'Commuter' couples tackle challenge of long-distance marriage

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12 2012 9:27 p.m. MDT

Jenn and Glen Wall spent two years mostly apart when he worked in North Dakota and she and the kids stayed home in Utah, where she was a teacher.

Family photo

ROOSEVELT, Utah — Glen and Jenn Wall recently spent their 20th anniversary apart because of work. That was no big deal compared to the nearly 1,000 miles that separated them for two years while he worked in the oil boom of Stanley, N.D., and she taught school and fanned the home fires in Utah's Uintah Basin.

The Walls have just ended their stint as a long-distance couple. In June, Glen Wall returned to his family full-time, made possible by a new job and made necessary because of "burnout" from missing his family. The U.S. Census Bureau's most recent population survey estimates 3.5 million American couples over age 18 live apart not because of marital discord but because economics, career opportunities and other factors keep them from living together, sometimes for a long time. In 1990, half that number — 1.7 million couples — shared what has been dubbed a "commuter marriage."

"As our society becomes more mobile, jobs more scarce with both spouses routinely have careers, commuter marriages have increased and are continuing to be more common," said Tina B. Tessina, a California psychotherapist and author of 13 books on relationships, including "The Commuter Marriage."

A commuter marriage usually involves couples temporarily living apart for a job or other reasons, such as to care for an elderly parent. Average separation is 1.5 years, according to the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships.

Reuters recently noted that couples spend more money on travel and housing, even thousands more, in part because "the Great Recession has forced workers to broaden the geographic boundaries of their job hunt, while selling a home to relocate has become much harder since the real estate downturn."

Economic drivers

While the recession has increased the number of commuter marriages, it's not new. Couples have historically been challenged by war, by incarceration, by traveling sales jobs, migrant work and even by shifts that make time together extraordinary, rather than routine. There's a burgeoning pre-marriage version as up to half of college-age adults have long-distance relationships, said a study from University of Kentucky-Lexington.

No study shows that divorce increases more among commuter marriages than others, experts said, but everyone agrees it comes with challenges.

"Spouses left at home have to deal with all the household problems: plumbing that doesn't work, financial decisions to make, all the child rearing and discipline and all the chores usually shared by two. Spouses not at home are lonely, isolated and feeling out of touch with your family," Tessina told the Deseret News in an email.

Glen Wall saw his wife and kids — Kaity, now 19; Saryn, 17; McKenzie, 12 and Kyleigh, 10 — for five days every five weeks. Getting home meant hours in airports and on planes, then the drive from Salt Lake to Roosevelt. It was expensive.

Finances often drive the decision, but also create challenges. Glen Wall's North Dakota employer put him up in a hotel for a year, but families may pay two sets of housing and utility bills, extra travel, income taxes in two states and more daycare, among other things.

If it didn't usually boost a family's financial situation, couples would not do it. And some choose it temporarily to accumulate savings faster, to pay down debt, to boost retirement savings.

When Talia Jensen and Sam Shadimehr married eight years ago, they were nearly inseparable. When they decided to have children — Ethan, now 3, and Madison, 6 months — scheduling became more complex. He is a pilot; she is a flight attendant. Now they never fly together. He works internationally and she works closer to home.

Dialing it up

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