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Married people are called "spouses" and people that are in a romantic relationship and live together without being married are called "cohabitants" – but what do you call people who are in a romantic relationship that is, for all intents and purposes, the same as marriage/cohabitation, but who don't live together? My bilingual dictionary suggests "live-apart partner", but I find very little actual support for this when I google it, and no support at all on Ngrams. So, what's the proper term for this kind of partnership? I realise one could use "boyfriend/girlfriend" or just "partner", but I'm after the term for the specific kind of partnership, in line with "spouse" and "cohabitant".

Edit: I'd be very grateful if the person who downvoted my question could explain what is wrong with it/in what way it doesn’t meet a English Language Learners Stack Exchange guideline, so I can learn from my mistakes!

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    Maybe I've had it backwards all these years, but does "partner" necessarily imply you live together? Perhaps you can expand a little on why "partner" doesn't work?
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 25, 2022 at 0:27
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    @BruceWayne it does not; partner merely means a romantic relationship, with no implication on living status (though with some connotation of it being a serious relationship).
    – Drake P
    Oct 25, 2022 at 1:09
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    @DrakeP The impression I get is that the meaning has evolved, and that "partner" used to be used mainly for cohabiting couples but is now broad enough that it can;t be assume to imply that
    – Chris H
    Oct 25, 2022 at 11:14
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    "Live-a-partner" !! :-)) Oct 25, 2022 at 15:05
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    @Helen I dont understand. You can be married or unmarried. If married or not, you can be living together or living apart. "Partner" works for any of these. Are you looking specifically for a word that is for two unmarried people, living apart, but in a relationship? If you are really trying to emphasize you don't live with your partner, you would simply have to explain that as I don't think there's a word in English for that. Is there a situation you can give us where this important distinction has come up?
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 25, 2022 at 18:09

7 Answers 7

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Though easy to understand literally, "live-apart partner" is awkward and unnatural, and at least in my mind, raises the wrong kind of partnership.

It puts so much emphasis on living apart that it makes me think of couples like Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton who were married, but lived in separate homes next door to each other.

It's not the kind of thing that seems to need describing often enough. It's like we have the common expression "a sit-down meal", but there's no special expression to describe "eating while standing".

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    Japanese has a special expression for eating while standing "tachigui"... which I suppose is the point. There are often meanings that one language has words for, that another language doesn't have. I wonder if Swedish needs a word that means tachigui.
    – James K
    Oct 24, 2022 at 7:08
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    Very off-topic, but some cultures seem to do a lot of eating standing up - it seems popular in Berlin - while others don't. Although in the UK and US it's common to eat while walking (particularly with fast/takeaway food and snacks), which I'm told is frowned upon in much of Europe.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 24, 2022 at 9:25
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    To add to this, I don't think anyone would describe their romantic partner as a cohabitant. If anything, to me at least, that implies an unromantic relationship. Oct 25, 2022 at 9:34
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    @DeanMacGregor cohabiting is common (UK) for unmarried couples living together, and not just sharing a house. Sometimes a term is needed, for example in describing housing arrangements for tax purposes.
    – Chris H
    Oct 25, 2022 at 11:17
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    @ChrisH I believe the act of cohabiting is common in the US as well. I just meant that I would never refer to someone's romantic partner, with whom they're living, as their cohabitant. Are you saying it's common for people to call their partners cohabitants on the other side of the pond or only for legal purposes? Oct 25, 2022 at 13:52
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There are a number of different situations.

For people at the start of their relationship, living apart is the norm. Girlfriend/boyfriend would seem to be the best words, especially for younger people (but they also work fine for older people). Because it is the norm, no special word or modifier is needed.

People who are not only living apart, but living so far apart that they cannot regularly meet are said to have a "long-distance relationship".

Spouses may live apart from each other because their relationship has broken down and they have separated. But they are not in a romantic relationship anymore.

So there is a final category: people who are in a long term romantic relationship, with the stability of a marriage, but don't live together, but do live close to each other. This is a rare situation. I suppose there might be some celebrities or ultra-rich who have separate households. If you need to mention the fact, I think you'd need to describe it.

Kate is my partner of 18 years, and though we've never lived together, I feel we are as close as any other couple.

But generally you would simply not mention it.

Kate is my partner. W've been together for 18 years.

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    This is so interesting! "So there is a final category: people who are in a long term romantic relationship, with the stability of a marriage, but don't live together, but do live close to each other. This is a rare situation. I suppose there might be some celebrities or ultra-rich who have separate households." This is completely different in my country – here this situation is so common we have (and need to have) a specific term for it!
    – Helen
    Oct 23, 2022 at 20:48
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    In Swedish you mean? Särbo – "sär"='apart', "bo"='live'/'someone who lives in a particular place'
    – Helen
    Oct 23, 2022 at 20:54
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    "This is a rare situation" - not in my circle. People in their 60s and 70s, grown up families, divorced or widowed, with their own homes - and genuine love (not "friends with benefits")
    – Psionman
    Oct 24, 2022 at 11:26
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    HaHa! - I tried "friend" once - it did not go down well! - "Partners, but we don't live together" - ugly, awkward, but the best we've come up with
    – Psionman
    Oct 24, 2022 at 12:55
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    You missed a category. I'm far from unique. In my part of the world (Eastern Canada), thousands of people continue to call it "home" while travelling for work and leaving spouse and sometimes children behind. Some of them get home often. Some, like me, get home for a month every year.
    – Auspex
    Oct 24, 2022 at 13:53
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If they live far apart, this is a long-distance relationship. If they’re still officially married but living apart, they’re separated (unless you say they’re separated by some circumstance, this term implies that they are married in name only). If they live nearby, are not married, and are a couple, they’re a boyfriend and girlfriend, or significant others.

