With the number of commuter marriages on the rise, more couples are discovering how far their love can stretch.
IT PROBABLY WASN’T the right time to open a Marble Slab ice cream store in Orlando, Florida. It definitely wasn’t the time to leave an IT job to run it full time. And when Tirell Payton, the IT guy in question, and his wife, Susan, managing partner of Egg Marketing & Public Relations, then decided to shut down their six-month-old ice cream store in October 2008, the Orlando IT job market didn’t have a cubicle waiting.
“In his field, it’s typical for him to get many job offers, but this time, it just wasn’t happening,” says Susan, 31. Tirell expanded his employment search beyond Orlando and eventually landed a job with Accenture … in Joplin, Missouri. Because Susan’s business contacts were all in Orlando and the couple was determined not to uproot their four-year-old son, they decided the best course of action was -- temporarily -- for Tirell, 32, to go to Joplin solo and return home for a weekend here and there.
During their first four months as a commuter family, together time consisted of two weekends in Orlando and a Joplin-based family Christmas. “I’m not going through the pain of a divorce, but I’m going through the separation of not having that other parent and that person to back you up in your parenting decisions,” Susan says. “You’re constantly on instead of having somebody who shares fifty-fifty in your parenting responsibilities.”
With the soft job market and the challenge of selling a house in this economy, commuter marriages -- both welcome and not so welcome -- are on the rise. Unfortunately, “the people who are forced into it [often] struggle with it,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You’re Far Apart. “It’s been tough, but what I tell people is, ‘You do what you have to do.’ I don’t have the option to break down and say, ‘This is too hard to do.’ “
MAKE IT WORK
Playing on an old cliché, Chris Bell, coauthor of The Long- Distance Relationship Survival Guide, says if a commuter marriage “doesn’t break you up, it’s going to make your relationship stronger.” Yes, there’s a bleak side to his comment, but, at least for the people in commuter marriages Bell interviewed, the “there’s strength in distance” side seems to be winning out. All reported that their communication with each other had greatly improved and that, quite simply, the time apart had put a fresh coat of paint on their relationship.
“I like that I have this freedom to be who I am. Then, we come together -- it’s like dating,” says Nichole Stauffer, who’s based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while her husband commutes weekly to Wisconsin. “We’re kinder to each other. We’re more aware of each other. I like it.”
The Stauffers went commuter because of the job-market/selling-a-house double whammy. When Nichole’s husband lost his job as a computer programmer in 2008, and “with Michigan not being a real hot spot for technology,” she says, he ended up working in Chicago, where at least he could stay at his sister-in-law’s house. The master plan called for both the Stauffers and the sister-in-law and her husband to sell their houses and move in together. “It was how we could all survive and move forward,” Nichole says. But when the Stauffers couldn’t sell their house, the plan was nixed. It was probably for the best, though: Nichole’s husband was later transferred to Wisconsin. Now, he makes the seven-hour drive to Wisconsin on Monday mornings and returns on Friday nights.
TALK (AND E-MAIL AND SKYPE AND TEXT) IT THROUGH
The communication piece of the commuting puzzle takes some work, but without it, long-distance just doesn’t work. Tessina recommends handling all nitty-gritty daily life details -- like, yawn, bills and other money issues -- by e-mail. Use phone time, which can be the hardest to come by, to “keep the intimacy going in your relationship, because you have all those voice cues and feel more connected when you’re [speaking to each other],” she says.
Opening up to each other can help smooth resentments and worries along the way. “The traveler gets surprised by the resentment of the spouse who feels that everything has been dumped on the spouse at home,” Tessina says. “And the spouse gets surprised that the traveler feels so disconnected. The spouse often has this idea that the traveler has this romantic life, while the traveler is often sitting alone in hotel rooms feeling disconnected from the family.”
“It’s harder to read signs and guess when you don’t see a person all the time,” says Miami-based DJ Ivano Bellini, whose wife, Lola, is a New York City–based real estate investor . The couple’s marriage has always been handled commuter style. “We had to try to keep the guess factor to a minimum,” Ivano says . “There’s no blueprint. It’s not like we could read about it somewhere. When we started this, a lot of people looked at us like [they were thinking], ‘This is never going to work.’ Little by little, we saw what we had to do: Communicate, talk, and when we are together, do interesting things.”
It’s also important to mimic the living-in-the-same-city rituals of your former life as much as possible, says Bell. If you talked everyday at lunch in the past, try to keep doing that -- even if your different zip codes mean one person is actually eating breakfast, not lunch, at the time. Also, have long-distance dates. Bring in takeout food for dinner, and each of you rent the same flick. Then, talk by phone -- or by webcam -- during the meal, and once the movie gets going, take breaks to call and discuss. The need for maintaining those living-in-the-same-city rituals also holds true for commuter parents and their kids. Morgen McLaughlin, president of Finger Lakes Wine Country, lives 250 miles from her husband and three sons during the week but keeps her place at the family dinner table by speakerphone.
McLaughlin adds that years ago, she had a neighbor who was in a commuter marriage. “I thought, ‘Why would anybody do that? Why would anybody leave their family? It makes no sense for a job,’ “ she says. “But you never know where opportunity lies, and things change.”