Saturday, May 06, 2006

Together apart

When Kelley and Brendan James said their marriage vows in June, they could have promised to love, honor and cherish “till death do us part, and even if a great job opportunity comes along that has us living in different cities.”

This month the two will join the growing number of dual-career couples who are married but separated most of the time by their jobs. Demographers report that there are more than 1 million of them in the United States, a figure that doesn’t include people in long-term relationships who aren’t married.

Brendan, 30, had the choice of moving with his company to New York — they both agree it’s a great opportunity — or finding other work in the Baltimore area.

Kelley, 27, a recent law school graduate, loves her job in Towson, Md., where she’s working on litigation and family law. She just started in the summer, and if she moves to New York she’ll have to pass the state’s bar exam before she looks for another job.

She’s worried about the separation, but they’ve taken what counselors say is one of the most important steps in dealing with a commuter couple lifestyle: They have a set-in-stone plan for when they’ll see each other. It will be something they can count on and look forward to.

“We decided we’re not going to skip weekends,” says Kelley, even though they know it will be expensive and exhausting to commute between New York and Baltimore at least four times a month.

Couples have always had to live apart for reasons including military service and travel for work. What’s new is that more women’s careers are just as important as their husbands’. A shrinking job market makes it harder to find equally good jobs in the same city, and couples worry that if one of them moves with the other and takes an inferior job, resentment will follow.

Less expensive and more frequent nonstop flights between cities make the commuting seem doable. And while they are apart, couples can stay in touch more easily than in the past with e-mail, in-network cell phone plans and new technology like Skype, the free global Internet phone service.

One reason long-distance relationships are on the increase is that many of them start with online dating. Long-distance relationships are so common they are referred to casually as LDRs.

Living together apart no longer seems like the beginning of the end of a relationship.

No one contends that having separate homes is the best way to stay in love, but researchers are divided about the long-term effects of LDRs.

David Popenoe, a sociologist and co-director of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, takes the traditional approach: Couples do better if they’re together on a daily basis. Pointing to the country’s high divorce rate, he worries that living apart is yet another of many pressures on today’s marriages. “It might be the so-called tipping point.’”

But, he adds, “It’s not a permanent arrangement usually, and you do the best you can.”

Jaine Carter, a psychologist and co-author of the book He Works/She Works (, 1996), is more outspoken. The only benefit, she says, is to the career growth of each person.

“The relationship is not forefront in your life. If you’re not there, you’re not there. The only way I’ve seen it work is if you set a time limit.”

She recommends having firm guidelines for visiting each other, as the Jameses have done, and re-evaluating regularly whether the commuter lifestyle is working.

Some research suggests that LDRs fail (or succeed) at about the same rate as other relationships. A decade ago Gregory Guldner started studying these nontraditional unions. He found, he says, that couples break up for various reasons, but distance doesn’t seem to be one of them.

“The research is relatively sparse, but that said, the conclusion that geographical separation is a crisis for a relationship isn’t borne out by the literature.”

Guldner, director of the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships, an online clearinghouse of information for researchers and others, also reports that people aren’t more likely to have an affair when they are separated from their partner. If people are going to cheat, they are going to cheat.

But couples in LDRs worry more about fidelity than those living together. Trust is an issue.

Contrary to what some researchers believe, Guldner says, how often couples visit or talk on the phone has little impact on whether they stay together. But couples who send handwritten letters to each other are twice as likely to stay together as those who don’t.

And there is one benefit to a long-distance relationship, research has shown: Couples in traditional relationships might get bored with each other sexually over time, while those in LDRs report having more exciting sex lives longer simply because they don’t live together.

Keith Pion, 33, and Angela Whittaker-Pion, 31, both lawyers, live together in Canton, Md., but during their engagement and for the first 16 months of their marriage, he was in the Air Force in Tampa, Fla., while she stayed in Baltimore.

“We discussed her coming to Tampa,” he says, “but it made sense for her to stay because she had a wonderful job.”

His initial assignment was for two years, but it ended up being four years.

They spent thousands of dollars traveling two or three weekends out of the month.

“It definitely made the weekends fun,” he says. “It was like a honeymoon a lot. But those Sunday evenings when we had to leave were tough.”

They made a point of calling each other every night before they went to sleep, and Keith would send Angela unexpected gifts, like a certificate for a spa treatment, to let her know he was thinking about her.

“We communicated a lot,” says Angela. “That helped. We don’t take each other for granted, even though we’re now together. We haven’t forgotten that.”

The effects of a commuter lifestyle might extend beyond just how the two people interact. If children are involved it’s a whole different ballgame and set of problems.

Most research on commuter relationships has involved white, middle-class, married couples. Anita P. Jackson, professor emeritus at Kent State University, is a co-author of one of the few studies that has looked at black commuter couples, who, she thinks, face problems of their own.

“One of the things that stood out,” she says, “is that African-Americans tend to be very community-oriented. Living the commuter lifestyle limited them and caused some personal concerns about being able to function and develop outside of the community.”

They felt they didn’t have enough time at either place to become part of either community, and they saw that as a real issue for themselves, she says.

Still, as Kelly Bare, deputy editor of Tango, a new magazine about relationships, says: “A lot of people are doing this. They can’t all be insane.”

(Kansas City Star)