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Bridging the Distance in a Commuter Marriage

Strategies for staying connected -- and sane -- when you have an absentee spouse.

The Rise of "Commuter Marriages"

According to data from the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships, more than 3.5 million married Americans lived involuntarily apart in 2005.

Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a California-based psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book The Commuter Marriage:Keep Your Relationship Close While You're Far Apart, says that commuter marriages -- whether chosen or by circumstance -- can take one of many forms:

  • You're living apart, temporarily or for a long time
  • You spend days or weeks apart sporadically or on a regular basis
  • You both live full time in the same house but rarely see each other because of work schedules
  • One or both of you is traveling frequently or occasionally, but not together
  • One of you is forced to travel for long periods of time because of military service or other occupation

"Spending time apart is both a blessing and a problem," Tessina tells WebMD via email. "When you have time apart, it can freshen your relationship and remind you what you love most about your partner. On the other hand, if you begin to resent the separation and don't communicate well while you're apart, your marriage has the potential to quickly unravel."

Empathy for the Absent Spouse

Many couples didn't plan for extended absences or long-distance relationships; others knew what they were getting into from the start. Regardless, the same stresses are at play in all commuter marriages: anger, insecurity, anxiety, loneliness, exhaustion, lack of support.

"Spouses left at home have to deal with all the household problems: plumbing that doesn't work, financial decisions, child rearing, and chores usually shared by two," Tessina says. "Spouses not at home are lonely, isolated, and out of touch with family."

Liz Kuzma, a public relations specialist in Houston, is married to David, a commercial airline pilot, who spends four days away from home each week. "That amounts to about 16 days and nights a month without seeing each other at all," she says in an email.

Though it's been hard to be "left behind," Kuzma recognizes that she maintains a sense of stability and comfort from being at their shared home. Still, she experiences frustration.

"I have to admit that I have a hard time watching other peoples' husbands come home at night -- even if they work late, they still sleep at home, which is something that I'd love. It's hard when friends or work give me a hard time about not doing anything the nights he comes home, but that's an important day of the week for us, and I wish they would be more understanding."

David, her husband, shares the flip side of separation.

"It's difficult because I don't have a normal daily routine. I'm in different cities each night, and I don't sleep in my own bed or eat dinner half the time with my wife, which is tough."

Tessina says that having empathy is critical to staying connected. "At-home partners need to understand it's not all glamour for the traveler, that flights and hotels are lonely when they're done routinely."

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