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Marriage across the miles

Commuter marriages are on the rise, due to the slow housing market.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2008

Scott Wallace - staff


Ruth Kinzey and her husband, Joseph Gettys, fully expected to move last year when she accepted a position as senior vice president of a retail firm headquartered in Massachusetts. They put their house in Salisbury, N.C., on the market and began house-hunting.

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But when their three-month contract with their broker ended, they had not received an acceptable offer. They also discovered that a comparable home in suburban Boston would cost three or four times more. So they decided to keep their house, and she would commute home on weekends.

As the housing market slows, more families are finding themselves in similar situations, maintaining jobs and households in two locations while they wait for a "Sold" sign. Worldwide ERC, a relocation services trade group, reports a 40 percent increase in commuter marriages since 2003.

"Commuter marriages can work really well as a choice," says Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families. "But when you are forced into a type of marriage you didn't choose because you can't sell the house, that can be a cause of marital and parenting challenges."

Dr. Coontz, who has had a commuter marriage on several occasions, finds that the arrangement "works out great" for them. "We trust each other. It's renewing."

But because these arrangements are unusual, people often barrage a couple, particularly the wife, with questions, says Karla Bergen, assistant professor of communication at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Neb. "They ask, 'Couldn't you get a job in the same place? How can you have a good marriage when you're living apart?' Some women who are concerned about being a good wife and a good mother are really bothered by questions like that."

Tina Tessina, author of "The Commuter Marriage," finds that the spouse who is left at home may feel put upon because he or she must handle everything. Similarly, the spouse who is gone might say, "You don't recognize what I'm doing for the family."

In December, Simon Kann accepted a job as an attorney for the Port of Los Angeles. He and his wife put their house near Annapolis, Md., on the market. In January he moved in with his parents in Los Angeles and started working. Mrs. Kann stayed in Maryland with their three young children.

"People would come up to me and say, 'It must be so tough to be apart,' " Mr. Kann says. "I told them, 'It is, but my wife is back there with three kids, trying to keep the house spotless to show it.' " That kind of empathy for the other spouse can help to keep relationships intact, family counselors say.