Honey, Will I See You on Labor Day?

Separated by work, commuter couples test work/life balance

When Stephen Weglarz was laid off last year, he was hard pressed to find another job near his home in Los Angeles. So he expanded his search.

After eight months, he landed an offer in Las Vegas. His wife, however, didn't want to leave her job at AT&T. With the bills piling up, they decided he should take the position, anyway.

For the past two months, they've spent weekends flying between states and calling each other daily during the week.

"My wife wasn't happy about it. We've been married a long time, and we're very close," says Mr. Weglarz, who works for a fire-protection company. "But you have to do whatever the economy dictates. If it says you have to work in another state, then you have to make that commitment."

They're not exactly the average American family - yet. But the number of couples living and working hundreds of miles apart is rising, less because of choice than a changing job market.

For many, the arrangement is only temporary. For others, it becomes a way of life. Yet, while instant communication has helped change the idea of "being far from home," it still isn't easy. And it underscores the growing struggle to balance career and family.

"Commuter marriages are starting to grow at a pace that's hard to comprehend," says Linda Stroh, a management professor at Loyola University in Chicago, who is married and has been commuting from her home in St. Louis for 3-1/2 years.

Numbers are scarce. But companies agree that the ranks of these workers are growing. By one estimate, 6 to 8 percent of all managers who have relocated within the US over the past year are now in commuter marriages.

Those signing on for far-flung flights and late-night phone calls cover the range of marriages: newlyweds, empty nesters, even families with young children.

And almost as many women as men are the ones doing the commuting. Just a few years ago, the family only followed Daddy.

Several factors push the trend.

Many couples want to balance two careers, and finding the best job often means looking beyond a single city. But a career move that's good for one spouse doesn't always help the other.

That was the case for Nilda Weglarz, a public-relations manager at AT&T. She spent seven years building her career at the telecommunications giant in Los Angeles and didn't want to start all over again in Las Vegas.

"I know I don't want to do this [commuting] for years," she says. "But at this point, I don't feel I want to give up my job, which I absolutely adore, and I don't want to give up my home."

The decision became somewhat easier because, in Las Vegas, Mr. Weglarz lives with one of their grown daughters. So they don't have to shell out big bucks for a second home - a prospect facing most commuter couples.

Then there's the kid factor. Many families don't want to uproot their children from school and friends every time mom or dad gets an offer. So they're not.

At the same time, businesses say a growing number of stay-at-home wives who once followed their husbands from city to city now say, "Enough already. I'm not going anywhere."

That's been the case at AT&T.

"Corporate America can no longer automatically believe that when an employee gets the opportunity to go to Peoria, that he's going to go back and tell the spouse, and they'll be there in two weeks," says company spokesman Burke Stinson.

But that doesn't mean corporate America will stop asking.

Commuter couples seem to help the bottom line. Companies and commuters alike agree employees who don't go home to their families during the week tend to live at their desks. They pour themselves into their work and thus are more productive.

"You really get into this mode of working hard when you're away," says Teresa O'Keefe, a consultant at KPMG Peat Marwick in Baltimore. For 18 months, she's made the weekly trek to a client in Connecticut, then back home to Baltimore for weekends. In between come lots of 13-hour days.

For now, she doesn't mind the rigors of the road. She enjoys her work and feels that her marriage can go the distance. "I have a very supportive husband, which makes it easier," she says.

Others couples say they spend more quality time together, communicate more effectively, and enjoy the independence.

"I've never been on my own before, and I like going home and being alone," Mrs. Weglarz says. "But I think that's a temporary thing. I do miss my husband."

Ms. O'Keefe notes that the arrangement is not for everyone. "It's not conducive to having kids," she says.

Most commuter couples, especially those with children, in fact, call their situation a hardship.

Many say that maintaining a marriage over time and space isn't easy. Some tell of not seeing each other for several weeks. Others cite the expense of managing two homes, plus negative reaction from friends, and colleagues.

"People often don't want colleagues to know they're in a commuter marriage because it may send the signal that you're not permanent or committed to the company," says Ms. Stroh of Loyola University. "If you were, you would move here."

Women, in particular, face what Stroh calls a "double whammy."

"Everyone still questions why a woman would put a career before her family, but it's a question men are very seldom asked," she contends. "I have people ask me all the time, 'Why are you doing this?' They rarely ask my husband the same question."

Some advice from experts for taking some of the work out of commuter marriages.

r Before anyone packs a bag, lay out a few expectations. "Couples need to have an honest discussion up front as to how long it will last, how often they will see each other, and how they will spend their time when they are together," says Jim Carter, who with his wife, Jaine, wrote "He Works, She Works."

* "See each other frequently," says Linda Stroh, a management professor at Loyola University, who is also in a commuter marriage. "Once a month or once every two weeks is probably not a good idea. Once a week or more is much better."

* Make sure your job is flexible. "A real key to making this work is when both couples have control over their schedules," says Ms. Stroh, who commutes weekly between St. Louis (where her husband runs his business) and Chicago. "If one of us has a need, it's pretty easy for the other to drop what he or she is doing. I don't think that's very easy for most people to do."

* Protect your time together. "You live for your weekends," says commuter spouse Teresa O'Keefe. One recent Sunday, her husband invited 30 people to their Baltimore house for a party. "We used to do this when we were first married, but I can't anymore," she says. "On Sundays, I need to pack and get myself mentally prepared."

* "I can't imagine doing this with kids," says Ms. O'Keefe. It's easier if couples can commute either before children are born or after they are grown.

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