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Bridging the Distance in a Commuter Marriage

Strategies for staying connected -- and sane -- when you have an absentee spouse.
By Suzanne Wright
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Is there any truth to the adage "absence makes the heart grow fonder?"

Living separate lives isn't what most couples have in mind when they marry. But shift work, job relocations, or demanding travel schedules can wreak havoc with domestic routines. When one partner is often absent, how do you keep the romantic connection strong? What can couples do to make a commuter marriage work? WebMD talked to therapists and couples who manage long-distance relationships about the challenges of running a household in a partner's absence.

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Military spouses are famous for developing top-notch coping skills for dealing with an absentee spouse. Writer Alison Buckholtz and her military-pilot husband, Scott, live together in Anacortes, Wash., when he's not deployed. He had been in the Navy for 15 years when they married six years ago, and he's committed to a career that will take him away from home for the foreseeable future. They are the parents of two children, aged 2 and 4.

"People say to me, 'My husband was away for two weeks. How do you manage for seven months?'" says Buckholtz, who is writing a book on how she copes with a husband who is gone for long stretches of time.

"Everything from carpools and illnesses, sports games, nightmares, and dealing with household issues like a broken washing machine and bills, falls on your shoulders," Buckholtz tells WebMD. "That's not insignificant, but the hardest part is knowing I alone am responsible for the psychological, physical, and emotional well-being of these two little people."

Raising happy children with limited support is a common concern of people who have an absentee spouse. "It's a delicate balance for me to keep their dad alive and present without making them anxious or worried or continually grieving."

No matter how often or predictable the separations, Buckholtz says, "we don't miss him any less. It's not easy and it's not fun. But we do what we have to do to get through."

Like many spouses who hold down the fort while a partner travels, Buckholtz has experimented with different approaches to managing her husband's absence.

"I didn't know what would work and what wouldn't. We don't have a lot of his image around," she says of pictures. "We had a giant poster of Scott, but it seemed to open the scab, to make the wound [of him not being around] much more raw. Then we had a talking picture frame that was motion-sensitive. I love the sound of my husband's voice, but it got to be like nails on a blackboard it was so painful. We can't try to pretend he is home. We've been on a journey to make his deployment healthy for all of us."

Buckholtz says she and her children talk often about their dad, but the natural time to talk about him is at bedtime. "That seems to work for all of us."

(Are you in a commuter marriage?  Tell us how you stay connected on WebMD's Couples Coping: Support Group message board.)

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