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    @Fie I said, “far apart.”
    – Davislor
    Oct 26, 2022 at 0:57
  • I totally missed that—my apologies!
    – Fie
    Oct 26, 2022 at 1:00
  • Boyfriend/girlfriend/SO don't imply that you live apart. The label works equally well if the couple lives together so it doesn't help differentiate.
    – Rick
    Oct 26, 2022 at 14:58
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There's a term "Living Apart Together" for such phenomenon:

Couples living apart together (LAT) have an intimate relationship but live at separate addresses.

(source: Wikipedia)

The term is not in common use, so your audience might not be familiar with it thus you might have to provide some additional explanation. Moreover, there's no word/phrase for people involved in such relationships, so the best that I can come up with is "people in living apart together relationships" or "people living apart from their partner".

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  • "Living Apart Together", and even the acronym "LAT" or (LAT-relationship) are very common in Belgium. Everyone will understand it.
    – Opifex
    Oct 25, 2022 at 17:35
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Logically, it would seem that the opposite of "live-in partner" would be a "live-out partner", but I think most people wouldn't follow. In polyamory circles, a partner one lives with is a "nesting partner", so one one doesn't live with would be a "non-nesting partner". Most people would likely not be familiar with the term, but I think it's reasonably easy to figure out what it means.

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The problem here is that there are two separate concepts involved: your legal status and your living arrangements. When I started filling out forms you gave you the choice single/married/widowed/divorced. Then it was realised that many people were in long-term relationships so co-habiting or partner became included but as part of married not as a separate category. Then we developed civil partnerships. If you really want to know whether they are eligible to marry you then you need to know their civil status if you want to know whether when they go home from hospital there will be someone there to look after them you need to know their living arrangements.

So if someone asks you you need to guess which aspect they are concerned about and respond appropriately.

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When I was a teenager in the 70s the labels we used for two people who were romantically involved but did not live together and had not bound themselves legally in marriage were...

  • Girlfriend
  • Boyfriend

I can see an argument that the terms Girlfriend and Boyfriend might not be specific enough. In other words, someone might want to separate such a relationship based either on chastity or some common-law legal precedent that I'm unaware of.1 But I don't know of one that's universally accepted with one possible exception: "significant other."

I also recognize the growing trend of gender ambiguation that leads to a desire to not use terms that establish gender. The unfortunate truth is we're 50-100 years away from commonly used terms recognizable outside the subculture. I am not trying to marginalize, exclude or in any other way suggest that there shouldn't be terms that better describe these kinds of situations. But today, 99% of the U.S. population would barely understand such terms when used (e.g., "living together apart," which I experienced for the first time in this post) and wouldn't use them out of habit.

Please note that part of the problem is that there is no definition for what makes a "living together apart" relationship true or false other than the claim of the partners. Excluding a marriage committment, what defines a committed relationship? Sexual intimacy? No. Spending time together? No. Paying each other's medical bills? Maybe. Combining incomes? Probably. Is the condition temporary? ("My partner is working in Dubai for three years, so we're living together apart because we use the same checking account") or permanent? ("My partner lives a couple of miles away. We share the same bank account, but pay for different residences...") That ambiguity is why terms like Girlfriend and Boyfriend continue to be used and why you're having so much trouble locating a term to replace those words.

Today in the U.S., if you describe a couple such as you have and label them using Girlfriend and/or Boyfriend you would not be misunderstood.

BTW, In my area using the word "cohabitants" would get you the same funny stares as using the term "coitus" for "sexual intimacy." Here, it's considered a technical term. The term we would use for people living together unmarried in a sexual relationship is "partners." I wouldn't be surprised if the term changed with region.


1In some U.S. states, if you live together in a committed relationship long enough, you are considered married for the purpose of legal ownership of property. This is called "common-law marriage" and in some instances the government would refer to the members as "spouses." However, this is a legal distinction and its use by the public would surprise me. I expect that whatever term is used by the couple to identify their relationship is what their neighbors would use.

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  • Thank you for your answer! I totally see what you mean, and I realise that this is the way it is in English-speaking countries; thing is, in my own country, this is an established kind of relationship, that you have an "official" term for – when I wrote my OP it didn't occur to me that it might not be the same in English-speaking countries :)
    – Helen
    Oct 27, 2022 at 15:27
  • So, in answer to the last paragraph of your answer: I totally realise "cohabitant" isn't something you use in everyday conversation, but that's precisely my point: I need a "technical"/"official" term in line with "spouse" and "cohabitant". I now realise there isn't one, since in English-speaking countries, this kind of relationship isn't generally acknowledged as one of three main kinds (married, cohabiting, living apart)
    – Helen
    Oct 27, 2022 at 15:27

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