Sandra Brée, Marie Bergström and Christophe Giraud

An interview with CNRS historian and demographer Sandra Brée, INED research fellow Marie Bergström, and sociologist researcher Christophe Giraud on the notion of the couple in society and the phenomenon of "living apart together".

(Interview conducted in January 2024)

Is the proportion of single men and women (i.e., people who are not part of a couple, even a non-cohabiting one) higher in France today than it was in the early twentieth century?

Question answered by Sandra Brée and Marie Bergström 

It’s difficult to answer that question because the definition of singlehood and the way of counting single persons changed over the century as the connection with legal marital status became irrelevant. Questionnaire surveys can be used to shed light on “couplehood” in a more subjective way: official recorded status is no longer the only statistic used to apprehend nuptial behaviors. 

Five statistical definitions of singlehood currently coexist in the literature: “never married,” “not (yet) married,” “not living with an intimate partner,” “living alone,” and “do not consider oneself partnered.” The last and most recent approach is based on self-reporting and takes account of what respondents themselves think of as “being in a couple relationship.” It is in this sense heuristic while nonetheless encompassing a wide range of situations, thereby calling into question the homogeneity of the category. 

Counting single persons and measuring change therefore depend on the definition used. How the numbers evolve over time also depends on the reference period chosen. Singlehood, in the sense of not being married, has risen since the mid-twentieth century. But longer time series reveal more variation and call into question the specificity of the contemporary period as well as the idea that singlehood, in the sense of not being in a couple relationship, is increasing. 

When was the notion of “living apart together” (LAT) first used and how has this type of relationship evolved over time?

Question answered by Christophe Giraud

The notion of “living apart together” or being in a “LAT relationship,” was first used by the Dutch demographer Cees J. Straver in 1980 (the acronym having been used first in 1978 by a journalist named Michiel Berkel in an article entitled [in English] “The new singles: Together apart” that referenced a 1973 Dutch film called [in English] “Frank & Eva: Living Apart Together”). The notion describes stable intimate relationships that do not involve living under the same roof. It first became operational in statistical surveys by way of several questions in Family and Fertility Surveys, conducted in the 1990s primarily in European countries, and in Generation and Gender Surveys in the 2000s. 

In the early 2000s, non-cohabitating intimate relationships were understood above all as subjectively coded couple relationships. Studies done in the 2000s and 2010s have shown how heterogeneous those relationships are. Among young adults, they are a prelude to living together and, in some cases, to marriage. But for divorced adults or older persons they are highly stable compromises understood as long-term. 

Sources: Marie Bergström and Sandra Brée, 2023, “Not a single meaning: Definition and evolution of singlehood in France and the United States,” Journal of Family Theory & Review, 15: 465-484 [FR]

Christophe Giraud, 2023, “Living apart together: 40 years of sociodemographic research on LAT relationships,” Population 78 (1): 51-82 [FR]