10 things commuter couples need to know

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In last week’s issue I wrote in the magazine and on the blog about the rapid growth in the number of long-distance marriages in this country. I’ve since had some e-mails and comments from people in these relationships. Most were plaintive, resigned notes from folks struggling hard to make it work. For most of us, living apart from our loved ones just isn’t as peachy as that disgustingly well-adjusted doctor in San Francisco and her Danish husband made it sound.

So I thought I’d go back to Dr. Gregory Guldner, my terrific source in the story, who heads up the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships and is author of Long Distance Relationships: The Complete Guide. I didn’t get to talk about him much in the magazine, so I thought I’d do so here. He’s an ER doctor and psychologist who is also an Army Reservist. So he speaks from experience when he talks about the do’s and don’ts of long-distance love: he just returned from a three-month stint in Iraq (where he lectured to soldiers about the do’s and don’ts of long-distance love).

As its name suggests, his center–and thus his web site–focuses on scholarly research on this topic. It surprised me a bit that there’s so little of it. As another scholar in my story pointed out, you’d think employers would be throwing money at experts to study this sort of relationship, as
a) they’re most often the ones responsible for couples’ physical separations,
b) they’re most often the ones that benefit when commuter marriages work,
c) they’re most often the ones that suffer when they don’t.

As the 2006 GMAC Global Relocation Survey found, the No. 1 reason executives abandon their overseas assignments is because of family issues. As in, I’m sorry you paid all that money and made all that effort to move me to Tokyo, where I happen to excel at my job and where you’re offering me a promotion, and where you’ve got no one but no one to take my place, but I can’t stay another minute because my husband in New Jersey is going to turn into my ex-husband in New Jersey.

Anyway, Guldner thought up a list of 10 things couples can do to make their long-distance relationship (LDR) work–or, at least, work better. A lot of it rings true for me–things we discovered during that stint, or things we wish we’d known. They’re below:

1. You’re no more likely to get divorced. Despite what your worried mom might tell you, divorce rates are no higher for LDRs than for your average, bed-sharing husband and wife. “So think positive,” Guldner advises.

2. Sharing the boring tedium of daily life matters. Guldner told me there’s a dramatic increase in dramatic love talk among LDRs. “Lots more I love yous, I miss yous, that sort of thing,” he says. Instead, what’s important is to share the stupid stuff: Oh, the dog had diarrhea. Are your hemmoroids clearing up? My boss smelled like a turtle today. (What, that’s not what you guys talk about?)

3. Get a hands-free phone. Do it. Do it now. Listen to this: the physical act of holding a phone to your head sets off psychological triggers that tell you you’re distant from this person to whom you speak through this device. A bluetooth earpiece (or a speaker phone, whatever), on the other hand, fools your brain into thinking the person is in the room. And that can greatly reduce stress, making for a smoother, more relaxed conversation.

4. Write letters. “Really?” I said when Guldner told me this. “Not really. Pen and paper? Letters?” Turns out there are studies from World War II showing that couples who wrote to each other regularly stayed together longer than those who wrote half as frequently. Sounds like a no brainer, except that the group that didn’t write did see each other more often. So scribbles on paper count more than a bear hug, somehow. It’s something to do with the tangibility of it, the engaging of the senses–even long after the person is gone. But of course, they didn’t have computers, I say. Print out the damn e-mail, I say. But no. “E-mail does not count,” Guldner says. Those can be tossed off in a hurry, whereas a letter requires effort.

5. Set the rules of the relationship before the move. Okay. As far as I’m concerned, the rules were set out on the altar, in the form of wedding vows. Do I really have to say to my husband, “Oh, and hon, no dating while I’m gone”? Guldner concedes this applies more to unmarried LDRs, of whom “nearly 70% who did not discuss ground rules broke up over six months compared with only 30% of couples who did set some rules.”

6. Don’t be a shut-in. Make friends. Join clubs. I did–eventually. After about nine months of 24/7 work, I met a radio producer who invited me to karate class one day. I thought, like, sure, karate aerobics–I can do that. But no. This was serious, gi-wearing, life-absorbing, kicks-to-the-ribs-enduring karate. Moreover, it was a community of people who, after class (held for some reason at the Norwegian consulate), would gather for potluck dinners. I gained some of my dearest friends. Oh, and a brown belt.

7. Some reunions will suck. Guldner put it more gently: “Sometimes it’ll be disappointing when you see your loved one again.” The story you’d just filed got spiked; he didn’t bother to come to pick you up at the airport; the house is a stinking mess; the dog is still alive…you know. And man, but can I hold a grudge. “Don’t make too much of it,” urges the doctor. Too late now for me and my poor, long-suffering husband. But maybe not for you.

8. Git yerself a pardner. No, not like that. Find a friend, a platonic one (duh), but someone you can hang with and share some of the junk you’d usually dump on your husband. For me, it was that radio producer, a wonderful woman I still consider a dear friend. She dragged me along to many a party and excursion and shopping trip, single-handedly alleviating the boredom I would otherwise have filled with work.

9. When some dumdum tells you your long-distance relationship is doomed, tell her where to stick it. Guldner laughs about this. “There are a lot of, you know, experts,” he says, chuckling. He cites web sites and women’s magazines that lay out cockamamie rules for LDRs, like, you must talk at least once a day, you must say I love you every day, you must never hang up without resolving a fight…oh, Lordy. “There are no musts, and everybody’s relationship is different,” he says. “A lot of relationships work better when they communicate less. There’s no magic formula.”

10. Fall in love again over gadgets. And with gadgets. Guldner suggests a few: “picture frames that record your partner’s voice, key chain voice memo recorders that do the same, web cams that allow you to watch one another real time, cell phones with cameras, two-way instant messaging pagers, and now two-way video telephones.” If it helps you feel closer, try it.

But now and again, don’t forget to write a goopy love letter.