Bridging the Distance in a Commuter Marriage

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

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 14, 2008
8 min read

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.

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.)

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."

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."

"A friend got me thinking of this when she said I have the most romantic marriage," Buckholtz says. "I think it's because we don't take each other for granted. We really don't fight because both of us see the bigger picture. It's a cliche, but we treasure every moment together. That phrase, 'Don't sweat the small stuff,' applies."

Tessina echoes the pluses of commuter marriage.

"It's surprisingly good for couples to get a break from each other. Done right, each coming together heightens your appreciation of each other -- it's like a mini honeymoon. Being on your own enhances the autonomy of each partner and prevents taking each other for granted. Surprisingly, it often improves communication because you have to be clear when you're at a distance."

Tessina also says there are many opportunities for growth for couples in commuter marriages. Individually, spouses may develop increased self-reliance, self-determination, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-motivation, and self-nurturing.

"As partners settle into a routine and gain greater confidence and competence," she says, "they may find they each benefit from the experience."

What about children? Are there any benefits for kids with absent parents? Though it's hard for her to frame time apart from their dad positively, Buckholtz says she thinks they are developing a "sense of patience."

"I don't like having him here, 24/7, and he doesn't like being around me 24/7 -- that's the straight scoop," Katharine Parks of Chillicothe, Ohio, says matter-of-factly. She has been married to John, an IT entrepreneur for 32 years. Empty-nesters, he is gone about 70% of the time.

"[Absence] teaches you self-sufficiency," she says. "And reunions can be pretty special. Someone who will make me feel that I am center of their universe -- that makes up for a lot."

Buckholtz says reunions can "supercharge a relationship. Even six years into my marriage, my heart still beats faster every time I think about a reunion."

Time to oneself is also valuable.

"We each need our own time and we have that while he's at work," Kuzma says. "That's something we wouldn't ever want to lose in a relationship anyway. It's not healthy to be completely dependent on someone else."

"Your commuter marriage will teach you many subjects," Tessina says. "If you keep in mind that you are a student and the problems exist to teach you something, getting through the hard parts becomes easier and more efficient, and the new things you learn are a great reward."

Buckholtz sums up the key to her separation success. "[This] lifestyle doesn't necessarily suit our relationship. But it's given us a perspective that people who see each other day in and day out might not have. I believe we are better for it."

Adds Kuzma's husband, David, "We really rely on the saying, 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder,' and I'm convinced that it's true."

Whether voluntary or involuntary, there are myriad ways to address the challenges of spousal separation, keep intimacy alive, alleviate guilt, foster support, and minimize resentment.

  • Be positive. Buckholtz says having a positive attitude -- no blaming -- is key. "My husband doesn't want to be away. He's not choosing work over his family."
  • Take advantage of technology. A generation ago, couples had a much more difficult time staying in touch. With email, cell phones, digital pictures, web cams, it's much easier for spouses to stay in contact. Kuzma says she looks forward to iCards and IMs from her husband.
  • Become the problem solver. If you are the spouse at home, it helps to go ahead and provide the absentee partner an update on ways you're tackling at-home problems. "I don't want my husband thousands of miles away worrying about us, frustrated," Buckholtz says.
  • Outsource as needed. Buckholtz hires a weekly housekeeper and a handyman, so she has more time to devote to her kids. "I have a Rolodex of people, including a lot of babysitters, when I need free time or if I am burned out."
  • Cultivate your own hobbies. Having interests outside your marriage is key to staving off isolation. Parks runs marathons and serves on charitable boards. "Accept the fact that even when he or she comes home, your interests might not be the same."
  • Do something unexpected. Several couples mentioned tucking notes, photos, or small tokens into the traveling partner's suitcase to serve as reminders of family left at home.
  • Make the time you do have together count. Whether it's a date night without the kids or a quiet dinner at home, make sure your partner knows he or she is appreciated.