I hear a lot about married couples living apart these days. I mean, a lot. There are a lot of APW readers and a lot of my friends doing it (please refer to this post on thriving despite hardships). This makes sense to me. The economy is an epic disaster, particularly for the young, so if you’re young and ambitious, you take opportunities where you can get them… even if they are on opposite sides of the country. Plus, we’re a country at war (whether or not we talk about it often enough), and there are tons of couples going through deployments, often over and over and over. The thing is, despite knowing that couples are in the trenches with this every single day, I’ve found very little discussion or support for this reality. I think it’s a painful topic for us to discuss culturally (“How have we done this to our youth?”). It’s easier to focus on the entitled young than on the sacrificing young. And the less we talk about a subject, the more shame builds, and the less we talk about it. So with that in mind, let’s dive in to Lily’s post on living 3,000 miles away from your spouse.
This week was spring break at the University of Maryland, where I work and go to school, so naturally I went to California to visit my husband. We got married last July and are currently living 3,000 miles away from each other. By choice.
You see, I had an amazing opportunity to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Maryland in College Student Personnel, where I get to think about all the things I love. I get to study counseling, and organizations, and how colleges work, and I get to do it for free, which is pretty unbelievable. I have an assistantship that lets me work in my field (student affairs, yay!) and gives me tuition remission, a stipend, and health insurance. My husband is also a smarty-pants and is working on his doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, my alma mater, where we met (go Banana Slugs!). When I got my acceptance, it was unfathomable that I wouldn’t go. UMD was my reach school and, by far and away, the cheapest. No student loans and the best education? How could we turn that down? We got engaged, and I moved cross-country.
We got married the summer between the two years of my program for completely practical reasons. We wanted to be able to take advantage of the ease that marriage might give us when doing a national job search together. Since then we have spent about every other month together, since his schedule is very flexible while he finishes his dissertation. The last few months before we graduate and this long distance ends will be much harder, though, with less time together, and more time tending our separate homes.
I wish that this post could do something like what many other posts on APW do for me; give clarity, provide some a-ha moment about a shared experience, or analyze a phenomenon that some (or many?) of us experience. But in reality it is more an opportunity for me to lay this all out on the internet for others. Because it is at once the best and a totally stupid decision for us, and after eight months, I am starting to get tired of wrestling with it. Here are some things I think about often:
- How I talk about it with others: This is probably the most difficult. Very few people understand. Only others who have done it before, or who know people who have, don’t require a long explanation. These people are amazing and are a source of comfort, but I have stopped meeting them, because I have started to lie. I say “my husband is out of town” or “my husband travels a lot for work.” This is mostly for self-preservation, as it is tiring to have to explain the situation constantly. This all goes to hell though, when I want to tell a story about my husband’s roommates. That phrase tends to get the most raised eyebrows.
- Regretting my own arrogance of simply thinking “we can do it”: I don’t think either of us fully processed how difficult it would be to live in different houses in different cities in different states. It’s not the big things that are difficult (although taxes are ridiculously complicated this year, and I guess that counts as something big). It’s hardest having to calculate the time difference and think about the other person’s schedule when you need to call in order to ask a little question like when some random person’s birthday is. And it’s hard when you have a bad day at work and you only have an hour to Skype and you don’t want to blow it for the other person but you really want to vent, and you end up in this weird apology-anger cycle (I’m mad, and I’m sorry I’m mad, and I’m sorry I’m making you mad, but it makes me mad that this is the only time I can tell you about things and AGH I’M MAD AND SORRY and WHY ISN’T THIS WORKING?!). I remember telling people that this would “only be two years” and “we are really good at communicating” and blah blah blah. Those are nice things to think about, but I definitely did not know how painful this would be. Maybe it’s good we didn’t know, so we could have this experience.
- I wonder what it means to strengthen a marriage from 3,000 miles: Really, how do you make a relationship strong from so far away? I like to think that Robert and I are doing a great job maintaining our bond, but when you don’t see each other every day, and, during busy weeks, don’t necessarily get to talk to each other every day, how can you possibly do that? We Skype a lot, and we send each other lots of emails (Robert is the king of finding fabulous Willie Nelson/Lucha Villa/John Prine songs and sending them with the sweetest little love note). It makes me wonder if there is a best way to do this, or if our muddling along is really what everyone in this situation does.
- Wondering if this was the right decision: I constantly wonder if we made the best decision. But I keep coming around to the question of what were the other options? I wouldn’t have rejected UMD, and I wouldn’t have postponed the wedding, and I wouldn’t have made Robert change his path… There really is nothing else I could have done and retained all our opportunities. And so recently I have been changing my focus to look for affirmation of my choices. Affirmation comes much less often, I think, being far away, but in bigger doses than if we were together. When we reunite, I am filled to the brim with gratitude that I am his partner. When we have good conversations on the phone, it is so much more special than a good conversation in the context of lives that have already been woven together. I am glad to have these moments, and I will work hard to maintain my sheer joy at these moments when we live together. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe the pleasure of having our lives truly tangled up together will be better than the full bodied happiness I get from these once-in-a-while joys. I’ll have to wait and see on that one.
- Lastly, I wonder what will it mean when we do all the “married stuff” finally after a year of being married. Does it not count that we are married, that we do not have all our stuff in the same place? That we have not yet combined finances (a recipe for a headache if I ever saw one, and something for me that meant “real marriage”), and that we do not see each other every day? I think if anything, all of this is just an argument that marriage is way more than the stuff. It truly is a commitment to the “for better, for worse.” It’s much more than putting on a ring (if you so choose), and deciding whose set of silverware stays in the drawer, and who takes out the trash on what days. Those choices are important, but there is something else, something bigger, that survives across mountains and fields and months apart.
Maybe I’ll write back in August, when we will be done with school and will be living together, to tell you it was all worth it, and it was no big deal. I am hoping I’ll have some epiphany to share about strength and choices and balancing love and careers and everything else. For right now I’m not sure it’ll come, but who knows. And for all the people who are together and live together, please be thankful. Be thankful every time you lay down in the same bed (what a luxury!) and every time you don’t pay rent on two places. Be thankful especially every time you look up and notice your partner, having forgotten they were there, they are so familiar a sight.
Wedding Photos by: Joanna Waterfall