Recession Marriage Trend: Living Apart

The New Commuter MarriageABC News Photo Illustration
The New Commuter Marriage

After getting laid off from her job as an advertising executive last Thanksgiving, Leslie Singer co-founded the branding consultancy HS Dominion. The hitch: she had to hang her shingle in New York City, two-and-a-half hours from the Madison, Conn., home she shares with her partner of 17 years and their two teenage children.

"I don't have the kind of business that I could do remotely," said Singer, 52, who's the breadwinner of her family. "It's a people business. And you have to go where the business is."

To cut down on the onerous commute, Singer stays in a Manhattan apartment two to three nights a week. But she's no carefree city gal those evenings.

"I have certain rules to all of it," said Singer, who works late the nights she stays in New York and has deliberately avoided making her apartment too comfortable. "I never miss a kid's school play or concert. I try to work from home on Fridays so I have a three-day weekend. I try not to be away two nights in a row, but that's in a perfect world."

"It's not the ideal situation," admits Singer's partner, Ron Hook, 54, a full-time stay-at-home dad. "But it is what it is. We make every effort for the kids and I to stay in touch with her."

According to the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships, a Web-based clearinghouse of data on the subject, 3.6 million Americans lived apart from their spouses in 2005 for reasons other than marital strife -- a 30 percent increase from 2000.

Many commuter couples aren't as fortunate as Singer and Hook, who share the same bed much of the month. As the recession forces more people to accept work anywhere they can, some spouses find themselves living in two different time zones.

So how do couples separated by the recession make it work? Besides swapping text messages during snoozy staff meetings and rendezvousing late-night via Skype, how do they keep their relationship -- and household -- from unraveling?

The Biggest No-No: Mixing Business with Pleasure

A common mistake that commuter couples make is not separating their personal connection from the trivialities of daily life, said Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author of "The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You're Far Apart."

Instead, Tessina suggests handling mundane matters by e-mail and text message, and reserving phone calls and Webcams for catch-up chats and pillow talk.

"Don't waste your precious scheduled time together for the grocery list," she said. "Use it for 'How you are doing?' and 'I love you.'"

Same goes for face-to-face visits, Tessina said. It shouldn't be all about the clogged toilet, unexpected vet bill or junior's alarming report card. If you need to, schedule quality time alone with your significant other.

That's what Jade (not her real name), 58, and her husband of 17 years (let's call him "Stephen") do.

In April, Jade left a high-pressure banking job in Birmingham, Ala., for her dream job in Los Angeles while Stephen, a retired financial professional, stayed behind to sell their house. Although the pair thought their spacious home would sell in a heartbeat and Stephen would join Jade within 30 days, thanks to the abysmal housing market, they've only had four showings in three months.

To make the most of their sporadic weekend visits, Jade lists all the logistics -- what she calls "unpleasant things" -- that she and Stephen need to handle in person: paperwork they couldn't resolve from afar by scanner and e-mail, the TV she bought for her Los Angeles studio that doesn't work and so on.

"We get those done right up front," Jade said. "And then we spend the rest of the time with friends and family and just our time."

Separation Has Its Benefits

As many commuter couples will attest, there's truth in that old saw about absence making the heart grow fonder (or at least less likely to take your partner for granted).

Felecia Flair, 26, from West Palm Beach, Fla., can relate. She and her husband, Derick Pearson, also 26, both work as tour managers in the mobile marketing industry, which means they're on the road for months at a time.

Usually the couple, who were married in May, can secure a 6- to 9-month assignment as a pair. But after their last contract ended in January, they weren't able to land work as a team, presumably because of recent budget cutbacks and stiffer competition in the field. So Pearson, who landed a contract first, left for a West Coast tour in April, and Flair leaves for an East Coast tour next week.

"For the next few months, we really don't know how we'll be able to visit each other," said Flair, who talks to Pearson and exchanges text messages and digital pictures with him daily.

Although heartache and stress are par for the course, the distance does add to the electricity of the couple's three-year relationship.

"It keeps excitement in the relationship," Flair said. "I feel like we're always learning new things about each other. It keeps the conversation fresh and we always have things to share."

When All Else Fails, Change the Game Plan

For Kay Plantes, however, the excitement of crossing the Atlantic each month to see her fiancé George (not his real name) wore off quickly.

"Like all couples, we thought the commute would be a lot easier -- and more fun -- than it turned out to be," said Plantes, a 50-something management consultant from Madison, Wis.

Unfortunately, moving to Oslo, Norway, with George when he was transferred there last summer was out of the question for Plantes.

"A book I'd written was about to be released by the publisher and I had duties related to the book," she said. Plus, she added, "I run a consulting business that largely serves a local market."

Luckily, George's employer pays for the couple's monthly airfare to visit one another. Still, the international commute is not sustainable for the long term.

"I am being challenged to create a business model that is not dependent on the place where I live," said Plantes, who's lined up her first European consulting gig for the fall and plans to live in Norway 50 percent of the time starting in October.

"Long term, this will be really fun," she said. "Work can get stale in your 50s. That is not going to happen to me."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,