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Hardships of Commuter Marriage Can Work When Spouses Tackle Game Plan Together

Nancy Fagan Interview with The Associated Press

During the week, Joseph Hausmann leads a fairly typical single guy’s life.┬áThe 32-year-old engineer lives in a small, rented apartment above a garage, relying heavily on microwavable dinners and an exercise regime that fends off his less than stellar diet.

But Hausmann isn’t a typical single guy. On Friday afternoons, he piles into his car and makes the four to five hour trip (if he’s lucky enough to avoid New York City rush hour) to Newark, Del., back to his house, wife and life as he used to know it before taking a job near Hartford, Conn., in February.

“I liken my experience to going back to college and living in a dorm room,” said Hausmann, who started commuting long distance after being laid off, and a subsequent job search that reaped no leads closer to home. “It’s literally going back to microwave and hotpot cooking.”

It’s a situation that, while becoming oddly routine, is hardly ideal for Hausmann and his wife, Jennifer Adams, who continues to work and live in their Delaware, which has been on the market, garnering very little interest, since June.

The difficult job market let alone the uncertainties of buying and selling housing has given rise in recent years to the number of people in commuter marriages, where couples live in different cities, states or even countries to make ends meet while trying to weather the economic storm.

“I see it all the time,” said Nancy Fagan, a San Diego divorce-mediator who herself lives thousands of miles from her husband in Boston.

WATCH VIDEO, Commuter Marriages” (Fox National News, 2011)

Not wanting to transplant kids while one parent seeks work elsewhere is a big motivator, she said.

According to 2006 U.S. Census data, the most recent available, about 3.6 million married individuals lived apart, not including people who were separated. Just what kind of challenges and in some cases, benefits living apart poses are as varied as the millions of couples in commuter relationships.

On one hand, there’s a certain sense of independence, self-reliance and control, though reconnecting on weekends can be that much harder. That, couples said, is especially true when it comes to parenting or making household decisions.

It’s not unusual for the at-home spouse to take on the role of decision maker, disrupting the flow of married life.

As Adams, Hausmann’s wife, put it: “I don’t sleep well during the week when he’s not here, and I’m not sleeping well on the weekends because I’m not used to having anyone else in the bed.”

Commuter marriages have other pricetags.

“It’s very expensive,” said Jennifer Dickson, who three years ago left her house and husband in Austin, Texas, to move to Washington, D.C. She’s now moving to Denver, where her husband plans to eventually join her.

In addition to rent for a Washington apartment and a car, Dickson a communications expert for an environmental group, said airfare and travel budgets have taken a toll. The couple, who have gone from one to two weeks without seeing each other, now make a hobby of jockeying for cheap airfares and building up mileage points to take the edge off.

“It was to the point where my husband switched his credit card so we could get points for more home expenses, even a new roof,” she said.

It’s that kind of planning that often separates the successful commuter marriages from the ones that don’t work out, Fagan said.

“About three-quarters of the time it works but you have to have concrete plans on how to make it work,” she said.

That means commuter couples should map out specifics for everything from phone calls to each other to how conflicts with kids are going to be handled, she said. And they should make the most of the time they have together.

Lee Igel, a New York University assistant professor and psychologist, said it’s also incumbent upon employers to realize and accommodate the growing phenomenon by giving employees in commuter relationships options like telecommuting and flexible schedules.

“Not all of them know how to deal with it well,” Igel said. “It challenges our assumption of how married people live and what a ‘normal’ household is.”

That’s a challenge that has arisen for Amelia Frahm, who, after moving multiple times for her husband Randy’s job, has opted to stay in their Raleigh, N.C.-area home while he works on contract in Alabama.

Despite owning a house, and two college-age kids living at home to cut costs, Frahm said she’s gotten some grief from relatives who have more conventional beliefs about marriage. She has no easy answers for them. “Its just stressful,” she said.

In Fagan’s experience, the majority of commuter couples can weather complex feelings when they know the separation is relatively short term, even if that means several years.

For couples like Hausmann and Adams, and the Dicksons, the hardships of commuting are temporary, as both couples have game plans for reuniting and living under the same roof as soon as work and housing considerations allow it.

“We realize now that being apart is not something you can do permanently,” said Dave Dickson, Jennifer’s husband. “We are definitely at that stage and are going to be thinking long-term.”