'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

Both couples say commuter marriages survive not only on love and hard work, but a healthy dose of technology that wasn't available to commuter marriages not long ago. Cell phones, instant messaging and texting are center stage. Even soldiers in war regularly phone home.

Experts offer advice on how to make commuter relationships work. Tessina, who writes the "Dr. Romance" blog, suggests creating plans for household chores and maintenance, childcare and even social life. "You may be surprised to find that the people you spent time with as a couple aren't as comfortable when you're single and the activities you're used to may not work as well," she warned.

She recommends keeping "business" conversations about bills separate from calls that are about maintaining emotional intimacy.

Going home

Commuter couples do see each other in person, but it usually involves a lot of travel. Jensen and Shadimehr are together more regularly than the Walls were able to be. They live in Florida, though Jensen's spending the summer in Orem, Utah, at a home they bought for vacations. She and the kids are close to her family — but it adds distance to his journey home.

At age 3, Ethan knows his daddy flies a plane and that when one of his parents puts on a uniform, it means "bye" for a while. He cries. Still, it's very rare for him not to see his dad every two weeks and usually much more often.

Glen and Jenn Wall know all about the economic ups and downs that create commuter marriages. The Uintah Basin, with its oil and natural gas, is always booming or busting. When he took the job in North Dakota, their home area was struggling. That cycle will reverse.

Jenn Wall was an Army brat who never stayed in the same place for long as a kid. When she discovered she loved Roosevelt, she sunk her roots deep. The woman who as a child was never in a school a whole year is now principal of Myton Elementary.

Committed

"When you're away for so long, I think you appreciate your family a little more because you have to work at it," Jensen said. She doesn't relish the single-mother days it brings but is dedicated to her family.

Why do it? A 14-year career has brought benefits like flexibility in scheduling and a pay scale that helps her family. Between them, it's "a nice lifestyle I hate to give up," she said.

Glen Wall said he's unlikely to commute again. "I might go for two weeks at a time, but I do not want to live abroad. I missed everything for almost two years. We didn't have a vacation. I missed family and my house suffered." His visits were often "three days of fixing mirrors and putting cabinet doors back on and unclogging the sink. I almost felt like I was neglecting them." Doing those tasks when you're home every night, life would hardly be interrupted, he said.

Of a commuter marriage, Jenn Wall said, "I wouldn't actually recommend it. My husband would say he was all alone. I was a single parent; I was doing all the things he would normally do. The first year, we had farming land and I had to get up early and water and change the sprinklers. The plus side was I learned how to do a lot of things for myself. He's a pretty good handyman."

She missed the companionship and physical presence of her husband. And it was hard for the kids, who asked often when their dad would be home. Now, she said the kids don't like to see him leave for work.

"I don't think I would do it again," Jenn Wall said. "It was really hard on the marriage — hard on the kids." And it's a hard adjustment when they get back together, too, as they learn to bend and blend again.

Jensen acknowledged that a commuter marriage is not for everybody. "It's challenging. When one parent is not there, the other parent knows they have to be mother and father. ... But we're not just each doing our own thing. We are a family and that comes first. ... If we were not committed, we would not be married."

email: lois@desnews.com

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