I was in a commuter marriage

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It was no commute a sane person would fathom. From early 2001 to late 2002, I lived and worked in Tokyo–6,737 miles (10,840 km) away (according to this useful calculator) from my husband, who remained home in Leonia, N.J.

Why would either of us even contemplate such a crazy set-up? Work, of course. I was offered my dream job: Tokyo correspondent for TIME Magazine. He was (and is) a freelance classical clarinet player who had toiled many years to establish a career in the New York area. Neither of us felt we could give up our own opportunities–and, what’s more, neither of us wanted the other to.

In this week’s TIME, I wrote about other couples facing this challenge in a story I called “Till Work Do Us Part” (thank you; it’s a cut above my usual crap headlines). I thought our year and a half of marital misery was unusual. Turns out I’m just part of a trend.

How’s this for a 21st century romance: Dr. Laura Minikel met Bent Balle on an airplane in 2000–she returning to the U.S. from practicing medicine in Africa, he escorting his parents on holiday from their native Denmark. Minikel and Balle chatted throughout the 11-hour flight and later met for coffee near her home in San Francisco before Balle returned to Denmark. They fell in love (through e-mail) and married in 2005 (in person), celebrating in four cities with friends and family. Are they happy? Yes. Are they together? Not exactly. Minikel, 37, remains in California to practice obstetrics and gynecology, while Balle, 44, an electronics technician, still lives in his homeland 5,500 miles away. She gets to work herculean hours at a job she loves; he gets to help raise his two teenage kids.

Check this out:

Unconventional? Yes. Unusual? Not exactly. Commuter marriages, in which couples live apart for long stretches, are multiplying. Their number jumped 30%, to 3.6 million, from 2000 to 2005, according to an analysis of census figures by Greg Guldner of the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships, a Web-based clearinghouse for research in this nascent field. While military deployments, migratory jobs and economic need have long forced couples around the world to live apart, in America today, it is more often the woman’s career that drives the separation. Technologies like instant messaging and Skype make the parting easier by facilitating virtual pillow talk that keeps couples in touch.

Let me say that again: the number of long-distance marriages jumped 30% between 2000 and 2005! What’s more, the largest percentage of those relationships–27%–live more than 1,000 miles apart. (Buy the magazine to see the chart, why dontcha.)

As I note in the piece, couples have had to split up to provide for their families since the beginning of time. The interesting twist these days is that, in the U.S., at least, it’s often as not the woman who’s doing the leaving (or insisting on the staying) to pursue her own career. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, author of Get Ahead by Going Abroad (who’s also just started a blog by that name), says she interviewed many women for her book conducting long-distance relationships while working in high-powered executive jobs overseas. And Jaime Cangas, whom I found through his blog Commuter Family, is evidence of men agreeing to the role historically left to women–to stay home and man the fort.

What I didn’t delve deeply into in the TIME piece (for reasons of space, not propriety) is how much this set-up sucks. Don’t get me wrong: it’s awesome for your work. Being on my own in another city halfway around the world freed me to, say, fly off for a week to the southern island of Okinawa to report on the culture of sex and race fetishism in the aftermath of a rape of a local woman by a U.S. soldier. Or set out at 2 a.m. with my photographer Stuart Isett to the red-light district to talk to girls who had left home. I could work stupid hours, and did.

But I won’t lie to you: it was rough on the marriage. That’s why I ultimately ended the arrangement and came home. At the time, I had a job offer in Tokyo that was even more attractive than the one I had, plus a lot of pressure from people I admired to take it. I didn’t have a job lined up back in the U.S. I saw one career path ahead of me that blazed like Shibuya at midnight. I saw another crooked with uncertainty, but that led back to the man I married. I chose that one.

I also won’t feed you the line that some of my sources did: that our long-distance stint made our marriage stronger. I think our marriage started out strong, and remains so with a lot of effort on both our parts. I think we survived the distance. Period. Oh, sure, it was fun sometimes, reuniting in Hong Kong or zipping off to watch the World Cup in Korea. But our marriage works best when we get to sit our tired butts down on the same couch, side by side, to watch The Daily Show.

As for the career, it turned out differently than it would have had I stayed abroad. But I can’t say it’s been dull. The commuter part of my commuter marriage ended, and for that I’m pretty glad. After all, there’s this: