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June 29, 2005

My Husband Lives Across the Street

Leave it to Californians to be on the cutting edge of married life: living apart.

No, not couples who separate for a while in order to evaluate their marriage, nor couples who maintain two residences because one may "commute" to a job far away and come home on weekends. Literally, men and women who are married, but who live either next door to one another, across the street, or across town.

It's almost a trend. A 2003 census report found that 3 million married couples lived in separate residences (although that statistic must include many who are separated in the "this-isn't-working" sense). Some live in different units in the same apartment building. Some live in separate cities. Some just divide up the house they have into two addresses with one electric bill.

Why would people who want to commit legally not want to live together?

Donna Guadagni, 46, is one of those happy beings. A high school art teacher, she has a well-ordered place of her own in the sleepy former mill town of White Pines in Calaveras County. In June she will marry Dave Wallace, 55, but there will be no "we're-moving-in-together" garage sale to get rid of the duplicate appliances. Wallace lives an hour down the mountain in his own house, and both will keep their houses. The distance is not ideal: Guadagni said she'd prefer what Minnie and Mickey Mouse have -- living next door to each other with a path going from front door to front door. But she likes her own space, and her intended has fits of creative energy, not to mention seven hot rods in the yard. Wallace dreams of a 10-car garage with a modest house at each end.

These are obviously people who belong to the "ME" generation, and whose own needs are more important than the needs of others. Living with someone else takes patience, commitment, and the ability to compromise...qualities that are obviously unimportant to couples who take the marriage plunge but maintain separate addresses.

The article doesn't feature any couples who have children, but what about those couples, if they indeed exist? Do Joey and Sally take turns living in each house, or does one spouse visit the house with the kids in it? That sort of arrangement is difficult at best when a divorce is involved. How do you explain it to them? "Mommy and Daddy are married, but Mommy just likes to live alone." The kids will grow up not knowing how to live in a traditional relationship, not knowing how to compromise, argue and make up, and give of oneself.

And how about those expenses? It can't be cheap to maintain separate abodes. The couples featured in the article are all older, with established careers. Young people just starting out don't usually have the kind of cash flow that would allow them to maintain two residences, especially in an area as pricey as the San Francisco area. But expenses don't seem to affect the decision as much as way of life.

Not surprisingly, different styles can have a lot to do with the decision to live apart. When she thinks of living with her husband, [Juliana] Grenzeback said, "I get anxiety attacks." [Joshua] Brody describes his own style as archival. It's a dark apartment with a music studio in the middle, and other rooms hold shelf upon shelf of 45s. Brody's kitsch postcards -- "Seattle at night," "Florida at night," etc. -- decorate the wall next to the front door.

Then why marry? Why not just be "boyfriend and girlfriend?" Having your cake while not having to live with it (to paraphrase a marriage therapist from the article) is just another way of saying you're too self-absorbed to think about someone else's needs. It's a sad commentary on the devolution of society when couples are no longer "us," but "me and me."

*This post also appears on Lifelike Pundits.*

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