxicating. And I wouldn’t—couldn’t—have it any other way.
They say that in Australia there are currently 1.1 million people (out of a total population of approximately 23 million) who are in relationships, but for whatever reason, have chosen not to cohabit full-time. Sure, some of these couples may hope to live together “properly” at some stage in the future. However, according to official statistics, more and more people are saying to themselves, hang on, we don’t have to do this, we don’t have to be like those couples in the bank ads. We can find another way, we can find our own rhythm, we can make up our own rules, we can be happy, the happiest we’ll ever be—we can live apart together, we can live together apart.
Every time my partner and I join and separate and join and separate again, I think to myself, it doesn’t get better than this, and for me—for us—it’s bloody excellent.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent publication is the novella I’m Ready Now, published by Blemish Books. For more information, visit www.opentopublic.com.au.