Marriage across the miles

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

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.

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.

Despite their five-month separation, Kann says, "The positives of being out here outweigh what we had."

For some families, the happy ending hasn't yet arrived. While her husband works for Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill., Annette Oppenlander, an account manager for a communications firm, maintains their home in Bloomington, Ind., to keep her job and allow their twins to finish high school.

"He cannot find appropriate employment close to our home," she says. "He works long hours during the week, drives four hours home on Friday afternoons and turns around on Sunday afternoons. It's exhausting and costly." But she adds, "Both of us experience a feeling of isolation during the week, so we love to see each other when he comes home."

Maintaining separate addresses "does split some people up," says Ms. Tessina. "But if the connection between them is good to begin with, they've got a much better chance of handling it well."

She tells of a man in New Jersey who was laid off in mid-career. Eventually he found a job in California. But because his wife needed to care for her mother, she was unable to join him. "They were seeing each other pretty sporadically, and he was worried about losing his marriage," Tessina says. "Then they learned how to visit more often and enjoy their visits." Finally, he found another position in New Jersey, and the family was reunited.

Research shows that couples who get together weekly tend to be most satisfied with their marriage, says Professor Bergen. Yet the current high cost of travel means that some couples cannot see each other as often.

Tessina suggests that the first thing couples say to each other when they reunite is, "I'm glad to see you. I've missed you." That sets a good foundation for the visit. Linda Young, a psychologist who commutes between Bellevue, Wash., and Houston, where her husband works, also urges couples to communicate often.

Whatever the challenges, couples find rewards, too. Laura Troyer of Woodland Park, Colo., honed new skills when her husband accepted a job three hours from their remote mountain home.

"It was January, and I stayed behind and plowed the road, shoveled snow, ran the generator as needed, and conquered my fear of the dark," Mrs. Troyer says. "When the generator broke, I fixed it. I missed my husband terribly while we waited for the snow to stop and our home to sell, but I view the experience as life-altering. I discovered newfound independence and purpose in taking care of things that I had let years of marriage convince me were either my husband's responsibility or too difficult for me. It was an extremely uplifting experience."

Ms. Kinzey's challenge involved being unable to see her husband often. "The commuter marriage would have worked satisfactorily if I had been able to get home with greater frequency," she says. "As it was, the trips home occurred only every two to 5-1/2 weeks." After 13 months, she resigned.

Yet she emphasizes the benefits. "It validated for me that I have a very supportive spouse," she says. "It even strengthened our marriage. The experience helped us grow closer."

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