It has long been an adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it could even be the secret of a happy marriage, official figures show. Almost 700,000 people in Britain remain apparently happily married, but do not live under the same roof as their husband or wife, according to new figures from the 2011 census.
The trend is most marked in parts of central London such as the City, with higher concentrations of bankers and business chiefs who work long hours and often live away from their families. It is also prevalent in areas with larger-than-average immigrant populations, where many have come here to work while leaving families abroad. It suggests that at both ends of the social scale, a significant number of couples are living apart in order to juggle family life and a career.
Psychologists said that living apart could even strengthen some marriages, at least in the short term. But other commentators warned that it was a sign that Britain's "long-hours culture" is taking a toll on family life. The figures are contained in new data tables released by the Office for National Statistics listing figures illustrating the make-up of households in every local authority area in the UK. They detail characteristics such as the concentrations of lone parents, divorcees or families with children. The tables identify the country's singleton capital as Lambeth in south London, an area where just under half the population have never married, almost twice the national average.
Hart in Hampshire emerges as the most traditional place in Britain, with the highest concentration of married people - 58.1 per cent of the population. The most widows and widowers are to be found either in Rother in East Sussex, the area including Bexhill-on-Sea, and Christchurch, Dorset, both popular retirement locations. But the analysis also singles out 690,509 people who are "not living in a couple" but are classed as married or in a civil partnership. The group does not exclude those who are separated or estranged but still officially married, a separate category accounting for 1.1 million people.
Only 1.4 per cent of the total population over the age of 16 in Britain are conducting long-distance marriages, but in parts of London the rate is more than four times that. The highest rate is in Newham, east London, an area which combines a large migrant population with proximity to the City, with six per cent of the local population happily married or in a civil partnership yet living apart.
Similar rates can be found in the City itself, as well as Westminster and the wealthy area of Kensington and Chelsea. There are also higher-than-average levels of long-distance marriages in Luton, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester. Voula Grand, a psychologist and relationship expert, said: "In the absence of somebody you tend to remember all the good things about them and the things you like, some of which is exaggerated. "It means that the relationship isn't tested by the everyday nitty-gritty of living with somebody."
But Harry Benson, of the Marriage Foundation think tank, warned: "Whether they have over-extended themselves or feel the need to earn extra money, it can't be good for relationships that we have got ourselves into this state where people have to spend so much time apart."