When President Trump took office in January, people were scandalized that Melania Trump chose to stay in New York so that their son’s school year wouldn’t be interrupted. But really, the Trumps’ situation isn’t all that shocking. Lots of couples live in different cities to accommodate work and family. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates more than 3.5 million couples are in a long-distance marriage — and that number has doubled since 1990. Why do so many married couples choose this arrangement and how do they make their relationships work?
Cheri and Bob are a happily committed couple that has spent most of the past five years living in two different cities. Bob, a global marketing strategist, lived first in Canada and now in New York City, while Cheri remains in their home in the Chicago suburbs. They originally considered moving the family to Canada, but their youngest son was a talented athlete at a top high school. They looked into Canadian schools but, “I didn’t want to uproot my child; it was like a stab in my heart,” says Cheri. Now Bob spends the week in a variety of boutique hotels — “I don’t even know where,” Cheri laughs — and flies home to spend the weekend with his family. Cheri is busy with her own work and sees girlfriends during the week but devotes her time to Bob on weekends.
Jean and John are both lawyers who’ve lived for many years on Chicago’s North Shore, but these days John, who works for the U.S. government, spends the week in a small Washington D.C. apartment. He transferred there four years ago because the Chicago office was closing, he enjoyed the work, and he didn’t want to go back into private practice. At the time, their youngest daughter was a senior in high school and Jean had a prestigious job as counsel for a big corporation, so they didn’t consider moving the family. Other than the expense of the rent and the hassle of travel, it hasn’t been much of a hardship for the busy couple. Financially, the job is worth it, and “for me it’s not all that different,” says Jean. “I work all day and see him on the weekend.” Sometimes Jean makes the trip to Washington and enjoys spending time in a vibrant new city.
Money is perhaps the biggest factor when couples choose to commute. For senior executives or highly specialized professionals, there aren’t necessarily comparable jobs available in their current city. The job has to pay well enough or provide some unique opportunity to make it worth it for the commuting partner to go through the hassle.
Some industries are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to count on a regular gig anywhere. Michael works as a manager in telecommunications, an industry rife with mergers and acquisitions and constant shake-ups. Michael, whose wife Lynn lives in Cleveland, spent four years at a job in Minneapolis and now lives and works in Kansas City. Their daughter was in high school when he began commuting. “You just get to the point where you don’t move a family for a job; you come back for the family,” he says. It’s too expensive and time consuming for Michael to travel home every weekend, so he and his wife often spend several weeks apart. The living arrangement feels normal to him. “You do what you have to do. You have to pay the bills.” He credits his self-sufficient wife for making the commute work.
The increase in couples living apart reflects major shifts in the workplace. According to a new study on commuter marriage by Danielle Lindemann, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University, “Commuter marriages may be viewed as an extreme manifestation of major transitions in the nature of work and family that have been taking place in the U.S. since the 1970s.” The traditional model of male breadwinner working for the same company until retirement doesn’t apply anymore. Men and women contribute more equally in both the workplace and at home, while the job market has become increasingly fluid and uncertain.
Sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University writes in his book “The Marriage-Go-Round” that marriage has become an economic status symbol. “Marriage, although optional, remains the most highly valued form of family life in American culture, the most prestigious way to live your life.” However, he says, marriage conflicts with another cherished American value — the need for individualism and personal growth. Perhaps commuting couples have the best of both worlds — the benefits of marriage when together and the time and space to pursue their goals as individuals when apart.
Or maybe it’s just about the kids. Many commuting couples would rather travel than move because they don’t want to disrupt their children, especially as teenagers. Parents want to avoid the pain and drama of moving a kid in the middle of high school if at all possible. And since teens are more independent, they don’t miss their commuting parent as much and it’s not that burdensome for the home-based spouse to parent solo. “This wouldn’t have worked when the kids were small,” says Jean.
For Jill and Tim, a long distance relationship was all they knew. They began dating by traveling to see one another when their kids from prior marriages were staying with their exes. Because they worked from home, they were able to spend five or six days together at a time, alternated by a week apart. But since the father of Jill’s kids lived in Wisconsin and the mother of Tim’s kids lived in Connecticut, it was hard to see how they’d ever be able to live in the same place. After a few years of dating, and at the urging of all their children, they got married in 2014 and continued the commute as spouses. Seeing each other was expensive and took a lot of planning, but the anticipation was a thrill. “There was always this crazy excitement of getting to see him again,” says Jill.
When you spend a lot of time apart, there’s a lot of pressure to make the most of the time you have together. Jill says, “Every moment we had together was gold. It was special. You don’t want to waste it with stuff that doesn’t matter.” As Cheri puts it, “We’re very appreciative and gentle with each other.” But couples that spend a lot of time apart need to develop strategies to stay connected.
According Susie Collins, a Columbus-based marriage expert, “People get used to being apart so that intimacy gets watered down. If you really want to have a close, connected relationship, you have to make it a priority.”
Collins, who co-wrote the book “Magic Relationship Words” with her husband, believes that being a good listener is critical to staying connected. She says the words “help me to understand” are transformative. Inviting your partner to explain what’s happening while listening without judgment builds trust and closeness.
Texts and email makes it easier for couples to stay in touch throughout the day, but relying on them too much can be a problem, says Jeff Forte, a marriage and life coach from Connecticut and author of “The 90 Minute Marriage Miracle.” His advice is to cut out the texting. “Texting is a disaster,” he says. “I’ll never, ever talk about anything important on text. You need to approximate the feeling of physical presence as much as possible.” Instead, Forte recommends talking via Skype or Facetime on a daily basis, because seeing a partner’s expressions in combination with hearing their voice triggers sensory memories and feelings that words on a screen simply can’t. And emotion is a key component of intimacy.
When a couple reunites after time apart, they need to carve out time — even a few minutes — to reestablish themselves as romantic partners, not just co-parents or buddies. “Men want to be valued and appreciated while women want attention and a man’s presence.”
When apart, each spouse acts as a highly competent individual, but when they are together they should establish the masculine and feminine expression of themselves that attracts them as lovers. Taking time to relax, slow down, and appreciate each other keeps the attraction and connection alive. “It’s very important to rekindle affection and touch,” says Forte.
It can be a big adjustment when a couple returns to living together full time. Early in their marriage, Liz’s husband, Mark, ended up working on a lawsuit in New York City and commuting back to Chicago on weekends for 10 years. Their two kids were very young (just two and four) and it was tough on everyone. Liz was so frazzled by the weekend, “When he came home, I wanted OUT,” she recalls. “I was available to my girlfriends, but not to him.” Their focus was on covering the parenting bases, not spending time as a couple. When Mark finally moved back to Chicago, they struggled. “None of us were used to him,” says Liz. They ended up separating for a couple years and it was only after they started dating each other and having fun, that the relationship could thrive again.
Jill recently made the move to Connecticut and is thrilled to be living under the same roof as Tim for the first time. “It’s totally fantastic,” she says. “I’m having the time of my life. It’s nice to have another adult around.” Although, she laughs, she has noticed he’s a little messy.
*Note – Full names are not used at the request of all the commuting couples.
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- For Better Sex, Explore Your Fantasies
- Do You Speak Your Partner’s Love Language?
- Couples Counseling Before the Wedding? Why Experts Say Yes!
Marjie Killeen is a freelance writer who has been covering sex and relationships for Make It Better since it began. She and her husband are currently commuting between Chicago and Iowa and have been married for 26 years.