We all want to believe that a great marriage can survive anything and that two people in love can enjoy life together and support each other through the challenging times. But that’s often easier said than done. And while relationships are never easy, modern life presents a new wrinkle.
There have always been spouses who, for one reason or another, have not lived together on a full-time basis. But since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve found myself working with an increasing number of couples who live separately because of work (or because they met online and aren’t in positions to move in together). As challenging as living together can be, living apart adds a whole new dimension of difficulty.
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Marcia and Harvey, who’ve been married for 28 years, are a perfect example of the modern, involuntarily separated couple. They came to see me in my private practice six months ago (via Skype), in just such a situation.
In their first session Marcia was quick to mention — and Harvey nodded in agreement — “We never imagined this would happen to us. We’ve been joined at the hip since we first got together.” Harvey added that the longest they’d ever been apart in the past was the week Marcia went to New York to help her sister move to Florida a few years ago. “When I got back,” Marcia said, a little horrified, “the trash can was filled with frozen dinner boxes.”
Marcia and Harvey are both 55 and have four adult children, ranging in age from 19 to 26. All the kids are in Chicago, except their oldest son, who’s married, has two children and lives in California. Marcia is a schoolteacher, and until recently Harvey was a senior executive at a large IT company in Chicago. When his company was acquired by another organization, Harvey was let go. After 30 years with the same firm, he suddenly found himself unemployed.
Shocked and angry that he’d be fired after three decades of dedicated service, Harvey nevertheless started pounding the pavement, networking and working with a headhunter to find another job in Chicago. “It’s a big city,” he said, “so we were hopeful.”
But as months went by and no jobs materialized, Harvey began to feel lost and distressed. He admitted that it took a toll on his emotional state. “I didn’t know what to do with myself during the day,” he said, “and I started feeling insecure.”
To lighten the mood, Marcia commented, “You could have learned how to cook.” (I was happy to see the two of them joking around, because it was a difficult situation they were facing.)
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After nine months, Harvey’s severance package ran out, which intensified their financial challenges, since two of their children were still in private colleges, and their house and car payments were sizeable. “We didn’t plan very well for this type of situation,” Marcia admitted.
Then, out of the blue, Harvey was offered a lucrative job that met all of his criteria — except that it was in Seattle. As an incentive, the firm even threw in a two-bedroom apartment that would be rent-free for five years. After a lengthy discussion, the couple decided that Harvey should take the job, but because she loved her own job (and life in Chicago), Marcia wouldn't move with him.
Currently, they try to see each other at least twice a month. Luckily the company pays for their flights. “The change has been really hard for both of us,” Marcia said. “We really miss each other, even though we know it’s for the best. I hate to admit it, but before he moved, I was starting to panic about tuition, going into debt and the bank repossessing our house. At least now, we’re financially secure.”
But even while the money is OK, Marcia and Harvey are discovering a new set of challenges. Issues revolving around trust, commitment, communication, household management, children and finances have become more complicated.
How to Make a Long-Distance Relationship Work
To help Marcia and Harvey work through some of the kinks of handling a long-distance relationship, I offered them six strategies.
1. Set your parameters together. Sit down and define the conditions and “rules” you each want and expect in the new arrangement. Share all your concerns with your partner. How often will you visit? What about parenting responsibilities? Are there domestic issues (household upkeep, car, finances, etc.) that may require a new plan of action?
I encouraged Marcia and Harvey to discuss their most intense worries, like jealousy and trust. It’s essential to get everything out in the open right at the start so you can both begin this new adventure on the same footing.
2. Reframe the negatives. It’s normal to feel unhappy about an unwelcome separation. One way to transform your negative outlook is to put things in another context and try to find at least three benefits. How might living apart for a finite amount of time actually be beneficial? Marcia volunteered this one: “It’s made our reunions sexier.”
She also said she was looking forward to decorating the Seattle apartment. The two of them talked about having more time to do their own thing and not taking each other for granted. Harvey said his new position has been a boon for his career.
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3. Make “togetherness” plans for the future. Discuss where you each want to be in one year, in five years. Talk about what you both can do, even while living apart, to help make this vision come true. Having shared goals is one of the keys to a happy relationship, and doing this activity reinforces the notion that you’re still a team that can (and will) work together.
Living in separate homes doesn’t mean you have to lead separate lives — or that the situation will be permanent. Harvey admitted he was having trouble with this one. “When I try to project into the future, I feel paralyzed,” he said. I suggested that he talk about where he wants the relationship to be in five years, not focus on the details of their living situation, and he found this helpful.
4. Establish daily contact. Set up regular phone and/or Skype dates. Communicate every day, more than once, if possible. When two people are unable to enjoy physical intimacy, it’s critical to maintain a tight emotional bond. Even if your partner isn’t really a “talker,” find ways to stay in touch. If she hates being on the phone, then email, text or instant message each other.
Share your little victories and frustrations, or just funny things that happened during the day. Keep a running list so you don’t forget. Ask about each other’s day and work extra hard to support each other.
5. Prioritize getting together. Talking, video chatting and writing are all crucial, but to maintain a romantic relationship, you need to make the time to see each other. It’s also important for the at-home partner to visit the relocated one to get a visceral sense of the new home, city, friends and favorite haunts. When you are together, find creative ways to keep the romance strong. Because of Marcia’s more flexible teaching calendar, it was easy for her to get to Seattle. “But Harvey needs to come home, too,” she said. “The kids really miss him.”
6. Don’t keep secrets. The two best tools to prevent suspicion, jealousy and paranoia are transparency and inclusion. Talk about the people in your life. Don’t omit events or interactions simply because they might inspire a twinge of jealousy. It’s natural for both parties to experience loneliness from time to time. But you can keep yourself from acting on it — and your partner from worrying that you will — by sharing your feelings and lots of details about your daily life.
Marcia and Harvey have been having regular Skype conference sessions with me for half a year now. By becoming regular communicators themselves, they’ve worked through an initial wave of jealousy and loneliness. Harvey is trying to get the company to move him back to Chicago. There’s no Chicago office, but he’s hoping that once they get to know him and appreciate his contribution, they might find a way to make it happen.
Marcia has made a point to spend more time with her children and friends, which keeps her busy. She’s even joined a health club for the first time and is playing tennis in a women’s league. And in the “accentuate the positives” department, Harvey commented: “I’m not eating so many frozen dinners. I’ve graduated to takeout.”